HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
GOSPEL LESSON: Matthew 5:38-48
SERMON: “God’s Kingdom Ethics-Part 2”
Exacting revenge when we have been wronged seems to be a strong part of human nature. As the story goes there was once a man who was bitten by a dog, which was later discovered to be rabid. The man was rushed to the hospital where tests revealed that he had, in fact, contracted rabies. At the time, medical science had no cure for this disease and so his doctor faced the difficult task of informing him that his condition was incurable and terminal. “Sir, we will do all we can to make you comfortable. But I cannot give you false hope. There is nothing we can really do. My best advice is that you put your affairs in order as soon as possible.”
The dying man sank back on his bed in shock, but finally rallied enough to ask for a pen and some paper. He then set to work with great energy. Later, when the doctor came back, the man was stilling writing vigorously. The doctor commented, “I’m glad to see that you’re working on your will.”
“This isn’t a will, Doc.” said the dying man, “this is the list of the people I’m going to bite before I die.”
How many times have we heard, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?” The phrase can be found in Exodus 21, which is the chapter just after the giving of the Ten Commandments. Many have interpreted this to mean that one is required to give as good as one gets. If someone knocks out your tooth you are obligated to knock out one of his teeth. Biblical scholars suggest it is more likely that Exodus 21:24-25 which says, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise,” was intended more as a limitation on reaction to injury than a requirement to exact revenge. So if a man had his tooth knocked out in a fight, he was not permitted to escalate matters by do anything more than what had been done to him.
But Jesus surprises us once again by turning things upside down, and says that not only are we not to make matters worse by doing more to someone than what they have done to us, we are not to do anything to hurt them. “I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
One interpretation I have heard over the years of this injunction to “turn the other cheek” is that a slap on the cheek is basically a challenge to a fight, a duel. To turn the other cheek was not meant to invite the aggressor to hit you again, but to say, stop and think about it. If you still want to fight with me tomorrow, come back and hit me on the other cheek. So often anger that flares has cooled by the next day, so turning the other cheek avoids acting out in the heat of the moment. But if you insist, we can fight it out . . . tomorrow.
Marcus Borg points out that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi said that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount provided the foundation for their political protests. And yet when we hear “turn the other cheek,” we hear a recommendation of passive acceptance of injustice and oppression. This is one of those times that examining the text in its cultural context becomes essential and every word counts.
Note that Jesus specifies that the person has been struck on the right cheek. If I were to reach out and slap someone with my right hand, I would hit their left cheek. To hit someone on the right cheek, I would either have to use my left hand . . . or . . . if I used my right hand, to get their right cheek, it would have to be a backhand blow. Here’s where context comes in. In that world, people did not use the left hand to strike people, because the left hand was reserved for “unseemly” uses. So being struck on the right cheek meant that one had been backhanded with the right hand, and a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior. In that day one fought social equals with their fists.
New Testament scholar Walter Wink says that the situation Jesus is describing is one of a superior is beating a peasant. What should the peasant do? “Turn the other check.” The only way the superior could continue the beating would be with an overhand blow with the fist, which in effect would mean treating the peasant as an equal.
Perhaps the beating would not have been stopped by this. But for the superior, it would at the very least have been disconcerting: he could continue the beating only by treating the peasant as a social peer. As Wink puts it, the peasant was in effect saying, “I am your equal. I refuse to be humiliated anymore.” That is not all. The sayings about “going the second mile” and “giving your cloak to one who sues you for your coat” make a similar point: they suggest creative non-violent ways of protesting oppression.
In God’s Kingdom ethics “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).
Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile.
If they ask you to do that, Jesus says, go ahead; but then carry their gear a second mile. Put them in a disconcerting situation: either they risk getting in trouble, or they will have to wrestle their gear back from you.
Under civil law, a coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, the coat often also served as a blanket at night. In that world, the only other garment typically worn by a peasant was an inner garment, a cloak. So if they take your coat, Jesus says, give them your cloak as well. “Strip naked,” as Wink puts it. Show them what the system is doing to you. Moreover, in that world, nakedness shamed the person who observed it.
Thus, these sayings from the Sermon on the Mount, these seemingly mild sayings, are actually potent ways of confounding and exposing injustice.
Some of us are encouraged by some very practical observations, especially when Jesus tells us that we are to love our enemies. Has anyone tried it? Does it work? Oscar Wilde said, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”
Former Boston Red Sox Hall-of-Fame third baseman Wade Boggs hated Yankee Stadium. Not because of the Yankees; they never gave him that much trouble but because of a fan. That’s right: one fan. The guy had a box seat close to the field, and when the Red Sox were in town he would torment Boggs by shouting obscenities and insults. It’s hard to imagine one fan getting under a player’s skin, but this guy had the recipe.
One day as Boggs was warming up, the fan began his routine, yelling, ‘Boggs, you stink’ and variations on that theme. Boggs had enough. He walked directly over to the man, who was sitting in the stands...and said, ‘Hey fella, are you the guy who’s always yelling at me? The man said, ‘Yeah, it’s me. What are you going to do about it?’ Wade took a new baseball out of his pocket, autographed it, tossed it to the man, and went back to the field to his pre-game routine. The man never yelled at Boggs again; in fact, he became one of Wade’s biggest fans at Yankee Stadium.
Love your enemies. It might change them, and we know it will change you.
In his book The Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner says that “The love for equals is a human thing — of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.
“The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing — the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.
“The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing — to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints.
“And then there is the love for the enemy — love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer.
This is God’s love. It conquers the world.