“Turn the other cheek.” “Walk the second mile.” “Love your enemies.” So many “quotes” here, as my brother-in-law refers to commonly heard sayings. And yet, like last week’s passage about not getting angry, never swearing, not even thinking unchaste thoughts, we keep these teachings at a distance. They stand out in front of us to judge us, because who of us can meet this standard? And then, just to put the cherry on the top, the passage ends with, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That’s just terrific, isn’t it?
If it makes you feel any better, biblical scholar and activist Walter Wink says that Jesus couldn’t even have said, “Be perfect” because there’s no word in Aramaic for such a thing. Aramaic was Jesus’ native tongue, but Matthew and the other gospels were written in Greek. “Perfect” was a Greek idea, as in a “perfect circle,” but the word used here is telos, which means the intended outcome. Be what you’re intended to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.
So, if we can just hold that notion of being who we’re intended to be, rather than being “perfect,” for the time being, let’s go back to the “easy” commandments like “turning the other cheek,” “giving the cloak off our back,” and “walking the second mile.” Walter Wink writes, “Christians have, on the whole, simply ignored this teaching. It has seemed impractical, masochistic, suicidal–an invitation to bullies and spouse-batterers to wipe up the floor with their supine Christian victims.” [Engaging the Powers, p. 175]
Indeed, critics from the left and the right have dismissed this particular section of Jesus’ teaching which we’ve come to call the Sermon on the Mount as ridiculous. Ayn Rand, the darling of the Tea Party, wrote, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men [sic] have to reject.” And, of course, on the left, Karl Marx wrote, “The social principles of Christianity preach cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness, and humbleness.”
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.
“Jesus here is at his ornery best,” commentator Jason Byassee writes, “offering ‘advice’ that makes no sense divorced from the nature of the one that is giving it.” [cited by Mark Suriano in sermonseeds, 2/19/17] Nor does it make much sense divorced from the community and context in which it was given.
Take, for example, the first instance. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,…” Why the right cheek? I’m going to ask Marsh to come up and help me with this. If I were to strike Marsh’s right cheek, I would have had to have done it with the back of my right hand. This was a right-handed culture, so I wouldn’t have punched him with my left hand. The left hand was reserved for hygiene . In fact, even to gesture with the left hand in the Qumran community, for instance, carried a penalty of 10 days penance.
So my strike of Marsh’s right cheek was clearly meant to humiliate him, rather than injure him. You strike a subordinate with the back of the hand. You punch only a peer with a fist. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” So, if Marsh turns his left cheek to me, my only option with my right hand is to punch him, acknowledging him as a peer, as an equal. [And, by the way, there were severe penalties for striking a peer.]
By turning the other cheek, those whom Jesus was teaching would have claimed their humanity, their refusal to be humiliated or treated as “less than” their oppressor. The one who had struck them would be startled, “flummoxed,” we might even say, perhaps, after the shock had worn off, having this “uppity” underling beaten or thrown into jail, but not after having acknowledged that for a moment at least, power had belonged to the one who turned the other cheek.
Just so with the one who had been sued, most likely for non-payment of a debt. Jesus’ listeners were overwhelmingly poor people, oppressed by a system of indebtedness that was clearly stacked against them. Jewish law allowed them to give their outer garment, their “coat,” as collateral, but it also forbade anyone from keeping a poor person’s coat overnight, because that was often the only thing they had to keep them warm. To give one’s “cloak,” or undergarment also, would have left the poor person naked, yes, but the shame was on the one who looked upon another’s nakedness. By giving their cloak as well, Jesus’ followers offered their bodies to expose the utter injustice and oppression of a system that burdened so many with such debt.
And finally, Roman soldiers were allowed to impress inhabitants of occupied territories to carry their packs–often 50 or 60 lbs.– but only for 1 mile. Rome was smart enough to limit the dissension and resentment of their subjects. Imagine then a soldier ready to take back his pack, when the man refused to give it up but rather insisting on carrying it further. “What fresh hell is this?” as Dorothy Parker might have said. “If you don’t give the pack back to me, I can be reported and punished.” “No, no, let me keep carrying it for you.”
“You have heard it said…but I say to you…” Jesus is “waking up a generation of people [says Mark Suriano] for whom the [Jewish] Law – now so associated with the powerful who are guardians of its precise following – only presents itself as a burden and obligation….Jesus is calling for a deeper and more radical way of following it.” [sermonseeds, op cit.]
This is certainly no way to “get ahead” in this world. This is no “prosperity gospel,” but Jesus is calling the rules of this world into question, by modeling and giving instructions for living in what he called “the kingdom of God,” or as Matthew calls it, “the kingdom of heaven,” since Jews avoided using God’s name. Jesus certainly never advocated violent revolution, but he is laying the foundations for a social revolution that, if it reaches a critical threshold of acceptance, could indeed become a political revolution. [Richard Horsley, cited by Wink, op cit.] Imagine!
We read and talk about a drug epidemic, an epidemic of lies, an epidemic of gun violence. Rabbi Joshua Levine, in a 2009 article, challenged people of faith to spread a positive social epidemic throughout their communities–a new epidemic of compassion, honor, goodness, gratitude, civility, and respect.” [cited by Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus, 2/23/14] What if we actually put these teachings of Jesus into practice, and spread a new epidemic of creative resistance to injustice and hatred? What if we refused to sling back taunts and insults in our public demonstrations and discourse, but instead modeled dignity, respect, groundedness, love that was neither naive nor cowardly? What if we made our so-called “enemies” or “opponents” or those on the other side of issues uncomfortable or “itch-y” because our actions and responses were not what they expected, were, in fact, respectful, even humorous, not sinking to the low level of the usual discourse. What if we did indeed “go high” when they “go low”?
“Do not resist evil,” Jesus’ words get translated, but the word for “resist” here really means, “do not mirror evil.” “Do not resist evil with evil.” This is not a teaching of non-resistance, or even strict pacifism. It is not training in cowardice, but it does require training, practice. The marchers who walked from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 didn’t simply set out on a walk. “They were taught how to be quiet, how to be still, how not to resist and fight back no matter what happened.” [Sister Peace, Plum Village, in HuffPost, 2/16/17] They practiced being spit in the face, being called horrible names, having violent words literally thrown in their faces. They practiced holding on to one another, standing next to one another, reminding one another of Love at the core of their actions.
What if we were to spread love, instead of anger and lies, hatred and resentment? Brother Phap Dung of Thich Nhat Hahn’s Plum Village concedes that anger can bring about change, but it can ultimately lead only to more conflict. He lifts up the Buddhist teaching of inter-dependence, which says that “the people we perceive as our greatest enemies can be our greatest teachers, because they show aspects of ourselves that we find unpalatable and give us the chance to heal.” [Huff Post, op cit.] Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies is a wisdom teaching, because our enemies have something to teach us. We are the ones who are changed by loving them, but in the process, our enemies may be changed as well.
So we come back to, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As I said, there’s no word in Aramaic for “perfect.” Walter Wink thinks Jesus most surely used the word shalem, meaning whole, complete, mature, undivided. It’s what shalom or peace comes from. “Be whole,” he said, “be complete, be who you were intended to be, as surely God always is.” We are intended to be in relationship, we are intended to do our part, to live into the kingdom of God that is always and everywhere breaking in through our actions, our words, our intuitions, our thoughts, and by the grace of God, breaking in in spite of us. Spread love, infect others with your commitment to justice and peace, make those who have settled with ease into patterns and systems of injustice and isolation–make them ill at ease. Remember who you are and Whose you are. So may the epidemic of love spread and grow and deepen until it infects us all.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark