February 23, 2014
“The Hardest Commandment”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This is where it starts getting really hard – this part of the Sermon on the Mount. We have reached the end of the antitheses which are these teachings that start with Jesus saying, “you have heard it said . . . but I say” where Jesus takes something that we heard before and amplifies it in a way that seems nearly impossible for us to obey.
So we can read all these new commands from Jesus and take them in a couple different ways. We can take this as Jesus is making following him all about being perfect moral people, doing everything right, which is often how Christians are painted.
Or, we can take this as Jesus making us feel so completely inadequate to do any of these things he is telling us to do, that we will run into the arms of God begging for grace.
Or, Jesus is telling us these things to show us the heart of God – that God created us for himself, to be his beloved, and to live as if each person we meet is also God’s beloved . . . and honestly that is really hard to hold on to sometimes when our spouse or ex-spouse is making life hell for us, or our passive aggressive co-worker is undermining everything we do, or so called friends take our secrets out into the open air. It is really hard to love those who seem to be against you or your loved ones.
I think it is easier to understand what Jesus is trying to get at if we have a little more context.
So Jesus says, “You have heard eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” and we hear that and think how punitive Old Testament laws were, when in actuality this principle called lex talionis was instituted to maintain justice, to prevent retaliation – you could only return to someone the harm that they did to you, and not more.
Because, truthfully, retaliation never ends it – because the harm that I have done to me in retaliation never in my mind is as bad as the harm that I did, and so I want to even things out. There is the famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, two families who lived across the border between West Virginia and Kentucky, which resulted in a number of deaths and US Supreme Court case as the families exacted revenge for harms done, and apparently it all started with an argument over ownership of a pig.
So Jesus tells us that eye for an eye doesn’t go far enough – and this is where some of us can get stuck – if we are attacked, we should not defend ourselves? It makes it sound as if we should be weak and vulnerable.
And here is where context helps us understand. The phrase, “do not resist an evil person” should be more accurately translated: “Do not violently resist the evil one.” Do not return violence for violence. There are other forms of resistance, other ways to react which Jesus describes.
“Whoever strikes you to the right cheek, turn to him the other.” People in ancient times did not initiate action with their left hand since the left hand was considered unclean. If they were going to strike someone, they would do it with their right hand which would land on the left cheek.
The only way to strike another person on their right cheek is by back-handing the person, which is an insult, an expression of dominance.
In the first century, the people most likely to be back-handed were slaves, women, children, and people considered somehow “lesser” than their Roman overlords.
Jesus does not counsel passivity in the face of insult–quite the opposite. If someone backhands you on the right cheek, lift your head back up, turn your cheek and expose the left one as well. You have dignity as a human being. Don’t let someone else take that away from you. Don’t hang your head and accept servility. Stand there with head held high. That way, you are defining your own self and not letting someone else define you as “lesser.” This is how to resist evil non-violently.
“If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” This refers to the practice of angereia. The Romans made it a law that they could press anyone into service, i.e. make them carry a soldier’s gear, for one mile. (The typical Roman soldier’s gear weighed about 70 pounds.) This is what allowed the Romans to make Simon of Cyrene carry Jesus’ cross (Mark 15: 21). Pressing Jews into service was widely practiced throughout the country–and widely resented. Carrying the soldier’s gear an additional mile has nothing to do with impressing a Roman soldier, it was an assertion of independence and personal autonomy in a situation that is ordinarily dehumanizing.
So you see that what Jesus is asking of us takes strength, immense God-given strength, when we are facing personal insult – when hit, we usually just want to hit back (I’ll bring in my children to demonstrate), when insulted, we want to insult back, when hurt, we want to hurt back.
And that brings us to our enemies. The word “enemy” seems like a strong word these days.
When we think about the Bible there are plenty of enemies to be found.
Cain hated Abel so he killed him. King Saul hated David for stealing the hearts of the people with his winning ways and tried to kill him every chance he got. Saul of Tarsus hated the followers of Jesus because he thought they were blasphemers and heretics and made a career of rounding them up so they could be stoned to death like Stephen. By and large most of us don’t have enemies like that anymore.
And when we look at history and think about people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who preached a wonderful sermon on this passage, we know who he was up against, people who hated him because of the color of his skin.
There have been times in history when it was very clear who an enemy was. Who are our enemies now? It would be pleasant to think that because we’re more civilized nowadays it is harder to call people our enemies, but maybe it’s only because we’re less honest.
We tend to avoid violent outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we hate, we’re less likely to bear arms against them and more likely to bear grudges.
I think it is more helpful to think of enemies as those we don’t consider as belonging to us. The people hearing this sermon originally would have heard all their lives, love your kin, love those who belong with you – and the unspoken rule which Jesus puts into words is, to hate those who are not your people, those you consider to be outsiders.
In our lives there are people who have made themselves outsiders to us – the bully at school, a strict parent, people on the other side of the world who hate us, a family member we are estranged from, that person at work we cannot stand.
Enemy is a strong word, but Jesus uses it and thereby eliminates the category of people we cannot love.
Martin Luther King Jr. makes a good distinction in his sermon on this – he says that love is not the same thing as like: “It’s significant that [Jesus]T does not say, ‘Like your enemy.’ Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing.
I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape [love] in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘Love your enemy.’ This is the way to do it.”
And why are we called to love our enemies? Jesus tells us to pray for those who oppose you so that you may be the children of God – so that you may be who you were created to be.
The Message paraphrase of the Bible is helpful here: “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.”
So there’s the point – this is what God does, he sends sunshine and rain, two kinds of blessings, on every person regardless of what they have done, and we are God’s people, so we are called to do the same. Let me give you a quick and lighthearted example of what this might look like.
In her book 7, Jen Hatmaker shares the story of how her daughter Sydney prayed about forgiving a classmate who had been mean as the devil to her. Jen writes, “I had previously considered: 1) whispering to this kid that I’m sending psychotic fairies into her room at night, or 2) just barely nicking her with my car, not enough to sustain a serious injury but enough to send a message. Evidently prayer was a better option.” Sydney came home the next day and said, “Mom! You won’t believe this! Out of nowhere, Jill said, “I’m really sorry I’ve been so mean to you. I don’t even know why I acted that way. I really want to your friend if you’ll forgive me.”
Jesus says we are called to love more than just those people who love us back – we are called to be perfect. And that is another hard thing. What does Jesus mean by perfect?
When we hear that, most of us hear a command to a kind of moral perfectionism.
But that’s not actually what the original language implies. “Perfect,” in this case, stems from telos, the Greek word for “goal,” “end,” or “purpose.” The sense of the word is more about becoming what was intended, accomplishing one’s God-given purpose. The Message paraphrase again gets closer to the mark here: “You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity.”
The take home message is that the Sermon on the Mount is there for the purpose of being done. So in these final moments of this sermon, this is your chance to commit to do one thing – to pick one relationship to pray for, to choose one act of love to actually do in real life with a person who you don’t consider “your people.”
And I’m going to close with Martin Luther King Jr’s powerful words: “So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”
And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom.
We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.”