February 19, 2017

7th Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

Matthew 5:38-48

Audio recording above right at microphone icon

We need to get outside the box this morning, so I’m going to get out of the pulpit.  Today’s gospel text contains some of the most quoted and most misunderstood passages in the New Testament.

This may feel more like a Bible study than a sermon, but I want us to understand the text so that we can know how this text will live within us.   Jesus didn’t come to tweak the system, to make life work just a bit better.  He came to turn it upside down, to send us in a different direction.

Jesus starts by naming the system that we all know:  and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.  For many, this is a reasonable system of social organization.  You get what you deserve, or you get what’s coming to you.  Fair is fair.  You pay for your crime.  You earn your place.

What’s funny to me is that people often quote this line from the Bible, as if it’s a Bible passage, a quote of Jesus.  Usually, they want to justify some kind of punishment, even the death penalty.  It’s when this passage goes from justice to revenge. The irony is that Jesus is quoting this legal code, not to confirm it, but to shoot it down; to initiate a new ethic.

First Verse 39: “Do not resist any evildoers” probably sounds odd.  The whole Bible teaches us to resist evil.  #resist is a way of understanding the whole Scriptural witness.  The English translation here doesn’t capture the full meaning of the original Greek. The word here was often used for armies.  It’s a military word.  What it really means is “Don’t resist the evil doer like an army would. Don’t show up with clubs and swords. Don’t resist violently.”[1]

The ethic of God’s reign doesn’t include violence.  But it doesn’t mean we become doormats or remove ourselves from the work of social reformation.   Jesus is asking us to be creative, to find different ways to resist, to point to a new way of being human together, a way that shifts the dynamics and opens possibilities for change and transformation.  Not fight or flight.  But a third way.[2]

For the next verse, I need a volunteer.

So first I have to strike you on the right cheek. This is a little challenging for the right-handed person..  If someone just hit you on your right cheek, turn the other toward them.  Let’s think about this.  I can’t really hit your right cheek with my right fist. If I want to hit your right cheek, I have to use my left hand.  Now, hitting you with my left fist is awkward, too.  The only way I can hit your right cheek with my right hand is to do a back-handed slap.  We get this gesture.  It’s used to show who people who is boss, to put you in your place, to remind you that you are to be subservient to me.  Masters slapped slaves.  It was allowed, even expected.  This was an interaction between a superior and an inferior person.

What happens when you offer your left cheek.  The only way that I can strike you is with my fist.  This is, however, how equals fight.  If I strike you with my fist, it makes me face you as an equal. The master no longer has the power to name a slave’s value.  The slave takes it back.  “I am a child of God.  I am equal to you.”

Remember, too, that Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people who were regularly considered to be inferior. Would they let it define them? And what if, they all acted together to resist, not by fighting back, but by claiming their worth and standing up.

These verses are about seizing the moral initiative, claiming God’s power, and being creative in response to injustice.

All that follows are some examples on how to do this.

Obviously, only the poorest of the poor would be sued for their cloak, the outer garment that kept them warm at night.  Likely, it was an unjust system of indebetness that landed the poor person in court, unable to pay a loan that they were forced to take in order to survive.  In Jesus’ time, the wealthiest had already claimed most of the land, leaving regular people to rent land that their families had once owned.  So here’s the kick.  If they’re going to take your cloak, give them your underwear, too.  Strip down.  Walk out of court naked.  Because, here’s the real kick, Jewish law said that the person who should be ashamed is the one who looks on a naked person.  It’s not the naked person that should be ashamed.  It’s the banker standing there with a winter coat and pair of boxer briefs.  Suddenly, we’re seeing a new truth about who should be embarrassed.  One person leaves with dignity; one doesn’t.  The tables have been turned.

One more example:  Go the extra mile.  This is more than just doing an extra chore for someone who needs some help, the common way we understand this text.  Again, this may have been a common experience for those listening to Jesus.  A Roman soldier was allowed by law to force a person to carry his pack.  This was regularly practiced when it was time for the legion to move.  Jesus encourages a creative response to this abuse.  When you get to the mile marker, keep going.  Now the solider is in trouble. If he lets you carry his pack, he’s risking punishment.  The longer you go, the higher his anxiety goes.  What’s going to happen?  What’s going on here?  In short, this isn’t being nice.  It’s a form of protest against military might.

Walter Wink says, “Even if nonviolent action does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor, it does affect those committed to it. As Martin Luther King, Jr. attested, it gives them new self-respect, and calls up resources of strength and courage they did not know they had”

Jesus isn’t trying to be literal in these examples. He’s trying to give examples of creative, nonviolence response that reshapes the heart of the oppressed and offers the possibility of salvation for the oppressor.

Nothing requires more creativity than loving the enemy.  We all have ideas about how to love those who are good to us.  It takes work, a bit of inspiration, and probably a lot of communal discussion to learn how we go about actually and truthfully loving our enemies.  I suspect Jesus isn’t talking about how we feel about our enemy but how we respond to them; how we act toward them; how we claim our own sense of dignity and spiritual power AND correspondingly give our enemies opportunities to grow and change.

There aren’t stock rules on how to do this.  Imagine who are those that are against you.  How do we resist in ways that are creative and that allow our adversary to see themselves, or even the whole system around them, in new ways.  You can see that Jesus is never advocating for us to be door mats, or passive, but strong and creative and loving.

It’s this driven-ness to find another way that defines the ethics of God’s family.

That’s how I’m choosing to interpret the very last verse, “Be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  I don’t think it means, “Be perfect,” in the sense of always being right, or making the right decisions, or being morally superior.  God’s perfection is in God’s driven-ness to make things right, to reconcile the universe, to gather all things together in love.  God’s perfection is in exercising endless creativity to bring us home, to show us love, to open doors for transformation and growth.  God will never stop coming at us in new and creative and loving ways.

In my mind, that’s the ethic of the community that chooses to follow this strange and outside-the-box Jesus.  A community that is ever-creative, ever-open, ever-loving, and ever-trying one more thing to bring liberation and peace, not just for itself but for those who stand against it.

To that powerful mission, Jesus stands in front of us and says, “Can I have a volunteer?  Let’s try this.  Let’s practice it.  You and I together.  We can raise the dead.”

[1] Walter Wink, “The Third Way, from “The Powers that Be:  Theology for New Millennium,” pp. 98-111.  http://cpt.org/files/BN%20-%20Jesus’%20Third%20Way.pdf.

[2] Ibid.  I use Wink’s perspective for the next part of the sermon.