Notes towards a sermon
Readings are here.
From the Collect: O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing: Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.
The lessons this week tell us how to live when we have love poured into our hearts - God's greatest gift. This is not the love - nice warm feeling we get around babies and our beloveds. This is the hard work love - wanting the best for all people regardless of their actions. Choosing life for all and not just for "nice" people.
Leviticus speaks of becoming holy as God is holy and goes on to give some examples of what that means - fields must not be stripped bare for the greatest profit from the grain or grapes Some must be left for those who have nothing - so they might earn their daily bread and have some grapes or wine to to with the bread. All must be treated as you would wish to be treated. Jesus echoes that call to love neighbor as yourself in his great commandment to his followers.
The psalmist prays that God will teach him the ways of God and keep him from straying off track.
People are holy and must be treated with the reverence we would give to a holy place. He says we are temples of the holy. Anything that we do that abuses ourselves or others defaces that holy temple.
One time when we were in Yellowstone Park with our kids, near the Falls in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We had walked down flights of stairways to get near the bottom of the falls. In that awesome space our youngest, who was about 8 at the time, started picking up all the bits left by careless tourists, cigarette ends, bits of paper, - and he told us all to be quiet! He recognized the holiness of the place. Reminded me of the days when we had Morning Prayer at Grace Memorial in Portland. Mr. Richardson, who was from Wales originally - spoke - "The Lord is in his holy temple - let all the earth keep silence before him." We felt that holiness through out the church and in ourselves. I still can call up the feelings of that moment in my childhood.
I think that is the sort of sense of holiness that God calls us to feel in the presence of others and ourselves. Thomas Merton tells of a time when he suddenly saw that in a crowd of people on an otherwise ordinary day in NYC. Each person shone with the light of God for him.
How do we stay in that belief - how do we maintain a loving stance even in the midst of others doing evil things? This is the question that Jesus is addressing in our reading from Matthew today.
Suzanne Guthrie: I remember a Tibetan monk who had been tortured in a Chinese prison for 22 years. When he reached Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama asked him: "What were you scared of the most in prison?" He replied: "I was afraid that I might lose my compassion towards the torturers." -Sulak Sivaraksa
Walter Wink has looked at the Matthew passage through the eyes of culture of the day and writes:
One of the most misunderstood passages in all of the Bible is Jesus' teaching about turning the other cheek. The passage runs this way: "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 one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. And if anyone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well. If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two."
This passage has generally been understood by people as teaching non-resistance. Do not resist one who is evil has been taken to mean simply let them run all over you. Give up all concern for your own justice. If they hit you on one cheek, turn the other and let them batter you there too, which has been bad advice for battered women. As far as the soldier forcing you to take his pack an extra mile, well are you doing that voluntarily? It has become a platitude meaning extend yourself.
Jesus could not have meant those kinds of things. He resisted evil with every fiber of His being. There is not a single instance in which Jesus does not resist evil when He encounters it. The problem begins right there with the word resist. The Greek term is antistenai. Anti is familiar to us in English still, "against," "Anti"-Defamation League. Stenai means to stand. So, "stand against." Resist is not a mistranslation so much as an undertranslation. What has been overlooked is the degree to which antistenai is used in the Old Testament in the vast majority of cases as a technical term for warfare. To "stand against" refers to the marching of the two armies up against each other until they actually collide with one another and the battle ensues. That is called "taking a stand."
Ephesians 6:13 says, "Therefore put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand (antistenai) in that evil day and having done all to stand (stenai)."
When Jesus says, "Do not resist one who is evil," there is something stronger than simply resist. It's do not resist violently. Jesus is indicating do not resist evil on its own terms. Don't let your opponent dictate the terms of your opposition. If I have a hoe and my opponent has a rifle, I am obviously going to have to get a rifle in order to fight on equal terms, but then my opponent gets a machine gun, so I have to get a machine gun. You have a spiral of violence that is unending.
Jesus is trying to break that spiral of violence. Don't resist one who is evil probably means something like, don't turn into the very thing you hate. Don't become what you oppose. The earliest translation of this is probably in a version of Romans 12 where Paul says, "Do not return evil for evil."
Jesus gives three examples of what He means by not returning evil for evil. The first of these is, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek..." I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.
Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, "When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek."
Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, "I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed." This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.
The second instance Jesus gives is, "If anyone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well." The situation here is dealing with collateral for a loan. If a person was trying to get a loan, normally they would use animals or land as collateral for the loan but the very poorest of the poor, according to Deuteronomy 24:10-13, could hock their outer garment. It was the long robe that they used to sleep in at night and used as an overcoat by day. The creditor had to return this garment every night but could come get it every morning and thus harass the debtor and hopefully get him to repay.
Jesus' audience is made up of debtors -- "If anyone takes you to court..." He is talking to the very people who know they are going to be dragged into court for indebtedness and they know also that the law is on the side of the wealthy. They are never going to win a case. So Jesus says to them, "Okay, you are not going to win the case. So take the law and with jujitsu-like finesse, throw it into a point of absurdity. When your creditor sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well."
They didn't have underwear in those days. That meant taking off the only stitch of clothing you had left on you and standing nude, naked, in court. As the story of Jonah reminds us, nakedness was not only taboo in Israel. The shame of nakedness fell not on the person who was naked, but on the person who observed their nakedness. The creditor is being put in the position of being shamed by the nakedness of the debtor. Imagine the debtor leaving the courtroom, walking out in the street and all of his friends coming and seeing him in his all-togethers and saying, "What happened to you?"
He says, "That creditor has got all my clothes," and starts walking down to his house. People are coming out of bazaars and alleys, "What happened? What happened?" Everyone is talking about it and chattering and falling in behind him, fifty-hundred people marching down in this little demonstration toward his house. You can imagine it is going to be some time in that village before any creditor takes anybody else to court.
What Jesus is showing us in these two examples so far is that you don't have to wait for a utopian revolution to come along before you can start living humanly. You can begin living humanly now under the conditions of the old order. The kingdom of God is breaking into the myths of these people now, the moment they begin living the life of the future, the kingdom of God.
Jesus' third example is "If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two." Now these packs weighed 65 to 85 pounds, not counting weapons. These soldiers had to move quickly to get to the borders where trouble had broken out. The military law made it permissible for a soldier to grab a civilian and force the civilian to carry the pack, but only one mile. There were mile markers on every Roman road. If -- and this is the part we have left out -- the civilian were forced to carry the pack more than one mile, the soldier was in infraction of military code, and military code was always more strictly enforced than civilian. So Jesus is saying, "All right. The next time the soldier forces you to carry his pack, cooperate. Carry it and then when you come to the mile marker, keep going."
The soldier suddenly finds himself in a position he has never been in before. He has always known before exactly what you would do. You would mutter and you would complain, but you would carry it. As soon as the mile marker came, you would drop it. Suddenly, this person is carrying the pack on. The soldier doesn't know why, but he also knows that he is in infraction of military law and if his centurion finds out about this, he is in deep trouble. Jesus is teaching these people how to take the initiative away from their oppressors and within the situation of that old order, find a new way of being.
Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. found these lessons from Christ for their leadership of groups resisting oppression.
Wink calls it the Third Way. Looking for a way to stand up for ourselves without becoming like the one we are resisting. It can work for those things within ourselves too - if we are trying to change. Finding ways that are loving towards ourselves - not beating ourselves up for being bad or failures.
The work of love is not easy but the rewards are eternal.