The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks- Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A (video link)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Jesus is dancing us through the Sermon on the Mount, moving effortlessly between the highly personal and intimate interpersonal to the intensely communal and political, and today, he leads us into the heart of his radical teaching on engaging the powers-that-be with the power of nonviolence.
I am indebted to Walter Wink and his little book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way for helping to illuminate these scriptures that are otherwise so mystifying. And, though I’ve shared this teaching before, this is one of those teachings that we need to circle back to over and over—it’s a foundational teaching of the Jesus way and so needed in our time.
So, let’s plow in.
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.
First, Jesus is holding up the standard of the ancient law—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Retaliation in equal kind. And actually, this law in the Old Testament was meant to protect people from vengeful retribution where the retribution might by worse than the originating crime or injury. But once again, Jesus takes the ancient standard and ups the ante—don’t retaliate at all. Do not resist an evildoer. And again, evildoer is someone who brings toils, annoyances, perils; one who causes pain and trouble. Do not set yourself against them; do not oppose them. Huh? Aren’t we to fight injustice? Not quite, we are to strive for justice, but in the very energy of fighting you empower that which you are striving to transform. Jesus has another way.
We’ve got to understand how this striking on the cheek thing works, or we will do as so many Christian preachers have grievously done and counsel people to go passive in the face of abuse. The only way someone could strike you on the right cheek, in that culture, was to do a backhanded slap with the right hand—you can’t use your right fist, because the nose is in the way, and you can’t use your left hand because it was used for unclean acts. A backhanded slap was by definition about one person having power over another and about humiliating the one with lesser power. So, when Jesus counsels turning and offering your other cheek, your left cheek, this was not an act of passivity, but an act of standing firm and claiming your full and equal status as fellow human being. First, as you turn your head, your eyes meet, and that is a deeply humanizing moment, and then, to strike your left cheek, the aggressor would be forced to use his right fist and thereby acknowledge you as an equal.
And the direction on giving your cloak to someone who is suing you for your undergarments, well, Jesus is just brilliant here. Matthew and Luke disagree on the order here. Luke says if they’re suing you for your cloak, give your undergarment, too, but Matthew goes a step further and says, if they’re suing you for your undergarments, give them your cloak, too. What is at stake here? Well, the poor often only had their garments to give as collateral for a loan, but the law required that if you’d given your cloak as collateral, that the person from whom you had borrowed money had to return it at sundown so you could be warm as you slept. It’s rotten enough to ask someone to give their cloak as collateral, but in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is saying, “It’s even worse than that—they’re suing you for your undergarments! So, don’t stop there; hand them your cloak as well”—which would leave you what? (pause) Naked, that’s right. And nakedness in that culture was a big taboo, and the shame fell on the one gazing upon the nakedness, not the one who was naked. In one brilliant step, Jesus has revealed the moral bankruptcy, the absolute exploitation of the whole economic system of loans in that culture.
And then, going the second mile. A Roman soldier, a member of the occupying force, could force a civilian who had no power to carry his pack for a mile, but not for two. Again, this was humiliating for the occupied people, but to fight a Roman soldier was out of the question. So, carry the pack the second mile became Jesus’ elegant third way. A) It exposed the Roman soldier to severe military penalties because the rule was one mile and no more and B) It exposed the Roman soldier to ridicule from his buddies—“What, you’re not strong enough to carry your own pack?” and no Roman soldier wanted to be ribbed like that. Again, the person with no power has found a way to hold fast to the human dignity of which the system of subjugation was fervently trying to strip him.
At every turn, Jesus is showing people how to resist without standing against, how to hold fast to your dignity as a beloved son or daughter of God when the powers-that-be are trying to strip it away, how not to replicate the very system of retaliation that people of the Jesus way are called to transform. And this is crazy hard. Retaliation is so much easier; it’s the default of our primitive brains. And when we’re really stuck in our primitive brains, we don’t even stop there—we go straight for vengeful full-on retribution, forget “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.”
But lest we start to get puffed up with the sheer elegance and brilliance of Jesus’ third way as a tactical coup on those who hold the power, Jesus is going to drop us right back down into our hearts. Ancient standard, up the ante.
But before we get to the up the ante part, let’s revisit the ancient standard of loving your neighbor because Leviticus unpacks that for us this morning: You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
Leviticus would remind us this morning that this loving stuff extends far and wide and close and near. Kin is anyone in your tribe—sometimes translated as “fellow countrymen.” Oh, this just got really relevant—thank you Leviticus! You shall not hate in your heart your fellow countrymen. And reproving your neighbor is more complicated than it sounds—it’s not only about correcting them, proving what is right, but the hebrew word also possesses this sense of reasoning together with them. And you reason with your neighbor, you risk the conversation, because when we don’t risk the conversation, then we are complicit in this sin of separation, then we bear this sin of separation together.
Leviticus will not let us up for air—no taking vengeance, no avenging your feelings against any of your tribe, your kin, your people, your fellow countrymen. In fact, you don’t even get to keep your anger like a prized possession, like really it’s a word that’s repeated in hebrew—you really don’t get to keep your anger; you don’t get to guard yourself against these your kin, but you shall love your fellow-citizen as yourself, as a part of your own being. Ouch—bye-bye caricatures of people paraded across our tv screens, radios, and social media. That’s where God starts us in Leviticus. That’s the ancient standard, and now, Jesus is going to up the ante.
“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.”
Are you kidding me? Love my enemies? Pray for those who persecute me? This is what it means to be children of God? God has care and concern for the evil, the annoying, the ones bringing all this pain and trouble, God has concern for them and the good? God has concern for those who are living their lives in alignment and in right relationship and those who could care less about living in alignment with God and make a mockery of right relationships? I have to love them? I have to greet them? I have to be perfect as God in heaven is perfect? Are you kidding me, Jesus?
And with those kind and compassionate and piercing eyes, Jesus looks at us, loves us, and says the hard thing—“Nope, I’m not kidding. What I am asking you to do is that hard; my way is that radical.”
And this being perfect is not about perfection like we think about it—it’s not about being without mistake or error—it’s teleios—it’s a word that comes up a lot in theology. It’s the endgame, it’s when something is brought to its end, wanting nothing to be complete; it is utter integrity and the capacity to live that path of integrity, what we call virtue. And here’s the really bad news—it’s full-on, full-grown adulthood, that fullness that comes with age, otherwise known as MATURITY.
Oh man, Jesus is calling us to grow up, really grow up into the full stature of Christ. Jesus is calling us to look out upon this world with compassion, to understand that those we would call enemy are no less beloved of God than we are. We need to love and pray for those (fill in the blank) people that get on your every last nerve, those people who make your blood boil, Jesus is telling us we need to love and pray for those people and to know that that love is sourced from God’s heart emanating from within us. Jesus is calling us to put on the mind of Christ and love from a place so much deeper and broader than we could possibly imagine.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t engage matters of injustice; Jesus certainly did. It’s just that the water from which we drink as we thirst for justice comes from a far deeper well, from a place where the living water flows, from a far deeper place than our culture is offering us right now.
It doesn’t matter if we are doing the right thing if our hearts are still wanting to stick it to our enemies. We may achieve a human end, but it won’t be a divine one. God’s heart has room for the enemy, and when we meet our enemy there, there is the possibility that we will both be transformed.
This teaching is not for the faint of heart; this teaching is about the utter and complete transformation of our heart, and as we start to understand the enemy is our kin, and our kin is our neighbor, and our neighbor is our very own self, well, there is no end to the transformation that God can work then.
Yes, in solidarity with Jesus, we are called to third way acts of nonviolence in the face of injustice and power differentials, but our first step in the radical way of nonviolence, as Jesus embodies it, will be in the radical expansion of our hearts that can hold a place at the table for even our enemy.
No wonder people take the easy way of dualistic-plain-ol’-in-your-face opposition. Fighting, fleeing, freezing, appeasing—all of these are far easier than coming alongside neighbor, kin, enemy and dwelling together with them in God’s heart until both they and we are transformed. But truly, this is the only way big enough to move into the peaceable kingdom that God yearns for and that we all long to inhabit.
Today, let God do a radical number on your heart, and then move out into the world with courage as you seek to walk in Jesus’ third way. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 19, 2017
This interpretation of Matthew 6:38-41 has drawn on the teaching of Walter Wink in Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I want to give credit where credit is due, and this morning, the credit is his. Please read his book.