Each spring we spend an extended amount of time in one of the gospels, and this year it is the gospel of Matthew. The author of this gospel goes out of his way to connect Jesus’ life, experiences, and ministry to the experiences of the ancient Hebrew people. For the next several weeks we are going to study together some highlights from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The original law in the Old Testament was given by God to Moses on the Mountain of Sinai. This was the 10 Commandments and around 600 other laws that together make up what Jews call the Torah. The Sermon on the Mount is given by Jesus to a large and diverse crowd of people on some unspecified mountain. In it, Jesus is revealing to his followers the principles behind the Old Testament laws.
The Old Testament Law was given to the ancient Hebrew people as they came out of slavery in Egypt, for their own well-being and as a testimony to the other people groups who lived around them. While in slavery, the ancient Hebrew people had been denied the opportunity to build their own society, so God gave them a solid foundation to start from. But a system of rules, no matter how complex, will always be inadequate. As we mature, we must learn how to decide what to do, not just what not to do. From the beginning God knew that the rules would never get us as far as we need to go, and so with extravagant love and grace, at just the right time, God revealed to us the principle behind the rule by sending Jesus to show us what the principles look like in human form.
Last fall we talked about how covenants shape our identity and our conduct, how living in covenant with God and one another changes who we are and how we choose to live in the world. Jesus is revealed to us as the covenant in human form – he shows us exactly what it looks like for a human being to live completely in line with God’s law of love. In the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Jesus came to affirm that every bit of what was in the Old Testament covenant Law was good and right. It’s just that we can’t ever follow all of those rules. So as the covenant in human form, Jesus shows us the principles behind the rules. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sums up the inclusive, loving, healing, restorative principles that direct life in the revolutionary Kingdom of God, which Matthew’s Gospel calls the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus invites regular folks like us to actually live out these principles, right here and right now. Because when we live this way, the Kingdom of Heaven is revealed through us.
This week we are going to jump into the middle of the Sermon on the Mount to hear the most radical thing that Jesus ever said. It’s in Matthew chapter 5, verses 38 through 48. Jesus says a lot of great things. But this is world-changing, mess-with-your-head, everybody’s-going-to-hate-this, radical. It’s so good. “Let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
Mohandas Ghandi famously said that “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” And with all respect to the Mahatma, that’s not technically true. We think this “an eye for an eye” rule is about what we are allowed to do to each other. But originally it was about what God’s people were NOT allowed to do to each other. As barbaric as it sounds to us, “an eye for an eye” was an attempt to limit the cycle of violence.
Think about it: Our natural reaction when someone hurts us is to hurt them worse so they don’t ever try to do it again. If you poke out one of my eyes, I’m going to poke not just one but both of yours so maybe you won’t mess with me again! This response is true whether we’re talking about violence, or insults on social media, or international relations. We don’t just retaliate in kind; we escalate as a deterrent. So God gave the ancient Hebrews a rule against that. “An eye for an eye” was a click forward in human social development—only one for only one, and then it stops. God was trying to interrupt our natural cycle of ever-increasing violence. Very good rule. But then Jesus clicked it forward again.
In verse 38 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” At first glance, this seems confusing because there are other biblical texts that clearly tell us to resist evil. As Christian we are called to do justice. What Jesus is saying here is that we must not violently resist the person doing the evil. Because the person is not the same as the evil. Now this is a massive shift in thought that came about in the Jesus-following community, and we still struggle with it today. There is a difference between a person and the evil things they do. But then this begs the question: how do we resist the evil without resisting the person?
What Jesus describes next are principles for creative nonviolent resistance. These are principles for living faithfully in a faithless world. They work in both our private interactions and our public life, if we are brave enough to apply them. Jesus is the master social commentator. As he guides us towards abundant life in our interpersonal relationships, he simultaneously calls out the larger system of injustice without ever saying the name “Roman empire.”
Here at Zion we are committed to doing justice, to loving mercy, and to walking humbly with God. Jesus’ principles for creative nonviolent resistance will help us be the people that we want to be, the people that we know God is calling us to be. We want to resist evil without doing violence to people. So what are these principles for creative nonviolent resistance?
The first principle is that creative nonviolent resistance upholds human dignity. Verse 39 says, “If anyone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.” How does this work?
So you are facing me, where is your right cheek? What are my options for how to hit your cheek? I could use My left hand to slap it or punch it. But in the ancient world you would NEVER use your left hand to reach out to another person. So the only other way I could hit you on your right cheek would be to backhand you with my right hand. Got it?
Now, a backhand slap is the way a master hits a slave, or a cruel adult hits a child, or a Nazi guard hits a pastor in a concentration camp. It’s how you hit someone weaker than you are, someone less human. It’s designed to humiliate someone as much as physically hurt them. And if you are the one receiving the strike, what do you do about it?
Jesus says the creative, nonviolent, uplifting response is not to strike back. It is for you to turn your head so that if I strike you again, I will have to slap or punch you on your left cheek with my right hand. This is the way equals hit each other. Without saying a word or hitting back, just by turning the other cheek, you have just proved that you are equal in every way to this evil doer. You have upheld your human dignity, by refusing to accept humiliation. And now it’s a whole new ballgame. Creative nonviolent resistance always upholds human dignity.
The second principle of creative nonviolent resistance is to expose the system of injustice. Verse 40 says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” This situation is about being in court for a debt that you are unable to repay. The ordinary folk Jesus was talking to were in debt because they couldn’t make enough to live on, because the system was stacked against them. Their last resort was to take out a loan in order to survive. These loans had exorbitant, predatory, payday-lending interest rates; so that once you took out a loan, it was very difficult to repay it. Of course you could choose to not take out a loan, but if you didn’t have the payment for Roman tax collectors and their Jewish collaborators, they might just go ahead and take your livestock … or your house … or your daughter. People were caught in a cycle of oppression and poverty and the empire’s system was designed to never work in their favor. So eventually people wound up in court.
In this case your outer garment has been demanded as payment, which is pretty bad because this is your more valuable garment and what you use to keep warm at night. In fact, in the Old Testament Law, if a very poor person gave her outer garment as collateral, the lender had to return it each night so that the one in debt could still sleep in it.
So what happens once you get to court? You are guilty of defaulting on your loan and forced to hand over your collateral.
BUT instead of just handing over your outer garment, you go ahead and <tap self> hand over your inner garment as well, which leaves you buck naked in the middle of the courtroom. Which … is … awkward, and embarrassing for you.
And yet, in the ancient world, your nakedness was a bigger problem for the one who was left holding your garment than it was for you. In the ancient world, the bulk of the shame fell on the one who looked at your nakedness or even worse, caused your nakedness. My friends, this is excellently risky, gutsy, creative nonviolent resistance! What really gets “exposed” here is not you, but the injustice of the system and of those participating in it! Creative nonviolent resistance exposes the injustice built into the system.
The third principle of Creative nonviolent resistance is to turn the tables. Verse 41 says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” It was common practice in the ancient world for Roman soldiers to conscript people into carrying the soldier’s gear, which could weigh up to 80 pounds! It was a terrible abuse of power, that the people obviously hated and tried to avoid at all costs.
But Jesus’ bizarre response to this forced labor is to literally go the extra mile. In this moment of nonviolent resistance, the tables are turned. Suddenly the one who was in charge, the soldier who forced the labor, is in the position of having to try to get his own pack back! Suddenly the soldier has no idea what’s going on here. Does this peasant not understand how things work? Does she want to be paid? Is she trying to keep the supplies? Is she looking for ways to get the soldier in trouble? The soldier is baffled! Your choosing to do something is a completely different experience from someone forcing you to do it, and it throws the evil doer completely off balance. Creative nonviolent resistance turns the tables and throws the power dynamic off balance.
After describing how nonviolent resistance upholds human dignity, exposes the injustice in the system and turns the tables on power, Jesus offers one more example: but this one is different. In the first three, he has put his audience members in the less powerful position, they are the ones being put upon. But in this final example, Jesus demonstrates how the principle of nonviolent resistance holds true no matter who has the power.
Verse 42 says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” In this case, the borrowers have become the lenders. Those who’ve been stomped on are now wearing the boots. And what are they going to do?
Creative nonviolent resistance is a principle for the oppressed and the oppressors. Unless we push against it, the system of our world traps both the oppressed and the oppressors. Now if you are oppressed, it can be really hard to see how the oppressors might be trapped, because don’t they have all the power? Kind of. Think for a second about how strong our cultural conditioning is: in order to stay safe, which we are all naturally inclined to do, they have to play by the rules of the system. Resistance is actually a courageous act, regardless of the side you are on. For those with privilege, the principle of nonviolent resistance is to resist the temptation to oppress others.
Now we come to the core of the issue, the core of text, and the very center of Jesus’ radical message: verse 43 “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ (Duh!) But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” This word perfect, means complete, whole, mature—in essence able to live by principles instead of following rules.
Right here with Jesus is the first-ever recorded example of loving your enemies, not as a trick, and not as a way to get a reward from God, but because it’s the most human way to live. If we really want to change the world, loving our enemies is the only way to do it. Anything less radical will not be enough. Jesus has just finished describing the cycle of violence that gets perpetuated when we take an eye for an eye. Loving our enemies is the only way to finally end that cycle once and for all. The principles of creative nonviolent resistance are actually ways to love our enemies.
When we love enemies, WE uphold THEIR human dignity, not just our own. We expose the unjust system as an act of love because it helps them see how harmful their complicity is TO THEM. We turn the tables and demonstrate how many different options there are in a situation that seems to have only one outcome. And when we finally get some power, we refuse the temptation to treat others the way we’ve been treated.
This kind of behavior is shocking. It is counter-cultural. It is complete, mature, and as perfect as the love of God. It will stand out in a society powered by a system that runs at cross purposes to the Gospel.
The hard truth about loving our enemies is that sometimes it’s going to cost us. Your enemies may beat you; they may force you into backbreaking labor; they may humiliate you; they may take the very shirt off your back. And in that moment the very power of God alive in you will empower you to experience it without flinging it back at them. You will nonviolently resist evil, without violently resisting the person.
Far from being a weak activity, this is the strongest thing a human being can do. It takes far more courage, integrity, steadfastness, and faith, to see injustice for what it is and to let your very body be the site of revealing its evil. And when we choose to do that, we will be in VERY GOOD company. Because that was the path chosen by Jesus himself. He loved his enemies so much that he let his own body be the site where all that is evil in our world was finally revealed and proved to be powerless.
As we engage in acts of creative nonviolent resistance in our private and public lives, we may feel like we are making a spectacle of ourselves. But really, we will be following the example of our elder brother Jesus, making a spectacle of the system that is designed for our destruction. Although it may cost us our very lives, we will not fear, because this weak system of greed and fear and shame will ultimately give way to the Kingdom of Heaven, full of justice, peace, and love. Nothing can stop the movement of God in our world. Amen.