Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hear it Again (Matthew 5:38-48)

[Jesus said] “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 neighbor 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.

“Don’t go around starting fights.” Good advice as I grew up with numerous opportunities to start fights – at school, around the neighborhood, in the park, even at church. Several times in my childhood and adolescent years, my dad continued to share that advice with me. But then, he would expand the advice just a little, and say quietly enough that my mom couldn’t hear: “Don’t go around starting fights, but if someone starts one with you, make sure you finish it.”

Did any of you receive that sort of advice from your parents? Or, if you are a parent, do you remember giving that sort of advice? Nobody wants their kid to be a wimp. Nobody wants their kid to be a doormat or a punching bag. If somebody hits you, you hit ‘em back! Don’t get mad; get even! Do unto others as they have done unto!

That all works pretty well, until this fella named Jesus comes along and starts meddling in our lives. Sure enough, anywhere Jesus goes, he messes things up something fierce. Today’s text is certainly no exception, as he says, “Oh, you think you’ve heard all this before?” What we find out is that Jesus wants us to hear it again, because just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, Jesus throws in a twist. May we pray.

Great crowds of people have been following Jesus for some time. Jesus sees the crowd and seizes the opportunity to give a sermon. He offers this series of teachings that has become known as “The Sermon on the Mount.”

In today’s text, Jesus is mid-sermon as he says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” It’s a section of the Law known as the lex talionis, which is Latin for “law of retribution.” Literally, it means that the punishment for any offense should be identical to the offense – an even exchange – eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, burn for a burn, stripe for a stripe. While negative reciprocation sounds cruel to contemporary ears, it was designed to set limits on vendettas. Extract the injury that was inflicted on you and it ends there. It was how the ancient world held in tension the need for justice without enacting cruelty.

This principle of lex talionis is actually enacted in the very first scene of the movie The Godfather. Who here has seen The Godfather? This is one of those great movies that has left its imprint deep on the American psyche, and in the community in which I grew up, it resembled only too closely how business was done.

The movie opens in Don Corleone’s study on the day of his daughter’s wedding, where Mr. Bonasera is asking for help in punishing two boys who beat his daughter. He asks for justice – to have the two boys killed. But Don Corleone says, “You come and say ‘Don Corleone, give me justice.’ But you don't ask with respect. You come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder - for money.” Bonasera responds, “I ask you for justice.” That is not justice. Your daughter is alive.

The principle of lex talionis ensures that the penalty is not arbitrary or more severe than the crime. That was the law, and that was how justice was practiced in the ancient world. But Jesus wants us to hear it all again, and he wants to push us beyond the law. The law enacts justice, but Jesus is interested in more than justice. Jesus is trying to teach us how to live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The laws by which nations are governed, even at their best, are laws of justice, but Jesus has something more in mind. He says, “Look, if you’re going to be my followers, you have to do better than that. Don’t return evil with evil.” I love the way The Message puts it. “Is that going to get us anywhere?”

As Jesus’ followers, he instructs us not to return evil with evil, not to meet violence with violence, not to retaliate and seek vengeance and our own version of “justice.” Rather, Jesus has an alternative strategy for dealing with evil. His objective is to overcome evil with good. Jesus is trying to break the spiral of violence. Don’t violently resist one who is evil – it probably means something like, don’t turn into the very thing you hate. Don’t become what you oppose.

Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” This is one of the most mis-understood teachings of Jesus. People think Jesus is telling us to be a doormat or a punching bag, that we simply need to take whatever abuse the world hands us. I have seen this passage used to justify violence and oppression against minorities and powerless people of every sort. Lest there be any mistake, Jesus is NOT saying that victims of others’ abuse of power need to remain submissive victims. As you’ll see, that is NOT what turning the other cheek is about.

I need a volunteer who is willing to come up here and turn the other cheek. If I were to strike a blow with my right fist on your face, which cheek would it land on? The left, which is the wrong cheek in today’s text – Jesus said, “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 the society Jesus was addressing, because the left hand was reserved only for unclean tasks. You had to use the right hand, and the only way you could strike the right cheek with the right hand was to use the back of the hand. If someone was born like me, left-handed, they were trained to overcome it. In that day, you couldn’t even gesture with your left hand in public, so I guess I’d be in trouble when I try get the attention of other motorists in traffic.

Striking on the cheek was something that someone in a position of power did to someone of lower status than themselves. In the ancient world, that could be from a man to a woman, an adult to a child, a Roman to a Jew, a Master to a slave. The blow was about asserting status and power over the other. It’s not intended to injure. It’s a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It’s only about rank, privilege, superiority, and power.

To preserve one’s honor, it was crucial that everything was done according to protocol. Always the right hand, always the back of the hand, always the right cheek. Any variation on this would demonstrate you’re not in control, and because you’re not in control, it would be a public loss of face.

All right, I need another volunteer. Now, imagine your overlord has just struck you on the right cheek, and without saying a word you silently turn your head to expose your left cheek. It appears that you are becoming doubly subservient by turning the other cheek, doubly accepting your master’s authority over you, but you are actually rendering your master powerless! The master can see, but cannot strike your left cheek with the back of his right hand.

Doing this publicly would expose the master to shame and ridicule. You would appear to be meek and servile, obediently waiting for a second blow. But the Master would be totally helpless. His only option would be to hit you with the palm of his right hand, or use his left hand, or walk away. All three of these would cause him to lose face.

What Jesus is essentially saying is, “When someone tries to humiliate you or put you down, turn the other cheek and take all their power away.” If you turn your cheek, I can no longer backhand you. And really, you can’t backhand someone twice. It’s like telling a bad joke a second time. If it doesn’t work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying, “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. You may have me jailed, flogged within an inch of my life or even killed, but you will never be able to assert that I have no dignity.”

When Rosa Parks sat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama and refused to move, she was turning the other cheek. Do you remember the reason she gave for not moving from her seat when told to by the bus driver? She said, “I’m tired.” Now, people have interpreted that to mean that she was physically tired from the day’s work, but that’s never how I understood her words. I think she was tired of being oppressed, tired of being abused, tired of being treated like she was less than human. On the bus that day, she said, “I’m not putting up with it any longer.” She turned the other cheek, and this country was forced to reconsider what it means to treat all people with dignity and worth and value.

Back in the text, Jesus continues: “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, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Honestly, Jesus, why would I want to love my enemies? Why would I want to pray for those who persecute me? What’s my motivation?

What I want from this text is to tell me to love my enemies because hatred and negativity is bad for my mental and physical health. Because spending energy hating them gives them power over me. Because I’m the better person. Because God will reward me for taking the high road. Because, as St. Paul points out, being kind to my enemies “heaps burning coals on their heads” (Romans 12:20). Kill ‘em with kindness! Right on, Jesus!

Except, Jesus doesn’t offer any of these as a reason to practice non-retaliation against our enemies. The only reason he gives is this: we are to practice non-resistance when personally insulted and to love our enemies because such behavior is in keeping with the character of God.

When I lived in the mountains, I loved going hiking and climbing at some of the higher elevations, and one of my favorite places to go was Grandfather Mountain. The top of Grandfather Mountain can be a foreboding place, if you’ve been up there, you’ve noticed that the trees all have branches on only one side – the high winds force them to grow this way.

The big attraction at Grandfather Mountain is the mile-high swinging bridge, which leads to a rocky outcropping where you can stand on the edge of the mountain and feel like you’re on the edge of the world – it’s kinda like a York Peppermint Patti commercial without the annoying voice-over guy yelling in your ear.

Next time you’re up there, take a good close look at the vegetation. You may notice, in places where there is neither soil nor a crack in the rock, on top of this windy mountain, a small purple flower grows. Its seeds have been blown by the wind into high, tiny crevasses in the rock, and the plants have adapted to their harsh surroundings, and the result is that beauty blooms in the midst of a very hard place. But there’s more. Over time, the plant itself can crack the rock or the boulder in which it grows; it just takes time and persistence.

What does that story have to do with today’s text? Listen carefully. These teachings of Jesus – turning the other cheek, refusing to return evil with more evil, loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us – are like seeds of the kingdom of God, blown by the winds of the Holy Spirit into hard, and difficult, and foreboding places in the world. We are children of God and followers of Jesus, and Jesus is giving us instruction about how our lives can bloom in the middle of a sometimes very hostile and unforgiving world.

When we turn the other cheek and stand up to those who would oppress us, when we refuse to meet every evil and injustice with a greater evil and injustice, when we love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, the kingdom of God bursts into bloom all around us, and through us, and within us. Given enough time and persistence, the kingdom of God may actually take root, and when it does, we find it shattering all the old systems of violence, and war, and oppression, and judgmentalism, and alienation, and separation, and fear – all destructive patterns and forces are shattered. And if not shattered, maybe we’ll open some well-placed cracks that will let the sunshine of God’s delight in.

As children of God, as followers of Jesus, as disciples, as CHURCH – this is what we are called to do. This is our task. We don’t succumb to the ways of the world in relation to power and fear and terror and shock and awe, because as Christians, we are called to live differently. As St. Paul says, we are to “live a life worthy of the calling we have received” (Ephesians 4:1). We have been called – named and claimed – as members of God’s beloved family, and brothers and sisters – that means something.

We are Christians; we are something different. Our identity is not in the powers of this world – old power structures of oppression and violence and hate; our identity is in Christ. Our identity is not in wars with armies and bombs, not in the laws of the land with their courts and jails, not in all the ways that people and nations try to control each other or assert their dominance or superiority over each other; our identity is in Christ. We are called to live in the new order of the kingdom of God, even as the structures of the old order seem firm around us, these seeds in our lives will bloom as signs of God’s kingdom. With some time and persistence, they can and they will crack through the oppression and violence around us, old orders will crumble, and God’s new order – the way of living in God’s kingdom – will already be growing strong in its place.

Our task, as Christians, is to stand firm and patient in the ways of God, even when the world throws its worst at us. Even when you want to hit back, even when you’re stronger or more powerful, even when you know you’re right and someone else is wrong, no matter how hard it is, no matter the fact that every fiber of your being is straining with desire to lash out as you have been lashed, Jesus says stand firm, and to meet every act of evil against us with something good.

And friends, doing so is a sign of maturity. Jesus tells us that we have reached an important goal as his followers when we turn the other cheek, when we go the extra mile with someone, when we return evil with good, when we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Doing these things is a sign of maturity – some of your texts may say that we are made “perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.” “Perfect” here doesn’t mean sinless or suggest that we’ve arrived and are all done with our growth in grace; it just means that we’ve met a goal, that we’ve matured.

I love the way The Message puts verse 48: [This is Jesus speaking] "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."

And let’s be honest; it’s a struggle. Every time we try to live like citizens of God’s kingdom instead of this world, temptation is going to come along and lure us back to the old ways of doing things. But we don’t let that stop us. Because, we are trying to live out of our God-created identity – generous and gracious toward others, the way God lives toward us. Because, doing so is a mark of spiritual maturity. Because, with the power of the Holy Spirit we can, and we might see some cracks in the rocks, and the beauty of God’s kingdom might just sprout up all around us.

Close your eyes and place your hands on your lap, palm side up for a moment. Dave – play. On behalf of Jesus, let me tell you something –You are God’s beloved child. You are called to share God’s love with others. That’s your purpose in life – that’s why you and I are here! But, we all know that things in our lives keep us from doing that. Picture something in your mind that keeps you from realizing that you are God’s child, or from sharing God’s love. Maybe it’s a fear, a hurt, a memory, a resentment – could be anything. Whatever you’re picturing, imagine yourself handing that thing to God. God has it now; it’s out of your hands. Now, imagine God throwing it up in the air, and it vanishing out of sight forever. Don’t go looking for it – don’t go and try to drag it back into your life – it’s gone forever. And now, eyes still closed, repeat after me: I am God’s beloved child. I am called to share God’s love with others.

Up here on the altar rail, there are some small slips of paper, and they say what you just said – “I am God’s beloved child. I am called to share God’s love with others. With God’s help, I will be what I have been called.” You can carry it with you, and pull it out when it seems particularly hard to follow Jesus in the way of love.

You see, there is no path to love. Love is the path. As Dave continues to play, I invite you to come, to take one of these slips of paper, to remain for prayer as long as you wish, because you are God’s beloved child.

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