Written by Pastor Ed
But I Say…Part II
February 19, 2017
Lev. 19: 1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5: 38-48
Perhaps no other passage in the Bible has caused as much controversy or theological difference as the passage from Matthew that is our text for today. As with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, it has been dismissed as impossible, irrelevant, or simply dismissed on one hand, or used as the basis for being totally passive and accepting whatever happens, even abuse, as proper. Neither of those approaches is an appropriate reading of Jesus’ words in these last two antitheses. But they are two passages that are needed as much today as they were in the time of Jesus.
Again, as with the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, some see these passages as irrelevant, speaking to situations far different than we live in today. As a commentator at workingpreacher.org says,
“The problem with this section of the Sermon on the Mount is that it is easily dismissed as that which could only apply to Jesus’ time and not ours. That Jesus’ world was simpler than ours. That Jesus’ context did not have the complexities of our own realities of global realities.
Until we remember that Jesus lived and did his ministry in a Palestine that was a Roman province. Until we recall that the Gospels were written in a post-temple, post-Jerusalem, post-destruction reality. Then suddenly, Jesus’ world does not seem that far from our own.”
So how should we read these words and what might they mean in today’s world?
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say do not resist and evildoer.” Or perhaps more properly translated, “do not violently resist and evildoer.” Now one of the things we might remember is that “an eye for an eye” was already a restriction from the kind of vengeance that Lamech boasted about in Genesis 4, when he said, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Gen. 4:23-24)
The Old Testament law restricted wanton revenge by the law of equal reparations, an eye for an eye, and even made provision for some crimes to be forgiven and cities of sanctuary established. It’s interesting how many ancient cultures established places of sanctuary, like some of those we visited in Hawaii or practices that many aboriginal groups developed to deal with offenses.
But Jesus takes this idea of equal reparations, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and goes one step farther, don’t violently resist an evildoer. And then he gives three examples of what that might mean. Now these may sound like just lying down and taking it, but in reality, they are far from that, for each of them puts the oppressor in an awkward position.
It was standard, accepted practice that a master could discipline a servant by striking them on the right cheek with the back of the right hand. To offer, then, the left cheek was to put the master in the awkward position of needing to strike with the palm of the hand, an unacceptable thing, even for a master to do.
And while our translations are a bit more circumspect, but most people owned two garments, a coat, the outer garment and what the NRSV calls a cloak, or we might call your underwear. So, Jesus says, if someone sues you and takes your outer garment, be generous and give him your inner garment as well, leaving you naked! Show how unjust your oppressor truly is.
Moreover, a Roman soldier could impress anyone into carrying their gear for a mile; it was one of the perks of being an occupying force. But to offer to carry their load an extra mile was again to put them in the awkward position of either appearing overbearing, or of needing to refuse the offer, which would be just as humiliating, saying no to a lowly peasant.
In each of these cases, Jesus suggests ways of actively meeting violence without becoming violent oneself, yet highlighting the oppression and violence of the evildoer. Remember, Jesus is here speaking to the oppressed, not to those who oppress. It was these words that inspired people like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and many others in their practice of meeting violence and oppression with non-violent resistance.
Walter Wink puts it this way, “Jesus, in short, abhors both passivity and violence. He articulates, out of the history of his own people’s struggles, a way by which evil can be opposed without being mirrored, the oppressor resisted without being emulated, and the enemy neutralized without being destroyed.”
Wink offers a list of possible ways to live out this saying:
“Seize the moral initiative
Find a creative alternative to violence
Assert your own humanity and dignity as a person
Meet force with ridicule or humor
Break the cycle of humiliation
Refuse to submit or to accept the inferior position
Expose the injustice of the system
Take control of the power dynamic
Shame the oppressor into repentance
Stand your ground
Make the Powers make decisions for which they are not prepared
Recognize your own power
Be willing to suffer rather than retaliate
Force the oppressor to see you in a new light
Deprive the oppressor of a situation where a show of force is effective
Be willing to undergo the penalty of breaking unjust laws
Die to fear of the old order and its rules
Seek the oppressor’s transformation”
In short, Jesus calls on his followers to choose a way of non-violence, not meeting evil with the same means as those who would do evil, but rather in non-violent ways that highlight the oppression and cause oppressors to make choices they would rather not make. During the civil rights movement in the US south, it was when pictures of the attacks with dogs and clubs on non-violent demonstrators became known that the tide turned in favour of those demonstrating.
And then Jesus goes one step further. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Now, really, Jesus, don’t you think that’s carrying it just a bit too far? Love your enemies!? Is that even possible? Well, not if you’re thinking of love as it is so often portrayed in the movies or this past week on Valentine’s Day. Jesus is not talking about necessarily liking them, having warm feelings about them. Rather he’s talking about how you treat them.
After all, Jesus says, the sun comes up on them and the rain falls on them just as it does on you. God doesn’t treat your enemies any different than God treats your friends. Shouldn’t you do the same? If you only treat your friends well, you’re no better than your enemies, because that’s what they do as well. How are you going to be a light to the world if you are no different than those that you don’t like?
Eugene Peterson sums it all up this way in his paraphrase, The Message:
“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
Jesus, in the passages we looked at last week and today, calls us as his disciples to live differently than others around us; to not respond with anger or retaliate with violence but rather to seek reconciliation and respond non-violently to offenses against us; to be faithful and sincere in our relationships; to speak the truth and be consistent in what we say and do, and to recognize that everyone is created in the image of God and is to be treated as a person of worth, even if we don’t particularly like them or see them as enemies.
Is that easy? Of course not, at least not all of the time. And it can lead to consequences, people have been punished, put in jail, and even killed particularly because they have refused to treat people badly that others have labeled as enemies. There is a risk and sometimes a price to pay for following in the way of Jesus, but then that’s what Jesus said would be the case.
But one can also find many accounts where following the way of Jesus led to dramatic changes. Non-violent action, as I noted earlier, eventually led to the civil rights acts in the US, to the breaking of apartheid in South Africa, and many would say, to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the Soviet Union. And there are many accounts of smaller incidents.
Back in 1990 a group of children’s authors got together and created The Big Book for Peace, full of stories, both fictional and true showing that the way of peace is an effective way to live in the world. The proceeds of the book were donated to 5 organizations that work for peace and justice in the world, like Amnesty International and Greenpeace. Among the four large organizations was one small organization called The Lion and the Lamb Peace Arts Center, which was part of Bluffton College, now Bluffton University, a small Mennonite university in Bluffton, OH.
One of the stories is of Seth Laughlin, a Quaker during the American Civil War who refused to take up arms to defend the South or even to pay to have someone take his place. Even after he was put through all kinds of punishment and torture, he still refused to take up arms to kill. Finally he was court-marshalled and sentenced to be shot. As they lined up for the execution, Seth asked if he could have a moment to pray, and was granted his request. The author tells it this way,
“The colonel assumed that naturally Seth would pray for himself. But Seth was ready to meet his Lord. And so he prayed not for himself, but for them: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ As the soldiers heard his firm voice and the meaning of his words sank in, each of the twelve men lowered his gun. Accustomed as they were to taking human life, and knowing the penalty for disobeying military orders, they resolutely declared that they could not shoot such a man.”
Seth sentence was changed to a prison term. Unfortunately, because of his harsh treatment, he fell ill and died in prison, but his story along with many others like him continued to inspire others who followed.
One of the interesting things I have found over the years as I have participated in ecumenical groups is that our stand against violence and for love of enemies is one that is often highly respected in the church. No, not everyone respects it. Some call it cowardice and wonder what would happen if everyone took that stance. And the only reply to that is, “Wouldn’t that be wonderful.”
In a world that seems to be increasingly divided, where labeling someone as an enemy is seen as the easy way to write them off or treat them badly, Jesus’ words speak loudly and call us to a different path. Yet, no matter how hard it may be, or unpopular it is, as followers of the way of Jesus we are called to hear him saying, “You have heard it said, but I say…”