The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany—Year A; Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
Okay, today we get to keep on rolling with the “You have heard it said…but I say to you” passages. This is more of Jesus unpacking how he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them and how our righteousness is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Yippee!
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” Okay, kids, what’s it called when someone hurts you and you hurt them back thinking that will make you feel better? That’s right, the myth of redemptive violence. Jesus continues, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;” Okay, you’ve got to know a couple of things for this to make sense. And here, and throughout this sermon, I will be drawing heavily on the teaching of Walter Wink in his book Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. I want to give credit where credit is due, and this morning, the credit is his. I commend his book to you.
Wink notes that this was a right-handed culture. So, if you make a fist with your right hand, where is the blow going to land? That’s correct, on the left cheek. To strike the right cheek, would require using your left fist, you’d have to use your left hand, but you aren’t permitted to use your left hand because in that society, the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. In fact, in the Qumran community, even to gesture with the left hand carried a penalty of exclusion and ten days’ penance. So, if your right fist can’t do it, and your left fist can’t do it, how do you land a blow on the right cheek? That’s right, you use your right hand, and you do a backhanded slap.
This is not a fistfight, a blow delivered between equals. Wink notes, “This is a slap meant to humiliate, meant to put someone in his or her “place”; back then, this was the normal way of admonishing inferiors—masters backhanded slaves, parents backhanded children, men backhanded women, Romans backhanded Jews….[This is] a set of unequal relations, [and in each situation] retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission”—to fight is suicidal which leaves only flight as the other alternative.
But Jesus offers a third way. At first it seems bizarre until you get what he’s doing. So, if you do as Jesus says and turn and offer your left cheek, you have just robbed your oppressor of his power. He can’t backhand your left cheek because your nose is in the way, and if he strikes you with his right fist, he’s just acknowledged that you are his equal. The oppressor has just been forced to recognize [the] subordinate as an equal human being. The powerful person has been stripped of his ability to dehumanize the other. Wink notes, “This act doesn’t admonish passivity and cowardice; this is an act of defiance.”
Next, Jesus says, “…And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” What’s going on here? Wink provides the context here as well. Really, really poor people often didn’t have collateral to offer up as a pledge for their loan, so they would offer their outer garment as collateral. But the law demanded [Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17] that the lender give the outer garment back at sunset so that the borrower would have it to sleep in. So you’ve got someone here who’s really poor and who’s gotten so far in debt that the lender, the creditor, is trying to haul them into court and seize their outer garment. Indebtedness was a huge issue in this society, so Jesus’ listeners are all ears. Remember, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”—indebtedness was a huge issue. So, what does Jesus counsel? Give your undergarments too!
The words in this passage for “coat” and “cloak” are two different words—one means an outer garment that you wear to protect yourself from the weather and the other is your undergarment. Jesus is saying if someone is trying to sue you for your coat, strip down right there in court and hand them your underwear too and walk out naked! What?! Wink writes, “You have said in effect, ‘You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?”
Oh, it’s such an elegant response because, as Wink rightly points out, in Judaism nakedness was taboo, and shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness. [Genesis 9:20-27]. So, as you walk out into the street buck naked, you are calling attention to the whole crazy system that renders a whole social class landless and destitute; you’re calling attention to a system that relentlessly oppresses debtors. And maybe, because this is such an outrageous scene, the lender can see, maybe for the first time, how his practices impact the life of a real human being.
Jesus continues, “…And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Again, Wink helps us understand the context. A Roman legionnaire, or any of the auxiliary soldiers that were stationed in and around Judea at the time, could ask a civilian to carry their pack one mile, but no more. Mile markers were placed regularly along the roads. It was actually an enlightened practice serving both to keep the army efficiently on the move while at the same time limiting both the burden on and, more importantly, the anger of the occupied peoples. Under military law, violation of this rule carried severe penalties for the soldier. Wink notes, “Nevertheless, this [practice] was a bitter reminder to the Jews that they were a subject people even in the Promised Land.”
Wink notes that Jesus doesn’t counsel revolt—to revolt against Roman imperial might was futile, but, he asks, “Is this some kind of aiding and abetting the enemy?” Wink writes, “The question here is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but not how one responds to the rules, that is God’s, and Caesar has no power of that.”
So, you are asked to carry this 65-85 pound pack, and at the one mile marker, you keep going. What’s the soldier thinking? “What are you up to? Why are you doing this? What are the other soldiers going to think? Are they going to think that I’m weak? Am I going to get in trouble because you’re going the second mile? Are you going to file a complaint against me because you are going a second mile?” And you have just thrown the soldier completely off his game. Wink concludes, “You have just taken back the power of choice. If the soldier enjoyed feeling superior [over you], he won’t enjoy it today…Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, ‘Aw, come on, please give me back my pack!’ The humor would not have been lost on Jesus’ hearers.”
Jesus continues with another “You have heard that it was said…but I say to 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.”
This is about not dividing the field, not even with your enemy. This is about refusing to cede away the ground of kinship. This is about refusing to dehumanize your enemy, even as they dehumanize you. It’s just impossible to dehumanize someone while you are sending love toward them and praying for them. God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous—we are radically equal in God’s eyes. Love has to flow without constraint, out in all directions. Compassion, respect—these can know no boundaries. “Be perfect, be perfect as God is perfect”—who can live up to this? But the greek work for perfect here is “teleios”—it’s the kind of perfection that comes when something is brought to its end, finished, when it doesn’t need anything else to be complete. We are incomplete when we are cut off from others. The perfection that God longs for us to have, and that God already holds in the divine heart, is that we are all equal before God; we are all kin; indeed, we are one.
So, why is this passage from the Sermon on the Mount so important? Well, partly because, throughout the ages, the interpretation of this passage has been such a train wreck causing profound damage and leading people to be doormats because they thought Jesus told them to do so. This is one of the most misunderstood of all of Jesus’ teachings, and so it’s important that we see what Jesus actually meant.
There is some history here, and again, Walter Wink throws light where we desperately need it. When the King James’ translators translated the greek, they translated the word “antistenai” as “resist not evil”, and they translated nonviolent resistance into docility. But the word is a compound word coming from “anti” meaning “against” and “histemi” which in its noun form means “violent rebellion, armed revolt, or sharp dissension”—it’s used primarily for military encounters. Wink says that a proper translation of Jesus’ teaching would be, “Don’t strike back at evil (or, one who has done you evil) in kind.” “Do not retaliate violence with violence.” Wink believes, and I agree, that Jesus was no less committed to opposing evil than Roman resistance fighters, the difference is over the means he uses: how one should fight evil. The King, as in King James, had no interest in a nonviolent means that was active and engaged and would dare to fight evil. The crown did not want the subjects thinking they could challenge the crown, and we have been living with a lousy translation and interpretation ever since.
If our biological programming gives us fight (violent opposition) or flight (passivity) as the only responses to evil, Jesus gives us a third way which Wink calls militant nonviolence. Wink says, “Jesus abhors both passivity and violence as responses to evil. His is a third alternative not even touched by these options.” And the three examples Jesus uses this morning point to the ways this gets worked out on the ground. One might wish that Jesus had given us about a 100 more examples to see what this looks like in the flesh, but that is what we will have to work out together when something comes at us, and we feel we are in that fight or flight position.
Wink does tell one modern story that I think is worth passing along, and maybe our kids will appreciate this more than the grown-ups. So, there was a kid who was the smallest kid in the class, and he suffered greatly with sinusitis, so he also had a lot of gunk coming out of his nose. There was this bully on his bus who terrorized all the kids. One day, the small kid with the active nose had had it with the bully. He blew his nose into his right hand and walked back to the bully and extended his hand and said, “I’ve always wanted to shake the hand of a real bully.” The bully backed up all the way to back of the bus until he meekly sat down. The bully never bothered anybody on that bus again. And, Wink notes, the really cool thing here is how the kid used a weakness as a strength to deal with the bully.
So, let’s be clear hear, Jesus isn’t counseling victims of domestic violence to keep getting beaten up, but what creative act can they do to gain back their power, to stop the cycle of humiliation, to reclaim their dignity and equal status? It may be something that gets the partner to see them as their equal, or it may be taking action to get out of the relationship. The action has to be worked out in each specific context. What Jesus is encouraging here is to move beyond fight or flight to a creative, empowering, liberating third way that’s not passive and that’s not violent retribution, but an action that has the capacity to birth something new into the situation. Such an act will not only have the capacity to transform the one who has been on the bottom for so long by restoring dignity and worth where none has been accorded, but such an act also has the capacity to transform the one who has held the power by pulling back the curtain on their act and putting them in a situation where they have to see the one whom they are oppressing in a new light. Wink notes, “There is…the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation. There is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality and softness that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice. Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.” What a powerful statement!
So, whether it be at the structural levels of our society where we are confronting the Powers That Be, or whether it be in the more immediate realm of our personal relationships, there are times when we all feel that fight or flight reaction. Can we cultivate such a spiritual discipline that, in those moments, we can pause and access the Christ who lives deep within us and ask ourselves:
“How could I choose to respond right now that would neither retaliate nor flee nor do an impersonation of a doormat, but instead would lay claim to my dignity as a beloved son or daughter of God?
What could I do to enflesh my equality and proclaim my kinship to every other human being on this planet?
What could I do to unmask the injustice and unleash the love that knows no bounds?
What could I do that would step out onto a third way path, and do I trust, do I believe, that Jesus will walk that path with me?”
If today’s teaching from Matthew is any indication, Jesus can’t wait to see what we’ll do. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 23, 2014
This sermon has drawn heavily 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.