(The Rev. David J. Ware’s sermon from 2/19/17)
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ inaugural address, one of the most revolutionary statements ever uttered, and the portion (5:38-48) distills three full chapters of Matthew to their essence.
Let’s go step by step. The traditional interpretation of “do not resist an evildoer” has been non-resistance to evil, which is an odd conclusion, since on all other occasions Jesus resisted evil with every fiber of his being. The Greek word translated here as “resist” literally means “to stand against,” and it is most often used as a technical term for warfare: it describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other until their ranks met. There on the battlefield, they would “take a stand,” which is to say they would begin fighting. By using this idiom, Jesus clearly has resistance in mind, so how did readers come to interpret this as an invitation to non-resistance?
You’ll love this: the translators working for the King of England on what came to be known as the King James Bible were following orders, and the king did not want his subjects to think they had any recourse against his or any other sovereign’s power. James commissioned a new translation, because he held to the divinity of kingship, and he regarded as “seditious, dangerous, and traitorous” tendencies recorded in the Geneva Bible (James quoted in The Greatest English Classic), which endorsed the right of disobedience against a miscreant leader.
(The Geneva Bible was published 51 years prior to the King James Version and was written by a group of dissenters who had fled England and the sovereign and settled in Switzerland. The Geneva Bible was the one used by Shakespeare and Oliver Cromwell and John Donne.) So since the Geneva Bible authorized the right to disobey a tyrant, King James pointedly asked his editors to endorse the right of kings. According to Walter Wink, “the public had to be made to believe that there are two responses (to violence) and only two: fight or flight.” (Jesus’ Third Way) So in the King James Version, Jesus is made to command us to not take a stand, to not resist, to submit. In this choice of words, Jesus appears to authorize the absolute right of the one in power; according to these translators, submission is the will of God.
That shift is still recorded in “do not resist an evildoer,” and not only is it confusing when laid alongside the other teachings of Jesus, it has been used to horrible effect, admonishing battered women to stay in abusive relationships, factory workers to cease from organizing, African-Americans to put up with their mistreatment, children to be seen but not heard.
But Jesus is not telling us to submit to evil here–to “not resist an evildoer” per se. He is saying to refuse to oppose evil on its own terms. The point is “we are not to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition. Jesus is urging us to transcend both passivity and violence by finding a third way, one that is at once assertive and yet non-violent.” (Wink) A better translation of “do not resist an evil doer” would be, “Do not repay evil for evil.”
The examples that follow in the text confirm this reading. To understand the admonition, “turn the other cheek,” it is essential to note that the response follows a blow to the right cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist, you have to use the left hand, but that gesture would be unlikely in Jesus’ culture, not only because most people are right-handed, but also because the left hand was used for unclean tasks. So, to hit the other’s right cheek with the likely hand, the only feasible blow is a backhand, and a backhand is used not to injure, but to insult or humiliate or degrade. You don’t hit an equal with a backhand, but an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves in that culture, as well as husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The point of the backhand blow is to put someone back into his place.
Jesus’ audience was used to being degraded, so he is saying, “Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” But how? He must have acted this out for them, because it really only makes sense when you see it. “By turning the other cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way… And the left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist. But only equals fought with fists, so the servant has “won”: the last thing the master wants to do is treat his underling as a peer.” (Wink, Transforming Bible Study) By turning the other cheek, the inferior is saying, “I am a human being just like you, and I refuse to be humiliated. I am a child of God and your equal. I won’t take it anymore.” Without resorting to violence, without sinking to the enemy’s level, the would-be victim wins.
And when large numbers begin behaving this way, and Jesus is speaking to a crowd here, you have a movement on your hands. The people have found their voice over against a power-hungry monarch. Is it any surprise that the patriots in America appealed to scriptures of this kind in their Boston tea party? Gandhi, too, taught that “the first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.” (Gandhi on Nonviolence, Thomas Merton)
Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence is set in a court of law: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.” The scene here is a creditor who has taken a poor person to court over an unpaid loan, and only the poorest of the poor were subjected to this kind of treatment. Jewish law provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s long outer coat, but the law went on to say that the coat had to be returned each evening so that one would have something in which to sleep. The cloak in this reading is the poor person’s underwear. So why does Jesus counsel him to give over even his undergarments?
When you see that the picture here is of the man stripping off all of his clothing and marching out of court stark naked, you begin to realize that again Jesus is counseling a clever non-violent response. Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and importantly, shame fell less on the naked party than on the person who views or causes the nakedness. So by stripping in this way at an unfair demand, the debtor, the poorest of the poor, has brought shame on the greedy creditor.
The third example requires remembering that the gospels take place in a setting of military occupation, (Israel is a vassal state of Rome), and knowing the practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced labor a Roman soldier could levy on a subject. Anyone found on the street could be coerced into this kind of service, as was Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross on the way to his crucifixion. In this context of occupation, Jesus suggests that you’ll throw the oppressor off balance if you offer to do more than expected. “Hey soldier… Thanks for asking me to carry your 100 pound pack for you. No Problem. Now I’ll just carry it another mile.” Surely the audience was chuckling to itself at this picture: imagine a seemingly invincible Roman soldier pleading with a scruffy Jewish peasant to give him back his pack.
To those whose pattern had been to cringe before a tyrant, Jesus offers a way to liberate themselves. There was no reason to wait until Rome had fallen, until peasants had land, or until slaves were freed. Jesus’ first followers could claim their dignity and recover their humanity, and we can do the same thing now. The kingdom of God is breaking into the old order, not as an imposition from on high, but as leaven slowly causing the dough to rise. The little ones can do something big…the poor in fact and the poor in spirit can be literally subversive, using words from below to redefine power altogether. And those who have been denied a voice or those who stand with the silenced don’t have to perpetuate the problem: We can resist the enemy without becoming like him, if we will turn from hate and fear. Pogo looked in the mirror 50 years ago and said, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” and Jesus says “So is your neighbor. Now love them both.” A third way, neither fighting nor fleeing, but engaging as equals, ennobling ourselves and the other, maybe one day embracing, allows both sides to win.
In Rumours of Another World, Philip Yancey tells this story from South Africa. In one of the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, organized by Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, a policeman named Van de Broek recounted for the commission how he, together with other officers, had shot at point blank range an 18 year old boy, and then burned his body to destroy the evidence. The policeman went on to describe how eight years later, he returned to the boy’s home and forced his mother to watch as he likewise killed her husband.
The judge asked, “What do you want from this man,” and the courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman responded. “I want him to go to the place where my husband was burned, and gather up the dust there so that I can give him a decent burial.” The policeman nodded in assent. After a silence the woman continued, “Mr. Van de Broek took all my family away from me, but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to my home and spend a day with me, so I can be a mother to him. (For him to turn out like he did, he must not have had the mothering that he needs.) And I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him now so he can know my forgiveness is real.”
That is redefining power. We don’t love our enemies because they deserve it. We love them because they are our sisters and brothers. We love them because God loves us, wounded and vengeful and scruffy as we are. Jesus said, “You are familiar with the old written rule, ‘Love your neighbor’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I am challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.”
For the last 3 years, Redeemer has offered a lay-led support group for those in our church and greater community that have experienced grief and loss. Called Sacred Space for Grace, Dorcas Hutton and the Rev. Joanne Tetrault initiated this wonderful program. Both are graduates of the Loyola Pastoral Counseling Program. The baton of leadership has now passed to Redeemer members, Ruthie Cromwell, also a graduate of the Pastoral Counseling Program and Nancy Bowen who has her Bereavement Certificate from Gilchrist Hospice. Both Ruthie and Nancy are also completing a 30-week program at the Center for Spiritual Support Training at GBMC. Sacred Space for Grace is 6-week program that is free and open to the congregation as well as the public. It will meet Tuesdays from 10-11:30, beginning March 28 and ending May 2.
The issue of grieving in our society is one that is slowly coming into the public conversation. The growing recognition of the valuable role hospice is playing in the life-death cycle of our mortality is so important. To have the vulnerability to not only accept our true feelings around loss but then to share them in a small group is so healthy and reassuring. One key element of grieving is the temptation to avoid the emotions. No one will go through the process in the same manner but it can be helpful to have supportive understanding companions along the way. How comforting to know that you are not alone. Also, grieving and loss can occur not just with a death, but all kinds of other life changes as well.
I want to offer you a bit of wisdom from a book called “The Gift of Grief” by Matthew D. Gewirtz: There is no blessing in grief and loss. It hurts. That does not mean, however, that we should try to run away from the truth that the experience of suffering may offer us. What I will continue to offer is a discernment of the difference between getting through our grief and being transformed through our grief. There is a significant difference. With the former, we are doing anything we can to make life the same as it was before the tragedy. We keep ourselves busy when we should be mourning or sad. We just try to get through until we push it out of our minds, the pain ebbs, and we move on without healing from within. However, when we transform through suffering, we stay present in our pain. We can transform; we can transcend; but first we must have the fortitude to surrender to our new reality.”
The invitation to be transformed by our grief is what the Sacred Space for Grace offers. If you would like to register (space is limited) or have questions please contact me at email@example.com. Download the program flier here SSG FLIER Spring 2017.
Yesterday at The Gathering at Blakehurst, we read the first chapter of Joan Chittister’s book Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life.
The first chapter is called “The Light Found in Darkness” and includes a story of people who are fearful and anxious, students of a master teacher.
“Rabbi,” the students beg of their teacher who is dying. “How can we possibly go on when you are gone?”
Their teacher answers …
It is like this. Two people went into the forest together but only one carried a light. When they parted there, the one with the light went on ahead while the other floundered in the darkness.
The students respond, “Yes, that is how it is and that is why we are so frightened to be without you.”
Their teacher gazes at them, long and hard. Exactly. That is why you must each carry your own light within you.
When I was a little girl living in the Philippines, I always wanted to be carried by a woman named Nora. Nora was always smiling and laughing and dancing. And I wanted to be with her. I guess I gravitated to her light and her joy.
We all know, I think, what it feels like to be around someone who carries the light within them.
Perhaps it’s a child.
Perhaps it’s a teacher.
Perhaps it’s that person you sat next to yesterday or with whom you connected while you were out during errands.
I sat down next to someone last week whose peaceful, light-filled presence was palpable. Her presence, her speech, her words were clear and strong, compassionate and true, sending out ripples of peace and strength that touched everyone gathered around the table. I am not one to see auras or “haloes”, but I swear I saw — I felt — hers.
Be salt. Be light.
The thing is … the truth is … each of us really does carry this light within us. It is the truest, the deepest “stuff” of which we are made. And we know for ourselves what feeds this inner light and keeps it burning … and what doesn’t.
So here are a couple of invitations:
• I invite you to do at least one thing today that brings you deep peace, deep joy. (I promise you, dear reader, that today, I will dance to Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and snuggle with David, Grace and Ben.)
• And from that place of deep peace and deep joy, from that place of inner light, I invite you to engage in at least one action that shines light and spreads it to someone else who needs it. (I promise you, dear reader, that today, I will visit someone who is having a rough time and also write a public official to thank her for her courage.)
It is from that place of inner light and strength that renowned psychiatrist, author and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a [human being] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way…every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
The narrative of civilization is the story of people on the move: seeking food, fleeing war, chasing liberty, longing for home. Abram left Ur, the once proud city led by the Chaldeans, after it was burned by a rival army. Jacob sends his sons to Egypt because there is no food in Israel. Another famine has Naomi travel to Moab, where her husband dies and her foreign born daughter-in-law offers this sublime assertion of solidarity: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth has his family flee by night to escape Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. The Holy Family were refugees.
Safe harbor, then, is the dream of every sailor. Peace is the vision of every migrant and soldier. We believe there’s a place for us, and if it’s not ours to have or discover where we are, then we’ll risk almost everything to find it.
America is a country of immigrants, and all of us, in one way or another, are on a journey to a promised land. No wonder images of home resonate so deeply with us; on some level we are always trying to find our way there. Dig a little, and you realize that most of us left a narrow, painful place to come to this land of wide open promise, and if we didn’t, then our ancestors did. Some were forced here, and the tragedy of slavery propelled a new birth of freedom, calling us to create a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people. Even native peoples didn’t begin here, probably walking over a land bridge that once existed or traversing a narrow channel of water between Russia and Alaska, no doubt looking for their own ancient version of a better life.
The American story, then, is a spiritual story of hope.
So we stand with those fleeing violence. We stand with those who are tired or hungry or homeless. We stand with the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, because that is our country’s narrative of welcome. As Christians we stand with all those seeking safe harbor, especially now. The executive order issued last Friday afternoon traffics in a rhetoric of fear, but generous spirited Christians realize that evil is not out there in some enemy or foreign nation; rather we fight the good fight within ourselves. It is too easy to blame the other, yet history proves that strands of diversity weave our country’s vibrant fabric.
So we have to reclaim the vision: the success of representative democracy requires mutual respect, honoring differences, knowing that the happiness of any one is dependent on the plight of the many, and believing that this fragile beacon can’t be taken for granted. It has to be sparked in each individual, rekindled in every generation. Our faith and our citizenship require sacrifice. If we are to stand on the Biblical legacy of being “a shining city on a hill,” it will be because we have put the other fellow, not ourselves, first. With the Constitution and the Bible in our hands, we are called to be both self-disciplined and other-centered. If we are to be an exemplary people, let us be known by our love.
Join me Saturday morning with Bishop Sutton in a march for refugees. Details are in today’s e-Redeemer.