SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
We live in troubled times. Sometimes it feels like everywhere I look I see increasing injustice in our communities, our country, our world, and even in our church. Hatred is spread daily through the media as entertainment and news. I wonder about what is true or not. Phrases like’ alternative truth’ or ‘post truth’, or ‘core and non-core promises’ litter our language and our experiences and we look at others with mistrust and caution and we are no longer aware of it.
The challenge today for all of us is to hear Jesus’ words with fresh ears and look at ourselves with fresh eyes; to be prepared to listen as though we were hearing his words on the use of retaliation and vengeance, ‘loving our enemies’ for the first time and be prepared to be startled.
Jesus’ directive on turning the other cheek is an act of incredible defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. It is totally counter-cultural, and is as radical a way of actively seeking justice that I have heard of anywhere.
Jesus’ examples highlight a steady, nonviolent means of holding up a mirror to the perpetrator of the original act of violence; as a way of inviting them to stop and think about what they are doing.
As I understand it, being hit in the face with a fist and then turning the other cheek requires the fist to be turned into an open hand with which to hit the other cheek which then becomes a back handed slap. Such a slap in Jesus’ time, was an insult rather than a settling of a dispute with an equal, an act of contempt that was culturally shameful as only slaves would have been treated like that. However, to turn the other cheek would be to respond without violence and, even more importantly, it does not accept such an abuse and misuse of power.
The ability to demand a cloak, an outer garment as restitution was legally allowed in payment of a debt; but to take the coat, the inner garment or tunic, was not permitted; as reducing someone to nakedness to recover a debt was not legal.
To give your coat as well as your cloak, was to show up the dishonourable, disrespectful behaviour. To give away your legal right to enforce the limit was again to respond without violence or abject humiliation.
Jesus’ third example refers to the Roman practice of conscripting civilians to carry a soldier’s pack. One mile was legal, anymore was not. To go a second mile willingly was to submit voluntarily to a Roman’s failure to comply with this limit and once again, was showing a different way of behaving in response to violence when living in a culture of violence.
We all know violence frequently leads to greater violence, we just need to look at the wars in which we have participated in the last 15 years.
How rare are the stories about those who willingly give up the opportunity to demand violent punishment as part of the search for justice?
Gandhi freely attributed his use of non-violent resistance to injustice to Jesus’ teachings. Gandhi said the gospels were wasted on Christians because they had not understood the teachings. Martin Luther King’s resistance to apartheid in the US was also an outworking of this teaching.
We had to make it clear […] nonviolent resistance is not a method of cowardice. It does resist.
Another thing [..] we had to get over was the fact that the nonviolent resister does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent but seeks to win his friendship and understanding… The aftermath of non-violence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community. It is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor but the end is reconciliation. The end is redemption.”
(p. 12 in “The Power of Nonviolence” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington,)
Martin Luther King here points to the most critical part of Jesus’ teaching, the purpose is not simply to humiliate and punish the oppressor, the one we hate, our enemy, the ‘other’. The purpose is to establish peace and reconciliation, and learning to love our enemies as ourselves.
And that does not mean simply being polite about them in public and railing against them in private, or celebrating when misfortune strikes them; but seriously, genuinely being concerned and loving them, because it is through our response that we ourselves as Christians, individually are changed, and our lives transformed,
We are confronted by and involved daily with violence. The small petty violences caused by gossip and judgement we inflict on others or which are inflicted on us; the dismissal of people we dislike or don’t want in our group, who are different because of gender, race, religion, sexuality, wealth and poverty, education or employment are examples of violent behaviour.
There is the violence in our homes whether we’re simply rude with our families, through to the use of physical and sexual violence. There is also the daily violence we see in the media, in our entertainment, in our workplaces and finally in the ways we use and accept slavery in our consumption of goods and our accumulation and desire for wealth, all of which we no longer see and instead accept as normal.
When I listen to the horrific stories of the failures of our church and its leadership, I wonder when we might reflect that we are walking in darkness instead of light.
That perhaps we are the evildoers rather than those who bring hope as people who are salt and light. And perhaps it is ourselves that need God’s love and forgiveness and redemption rather than some ‘other’.
Because we are still surprised to find that this group of evil-doers often includes ourselves.
I was recently asked by a parishioner, to help resolve a dispute and I said to one of the parties, after listening to the story, ‘can you imagine saying ‘sorry’ first?’ And I was immediately reminded that the other person was the one at fault, the one telling me the story had apparently been the only one who had been wronged. The suggestion was dismissed. There was a horrified reaction, how could I suggest such a thing; it would show weakness, it would let the other get away with the behaviour, it would not give any sense of justice, it would be altogether wrong. And I wondered at what being a Christian is about?
I asked what would happen if there was no forgiveness and no reconciliation.
I wondered where does the change start first? Surely it must be with ourselves and not with the ‘other’.
I wonder when we might realise we might need to say sorry without counting the cost, offering forgiveness without measuring the frequency, as often, in fact as Jesus asked of us, 7 x 70 times and more.
I wonder in my sadder moments, if we think about when our demands for our rights might have turned us into the soldier in Jesus’ example, or the one who is taking the other to court, or even the one who is demanding restitution to the point of bankrupting the other in our search for righteous vengeance and justice.
Those who are lost in violence and poverty of mind, body and spirit require continuous exposure to God’s love, and that requires us to be renewed and changed by God too.
God’s love not only transcends the need to retaliate when wrong has been done to us; it also compels us to love those who have wronged us.
Love opens our eyes and our hearts to seek justice for all people and work for change in the world.
This starts with you and I as individuals, who seek to love God with all our hearts, minds, bodies and souls and to love our neighbours and our enemies as ourselves.
Evil is overcome with good, not another stronger version of evil. So breaking the cycle is Jesus’ idea. Break the cycle with your estranged partner, friend, your child, your work colleague, your neighbour. With God’s love, you can do it and be the ‘different’ one. The burden of hatred and enmity is so enormous, that the liberation you experience with God’s love when you put it down is transformational.
Our prayers allow us to take small steps each day. Not with self-righteousness but with humility and with God’s loving help.
Our character as Christians, being Christ-like, should reflect the character of God, like Jesus. In loving our enemies, we reflect the nature of God, whose love extends to all.
In a way, we need to be such a different church community, so counter-cultural, because of God’s love, that others will want to be a part of it and work for God’s kingdom with us.
We need to live in such a way that people seek us out to offer their time, their talents, their gifts to promote such a church in the world today.
Brothers and Sisters, if you can imagine that being our reality, then you have heard what it is that Jesus has said, ‘love your enemies’ and ‘be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ and you know it is a reality because you know God loves you.
May the Lord be with you.