Let’s start by acknowledging how hard this is.
Matthew Chapters 5-7. The Sermon on the Mount. The Beatitudes. It all sounds so harmless, so poetic. Lovely titles for impossible demands.
This long series of Jesus’ teachings, from which our Gospel readings have come for the last four weeks, starts with paradox – blessed are the poor in spirit – and proceeds to the unthinkable. Rejoice when you are reviled? Keep every jot and tittle of the 600 plus demands of the Law of Moses? Pluck out your own eye if you have a lustful thought?
And now, today’s verses ask us to forgive our oppressors, to love our enemies, and to be perfect as God is perfect.
OK, right about now you might reasonably be planning to spend future Sunday mornings watching the talk shows and drinking good coffee. Because this stuff is too hard. Jesus, you call us to follow you, but then you ask us to do totally unreasonable things. As the disciples once complained, “This teaching is difficult: who can accept it?”
The church has put a lot of effort over the centuries into interpreting the sting out of these teachings, to make Christianity seem easy, compatible with business as usual, a set of intellectual propositions, rather than what it is: a transformative and counter-intuitive way of being that defies convention and sets expectations of our behavior that we cannot possibly match.
The Gospel continues a theme of the Leviticus reading, which gives us a tiny sliver of the pages and pages of the Holiness Code, a section of the Law of Moses that lays out how the people of God are supposed to live. Where Leviticus says, “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” Jesus exhorts his followers to “be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Holy or perfect, both seem equally out of reach for most of us.
I need to point out that the last verse of our Gospel passage is translated in a way that doesn’t convey the full meaning of what Jesus said. “Perfect” here refers to reaching a goal or completing a task. Perfection as we understand it wasn’t even a concept in the ancient Jewish world. There was no Hebrew word for it. Jesus is however suggesting something equally unachievable: we are to imitate the characteristics of God: unconditional love, compassion, and generosity, we are to be indiscriminate in our inclusion. The scholar Walter Wink suggests this translation: “you must be all-inclusive, as your heavenly Abba is all-inclusive.”
It’s helpful for us to identify the people addressed in each of these texts. In Leviticus, Moses addresses people who are privileged and influential in their community: landowners, employers, judges. The admonitions in those verses are for those who affect the lives of others. By contrast, in Matthew, Jesus is talking to the dispossessed poor, people who are beaten down by military occupation, who have nothing of value left but their dignity and their hope that God hasn’t abandoned them. And he’s apparently asking them to submit to further abuse.
As we read these texts we do well to remember that most of us here are privileged by any global standard. It’s hard for us to enter imaginatively into the mindset of someone who is not so privileged. This month our adult formation program is exploring the theme of reconciliation by focusing on race. Our Sunday forums have been opening our eyes to what it’s like to be in a place of powerlessness in this powerful nation, giving us a glimpse of another kind of existence, a life more like that of Jesus’ listeners than most of our lives or the lives of ancient judges and landowners.
This context gives us different questions to ask of the text. How do you offer the other cheek to the rogue police officer who threatens you with violence? How do you give more than the predatory lender demands? How do you offer extra effort to the employer who routinely expects you to work overtime for no additional pay? How can any of this be the way God wants us to live? This is a real struggle for people of faith. How can such submission affirm your identity as a beloved child of God, made in God’s image?
The answer lies in knowing the historical context of Jesus’s words, and there is good news here. Jesus offers those who feel powerless the gift of affirming their own humanity, their own inestimable value in the eyes of their creator. He offers the gift of living fully as a child of God in the midst of a sinful and broken world.
To slap someone on the right cheek, using the right hand (which would always be the case in the middle east), would require a back-handed blow, which was only used in the Roman Empire to admonish an inferior. So a backhand slap is intended to humiliate, to put someone in their place. When you as that someone turn the other cheek you are saying, “Try again. You have not taken away my dignity. You have not shamed me. I am still as human as you are.”
The other two examples – being forced to hand over your clothing or go the extra mile – likewise refer in the Biblical context to actions designed to shame and humiliate people who were lower on the social scale than the perpetrators. By showing willingness to go further than the oppressor forces us to go, we assert our dignity. In teaching us that we can choose to love those who hate us and dismiss our humanity, Jesus teaches us to reclaim our agency and reject the identity of victim. And loving our enemies, for Jesus, is about our actions, not about our feelings.
Last week I saw the movie “Fences”, an adaptation of the August Wilson play. The main character, played brilliantly by Denzel Washington, is an African-American man who believes his early hopes and aspirations were destroyed by racial prejudice, and whose anger over this injustice continues to simmer under the surface, doing terrible damage to his relationship with his teenage son. It seems that the only way he can maintain his self-image as a man with dignity and worth is to dominate and control his son. At a critical moment in the story, the son confronts his father with a question, “How come you don’t like me?” I don’t think there was a single person in the theater whose heart didn’t crack when we heard that question.
As we awaited the father’s response I found myself sitting forward in my seat, longing to say to him, “Tell him about love. Find it within yourself to acknowledge the love for your son that we all know is buried deep within your heart. Don’t let this opportunity for transformation go by.”
You will have to see the movie or the play for yourself if you want to know the father’s answer.
For people who follow Jesus, love is the answer. We serve one who actually did turn the other cheek, did bless those who persecuted him, did pray for his enemies and even gave his life for people who were indifferent and unappreciative.
The way to follow Jesus is to learn to love as he loves. It’s a hard lesson and we resist it mightily, because we want to see justice done: we don’t want the wicked to prosper; we want to keep our hard-earned cash for ourselves. We know we can’t be perfect in this life, and that knowledge, honestly faced, is what drives us into the embrace of one who will love us anyway, and who will, to our dismay, love just as much the people we despise and condemn.
God loves everyone with equal unbridled, undeserved, extravagant love. This is an essential part of God’s nature. We will never be completely confident of God’s love for us while we deny God’s love for our enemies, because that opens the possibility that God might not love us.
Martin Luther once wrote, “This life is not a state of being righteous, but rather of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming; not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity; we are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it. The process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better. All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.”
And so we strive for that goal, because we are holy people who belong to a holy God, temples of the Holy Spirit, striving to love our neighbor and our enemy as God loves us, and learning to trust in the one who made us, who heals us, and will never let us go.
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges
February 19 2017