Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48
For all intents and purposes I have been in a physical fight once in my life. Growing up there were times when I rough housed, but only once did I act in a way that I intentionally try to hurt another person. I was in 8th grade and it was on the school bus. There were two kids who were the school bus bullies. They claimed that bus as their dominion and tried to establish a pecking order that put them at the top. There was one afternoon on the ride back from school they were messing with my brother. I think they kept flicking his ears or some other juvenile act of petty bullying. I told him to stop, he said make me. So I did. I am sure the whole thing took seconds, but in my memory it plays out in slow motion still. I got hit, but I hit more. It ended when the bus driver yelled “what’s going on back there?” and at the end I was standing, and the bully was on the ground bleeding. Now the bus driver was not very observant and honestly did not care much, so there were no real consequences, and when the bus reached my stop the majority of the bus applauded as I got off. As soon as the bus pulled away though, I started crying, it was a full out ugly cry. It was not because I was hurt, but it was because I had more emotions than I could process. I am sure it was in part fueled by my body not knowing what to do with the fight or flight adrenaline, but I also felt horribly conflicted. I was both simultaneously proud and horrified at what I had done. I had stood my ground, I had won, and I liked how that felt. Yet, I had also hurt and shamed another person and that felt deeply wrong. By time I got inside the house, I was an emotional wreck so there was no avoiding telling my parents what had happened. I thought doing so would create major consequences because one of the things they had stressed the most is that we are to never ever fight. Yet, there was no punishment from them, I think because it was all in defense of my brother. This implied that fighting is never OK, except when it is-which added to my internal conflict.
I am not sure I ever 100% resolved that internal conflict. In my particular school bus scuffle, the vast majority would likely judge I was in the right. In our culture, being a fighter is often lauded as a virtue. We see this with public figures all the time. If such a figure is criticized and they clap back or lash out, one of their spokespeople will make the rounds on news shows and say something like “They are fighter, and if they get hit then they are going to hit back harder.” Culturally, this is lifted up as a positive quality. I am still not convinced though, because we just heard read in this morning’s scripture, “If anyone slaps you on the cheek turn to them the other one cheek also.” This morning’s scripture really challenges the cultural value of “If you get hit, then hit back harder.” This morning’s scripture lifts up that there are better ways to resist instead of fighting.
Jesus begins this morning’s scripture with “you have heard it was said, eye for eye and tooth for tooth.” This morning’s scripture continues Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, so Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience. These people had not just heard it said, they had heard it read. The phrase eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth appears in the Old Testament law. It is found in Exodus 21:24 and in Leviticus 24:20, and in Deuteronomy 19:21. So the people had actually heard it quite a bit. The concept even sounds fair, but when an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth becomes a guiding philosophy in life it becomes problematic because if we all adapted that then the whole world would be blind and toothless.
Yet, for a lot of people this morning’s scripture rubs them the wrong way. They do not like that it sounds like Jesus is just saying we are supposed to be a door mat and let people walk all over us. In fact this is not what Jesus is saying, because sitting back and allowing evil and wrong to happen cannot be done in good conscious. As part of the baptismal and membership vows of the United Methodist church we pledge “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” This morning’s scripture does not contradict that statement. As God’s people on earth we are supposed to be a resistance movement against all that is unjust and oppressive. In this morning’s scripture though, Jesus shows that fighting is not the only way to resist.
Jesus is indeed advocating that violent, aggressive resistance is not the best way to oppose evil. Yet, he is also not saying we should roll over easily. Rather, what Jesus is advocating for is non-violent resistance. Starting with verse 39: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” The ancient Middle Eastern culture was one that was highly stratified, and it was socially acceptable for a social superior to strike a person of lower stature with their backhand on the right cheek as a way of putting the person in their place. Turning the other cheek would have been a direct challenge, a dare even to hit them again. Turning the left cheek though would have required for the person to strike with their left hand, a closed fist, or their palm. To strike again in any of those ways would no longer be a socially acceptable way to exhort authority, but it would be considered an open act of aggression that put the striker in the wrong. To turn the other cheek is not a command to be a pushover it is a call to stand one’s ground and challenge an abuse of power.
Jesus continues with verse 40 “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt hand over your coat as well.” Again during the time of Jesus, much of the population was in poverty and making ends meet was often difficult. This meant that debt, much like today, was a real problem that many faced. When someone was unable to pay a debt, there was no forgiveness, there was no way to declare bankruptcy and work out of the hole. The debtor would be sued for everything. The ultimate way for the creditor to embarrass the debtor and add insult to injury was to sue for their outer garment, literally taking the shirt off their back. The creditor clearly did not need this piece of clothing, but it was again away to put someone in their place. In Jesus day people often wore two pieces of clothing, an inner garment and outer garment. If someone sues you for one, and then you give up the other one. What is left? In ancient Jewish culture, it was actually more shameful to see someone else naked than to be seen naked. By giving up both garments it shames the person and exposes their greed.
Finally in verse 41 Jesus says “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” This is in reference to a practice of the Roman army. It was common practice that a Roman centurion could force anyone in the Empire to carry their supplies for them for exactly one mile. The person drafted in this way had no choice in the matter and was forced to comply. However, if the drafted porter went more than one mile than the centurion would be punished for abusing their power. By willing going an extra mile, the power dynamic is instantly flipped on its head, and the original abuse of power is clearly displayed.
Jesus advocated that injustice and oppression should be resisted, just not violently opposed. In each example that Jesus gives he urges people to go a step further to carry out the abuse of power to the next step the oppressor is not willing to go, so that the evilness of their act is fully exposed. This brings shame and guilt down upon those who seek to bully. It breaks through self-righteousness with holy truth. Jesus is stating that injustice should be opposed with nonviolent direct action or with non-cooperation with evil. As Walter Wink writes Jesus offers a third way between accepting evil and violently resisting it. The goal of the third way is to “fight evil with all of our power without being transformed into the evil we fight.”
Jesus takes it a step further though. We should not resist evil just to resist evil, but we should do so to transform the world. Our opposition to injustice should not be a lone stand, but it should be part of a resistance movement. Jesus tells us exactly how to do that: love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. Just like turning the other cheek is a counter-cultural idea, the idea of loving your enemies is even more so. Again, the predominant stance in our culture is “I will respect you if you respect me.” Jesus does not qualify it in that way, “If you only love those who love you what reward will you get?” Jesus asks. We are to pray for our enemies. This does not mean we use the phrase “I’ll pray for you” in a passive-aggressive weaponized way where we say it with self-righteousness and deep judgement. Rather we are to truly pray for them, like we would pray for the people we love the most. We are to pray that God protect them, that God provide them, and that Christ have mercy for them. If we pray for our enemies in this way, then the reality is they will not be our enemies for long. We cannot hate the people we ask God to bless. Again, I know our knee-jerk reaction is to think, but they do not deserve it, they have not earned it, and they need to get what is coming to them. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to the whole world being blind and toothless. Instead Jesus tells us to be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.
God’s perfect love was displayed on the cross. Humanity had turned its back on God, it had done and continues to do evil, it had done and continues to oppress, the vulnerable, and it had done and to this day continues to blaspheme the one and only Holy God. Yet, God out God’s perfect love sacrificed everything to make it right. As followers of Jesus, we too should model that perfect love in how we treat others. The perfection of God that we are supposed to emulate is the kind of love that Jesus showed. The kind of love that Jesus displayed as he hung on the cross and prayed on behalf of the ones who put them there, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” The love that Jesus showed his enemies on the cross, is the same love we are to show to our enemies. Compassionately asking God to show mercy to the he person in your life who has wronged you, betrayed you, hurt you, or angered you is what we are supposed to do. We can only do that, if we have the love of Jesus down in our heart. We can only do that if we know in the depths of our soul what forgiveness really feels like. We can only do that if we submitted our heart, the essence of our being, to God. Our desire to love others and see them forgiven by God has to be greater than our desire to get even.
The way of this world is to get even, put others in their place, and not back down. The way of the world is to hit back harder if you get hit. It is to not budge an inch and only respect those who respect you. Jesus advocated a different way to live. Being a follower of Christ, is being part of a resistance movement based in the unshakeable belief that God has shown us that in the end love wins. An eye for an eye only leads to darkness. Violence will always only lead to more violence. Love though transforms, it reconciles, and it brings full peace. As followers of Jesus we are to resist evil in whatever form it presents itself, but we do so by exposing evil for what it is. As followers of Jesus we are part of a movement, a resistance to darkness and brokenness. So may we stand for what is right, may we be a light that shines upon injustice and oppression. May we follow the ways of our Lord and Savior and may we love others without qualification. May we pray for those who have wronged us. May we love, because the only way the world is going to know Jesus and know we are Christians by our love. May we all join with Jesus in the resistance and love others enough to transform the world.