By The Rev. Sherry Crompton
February 20, 2011
Read: Matthew 5:38-48
So here we are again with a tough gospel lesson from Jesus. Loving our enemies and being perfect. Turning the other cheek, going the second mile. How is it possible to do this, to love our enemies? What is Jesus saying? Is he saying we are supposed to be passive in the face of injustice? Jesus wasn’t when he walked this earth, so let’s try to put what he is saying in context. This is still the continuation of Jesus’ discourse that began with the Beatitudes, so he is still speaking about living our life in a different way – what Walter Wink terms the third way – Jesus is speaking about relationships. Our relationship with God and with each other. So, I don’t think Jesus is telling us to be passive in the face of injustice, in the face of oppression.
Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil, but rather, to refuse to oppose evil on it’s own terms. We are not to let our enemy dictate the methods of our opposition. He is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet nonviolent. So what does that mean? What does that look like?
Let’s go to the gospel. Turning the other cheek had a particular meaning during the time the gospel story was written, that is lost on us. To hit someone on the right cheek would require a blow with either the left fist or a right backhand. Think about this….how do you hit someone else on their right cheek? At that time a backhand was not a blow to injure, it was a blow to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands their wives; parents their children; Romans the Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line, back into place. Notice Jesus’ audience. If anyone strikes “you”. These are people who are used to being degraded. He is saying to them, “refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek. By turning the other cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underlings equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship, in this way. By turning the other cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I am a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore”. Now, this kind of defiance is really not a way to avoid trouble, but the point has been made.
And, in Jesus’ example of going the second mile we see the same unmasking of an oppressive system. The Romans soldiers could force or impress labor on subject peoples and their practice was to limit the forced labor to one mile. For example, whoever was found on the street could be coerced into service, like Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross. At that time, armies had to be moved with dispatch. The majority of the rank and file depended on impressed civilians to carry their packs. Whole villages sometimes fled to avoid being forced to carry soldiers’ baggage that could weigh from sixty to eighty-five pounds.
What we tend to overlook is the fact that carrying something an extra mile was, in fact, an infraction of military code. Recall that the soldiers’ code allowed for one mile of forced labor at a time – that was the limit. So, imagine a soldier’s surprise when, at the mile marker, the civilian says, “I will carry it another mile”. Why would he want to do that? What is up? Normally soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully and will not stop. Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire’s strength? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules? Will this civilian file a complaint?
What the civilian has done is turn the tables. He has thrown the solider off balance by depriving him of the predictability of the victim’s response. The victim has seized the initiative and taken back the power of choice. Imagine the Roman soldier pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of bringing discomfort to their oppressors.
What Jesus was doing was laying the foundations for a social revolution. An armed revolution against the Romans would have proven catastrophic, but a social revolution becomes political when it reaches a critical threshold of acceptance: this in fact did happen to the Roman empire as the Christian church overcame it from below.
Jesus was giving examples to spark creativity and he was not advocating this as merely a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also. Both sides must win. We are summoned to pray for our enemies’ transformation, and to respond to ill treatment with a love that is not only Godly, but also from God.
Jesus is saying, do not react violently to evil, do not counter evil in kind, do not let evil dictate the terms of your opposition, do not let violence lead you to mirror your opponent. Find another way, a third way, a way that seeks to remove evil from our world, not add to it.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ended a sermon about loving our enemies with these words: Why should we love our enemies? The answer is remarkably simple: “Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.”
As we saw earlier in the Law of Moses, there had to be limits of retaliation for the people of Israel, or else the violence would escalate and they’d destroy each other; and, as Jesus made clear in the Sermon on the Mount, the best way to stop the cycle of violence is not to retaliate at all: Turn the other cheek. In his sermon, Dr. King says,
“…force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. (You are that person,) and you do that by love.”
There’s another reason why we should love our enemies and that is, if we don’t, we’ll become just like them. Dr. King says, “Hate at any point is a cancer that gnaws away at the very vital center of your life … So Jesus says love, because hate destroys the hater as well as the hated.”
Finally, he says we should love our enemies because of the redemptive power love has to transform the world, and that includes you and me. This is the meaning of the resurrection – by surrendering to God’s will and not resisting his enemies, but showing mercy and asking God to forgive those who condemned him, Jesus won the greater victory and ushered in a new way of life based not on retaliation, but on the power of God’s redeeming love.
May we all build our life on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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