Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Matthew 5: 38-48
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Turning and Loving- Matthew 5:28-48
Today's reading is a continuation of last week's readings about building righteous relationships that reflect God's love. This portion is about retaliation and relationships with enemies. And, it's a doozy. Let's dive right in. Jesus began talking about retaliation by talking about modes of retaliation that were permissible in a legal setting. He talked about the practice of proscribing "an eye for an eye." While an "eye for an eye" sounds harsh, according to scholars, this should actually be read as a call to have punishment be equal the crime that has been committed, not more serious. Legal retaliation should be proportional. But, like last week, Jesus wanted to get to the heart of the law, not simply the letter of it. So, he began to teach them about how to address retaliation in their every day lives. He taught them how they can respond to evil.
In the reading we heard today, there is line that is translated, "Do not resist an evildoer." Historically, translations like this have been used to justify all kinds of poor treatment, telling those on the receiving end of abuse that they are called to a life of submission, not rebellion. I read a scholar this week, Walter Wink, who has suggested a different way to read this scripture. Wink said that the word that is translated here as "resist," in Greek, "antistenai," is best understood in it's usage in descriptions of war. The word is usually used to describe responses to actions that involve violence, like an armed revolt in the face of an outside military. Because of the conations of violence, Wink suggests that a better translation for this line is "do not react violently to one who has done evil." This is a very different reading than one that tells you not to resist and evil doer. Wink thinks Jesus made this shift intentionally. He thinks Jesus was trying to teach his followers to avoid the violence that was the default in the Roman empire. He was calling on them to create a new way to live under systemic oppression.
Jesus knew that violence is often used to humiliate and assert power. He said rather than strike back at one who hits you in a way that is intended to humiliate you, force them to confront you as an equal. For example, it was socially acceptable for people of higher social standing to hit people of lower standing in order to put them back in their place. They usually did this by striking them across the right cheek with the back of their right hand. The right hand was a symbol of righteousness and proper behavior. To hit with the back of the hand was to assert that you were the person of greater power in the situation. Jesus' followers would have been familiar with this action, and may have been on the receiving end of it.
Wink said that Jesus told them, rather than hit back , to disrupt their action by making them do something unexpected. He said to turn your left cheek towards them, forcing them to hit you in a way that did not symbolically reinforce their power. Forcing them to either hit your left cheek or hit your right cheek with their closed fist disrupts the actions that reinforce their status. By forcing them to change position, you force them to reconsider their action. You force them to ask the question, is it worth hitting you if they have to do so in a way that makes them look foolish? In making them stumble, you give them a chance to make a better choice.
Jesus goes on to give more examples of power disruptions. He tackles an example of how to behave if someone is trying to humiliate you in court. Remember, Rome forced the nations they took over to pay high tribute costs in order to support the Roman war machine. Many people, especially poor people would be deeply indebted. In such an environment, wealthy creditors might be very willing to take, in a lawsuit, the last thing someone owned, even if the last thing you owned was the clothes on your back. Jesus told his followers, if this happens to you... if someone wants to sue you to take you shirt and pants, you give them your underwear, too. Force them to be embarrassed by their willingness to leave you naked and totally vulnerable. Jesus said to let the powerful know very clearly the humiliating effects of their practice. That might make them change their behavior.
Oh, and the part in this scripture about going the extra mile? Wink said that's about embarrassing the powerful, too. Roman soldiers could force anybody they encountered in the street to carry their things, but only for one mile. If they did it for longer, they could get in trouble with their superior officer. When Jesus told his followers to carry the baggage the second mile, he's encouraging them, yet again, to act in a way that confuses the ones who oppress them. In order to not get in trouble for asking the peasant to carry things for longer than required, the soldier has to ask for his things back. Wink suggests we imagine how silly it would look for a battle-hardened infantryman to have to wrestle his bags away from a peasant Jew. The lesson is: If enough people start acting unexpectedly, embarrassing the people who make demands of them, the less likely the powerful are to force them to serve. And, the more control the people regain over their own lives, all without lifting a finger in violence or anger.
The hardest thing I think Jesus asks his followers to do is to love their enemies. Jesus said to pray for the ones who persecute you. He looked in the faces of his poor followers and asked them to pray for the dangerous, the cruel, and the powerful ones who oppressed him. I kinda wish I knew how they responded to this demand for perfection. I know that I'm not sure I can do it, and I'm at a point in my life where I'm much more likely to be the one taking somebody to court than to be the one being humiliated in court. This love that Jesus preached about. It sure seems like a powerful thing. Prayer does, too. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that Jesus counseled love first, then prayer, then creative resistance. Violence would not have helped. His followers were completely our numbered. They would have been slaughtered had they took up arms. Maybe love and creativity and self-assuredness were the best tools they had in the situation that they were living in.
Walter Wink thought that was why Jesus preached love and non-violence. It could create an outcome that people could live with, and might inspire an oppressor to choose mercy over power the next time, thus building the ground for broader social change. Some of the most important changes in our own country, and the world, have been rooted in similar calls to non-violent, creative responses to evil. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was committed to nonviolence in the civil rights movement because, as he began his organizing in the South, he was surrounded by violent political systems that would only respond to protestors' revolts with greater violence. According to another scholar I read this week (James Cone), while people were hurt and killed during non-violent actions during the movement, in the end, creative non-violence was the most effective tool they had in a region prone to racist violence because it disrupted the status quo without giving the oppressors an excuse to respond in violence.
Now, admittedly, creative non-violence this often comes at a great cost. Jesus knew that and warned his followers about persecution. More recently, in the 1960's, Amelia Boynton was beaten unconscious as she attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis bridge in first attempt to march from Selma. Right now, as I speak, Water Protectors are peacefully and prayerfully camping in the bitter cold in South Dakota so the world will see the cruelty of energy policies that harm people and the earth on which we live. This is no easy thing that Jesus has called his followers to. I think he knew that. He said that living this way is nothing shy of perfection. But, he was speaking to people with very little power in their own communities. He was providing them with a spiritual foundation for survival and social change. These are no small things. This kind of change does not come quickly.
So, what does that mean for us, modern day followers of Jesus, who have our own struggles, but, likely more privileges than his first followers? How do we make sense of these words about creative, unflinching love? Here's a couple things I think are important for us to carry away. First, when the work of following Christ seems hard, we can know it was hard for the people who got to hang out with him every day, too. They started the work. We continue it. We are not required to finish it. Second, we need to be aware that we may be in the place of the soldier and the creditor and the judge rather than the one being persecuted. We need to pay attention when someone is holding up a light to our own unloving behavior and we need to be willing to be changed by their bravery. And, three, we really need to examine how we use whatever privilege we have, even all we have left is the clothes on our backs. We can use even that to inspire positive relationship, but only through love and prayer and creativity. It won't be perfect. Not yet anyway. But, we do it anyway. Practice makes perfect, right?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Walter Wink, Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galillee Doubleday, 1998)
Bart. D. Ehrman's The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=840
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3158
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2034
James H. Cone, Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or A Nightmare (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001).
A Field Guide to Christian Non-violence: https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2016/field-guide-christian-nonviolence
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.