February 19, 2017 7th Sunday of Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 I Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 Matthew 5:38-48
This passage from Matthew is one of those scriptures that you would rather not preach on. It is so radical, and impossible, and outrageous that it seems like you just can’t reconcile what Jesus is asking his disciples and us to do with our own feelings, social convention, and even real life.
Up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount, everything seems to be reasonable, or accessible and understandable. First Jesus starts out by blessing us, then telling us that we are sacred and of worth to God. Then he advises us to live in a spirit of obeying his commandments with love, and to try to forgive and reconcile with people whom we are having difficulty with.
Then he starts to get into some problematic areas. He says that anyone who looks at a woman with lust is committing adultery. He tells people to cut off their hands or to take out their eyes if they offend them. He says that if a man divorces his wife, except in the case of unchastity that he is forcing her to commit adultery. He tells people not to swear oaths but to simply live by their answer of Yes or No.
Most of the above we can explain logically because we know about the social conventions and language codes of the time. As far as women, lust, and divorce are concerned, men in those days had all the legal advantages. If a man wanted to divorce a woman and marry a younger woman it wasn’t that difficult to do if you were wealthy enough. But of course the divorced wife was cast out and lost her financial security. Often she would have to remarry just to survive. And the marriage probably wouldn’t have family backing, so she would become vulnerable to abuse.
Hands and eyes often stood for people in what we would call today a “network circle.” People who get you connections to help you get things done. So cutting off the hand or plucking out the eye is code for abruptly removing yourself from people who negatively influence you or put you into a bad situation. And then you never go back – even if those people try to pursue you to keep involving yourself in questionable behavior.
Also people back then, just like today, were notorious for making promises and not keeping them. We all know people who have said things like, “I swear to God I will never drink like that again,” and then they go ahead and do it anyway. Jesus was saying that it is more important to live by our Yes and No with concrete actions rather than with a lot of words.
Knowing these language codes we can handle this stuff, and the audience who were listening to the Sermon on the Mount could relate to it as well. These social-justice situations were happening around them all the time and they could see the unfairness of the behavior. But then Jesus starts to really get radical with the Matthew verses that we read today.
How are we supposed to allow someone to hit us again when they strike us? Or give them more than they have sued us for? Or willingly do more for someone when we are forced to do an unpleasant action? Or give to everyone who begs from us? Logically those are impossibly unreasonable tasks. What is Jesus trying to get us to do and to be?
I think one of the keys to understanding this passage is the first line: You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.
The eye for an eye comes from the Hammurabi Code. The Code is a set of 282 social laws from ancient Mesopotamia, that dates to 1754 BC; 700 years before the kingdom of Israel was established by Saul and David. This is not to say that other ancient kingdoms didn’t have laws – but these are the earliest recorded and preserved laws that we have in archeological record. And they promote the concept that to balance out evil it must be met with an equal punitive action for justice to be restored.
But Jesus refutes this idea by using overblown, hyperbolic speech – which was a classical speech technique in that day – to get people to think about this idea. He’s taking the language to the Nth degree to challenge the common idea that the only way that justice can be served, and balance can be restored to the community, is if we use retaliatory justice. He lists, with this hyper-language, very common forms of abuse that people were subject to during that time.
Turning the other cheek comes from the fact that if a Roman citizen or soldier struck a Jewish person that they could do nothing about it. If they struck back they would be put in jail, or physically punished.
If you couldn’t pay a debt the lender could demand your coat as collateral for payment. That doesn’t seem like much to us – but remember back then people usually only had one or two sets of clothing.
Forcing someone to go one mile refers to the right of the Roman Army to conscript any able-bodied person to carry luggage or supplies for a day, without pay.
And the idea of giving to anyone who begs from you is a reminder of the immense number of poor people that were in the society.
If all of these actions were met with an eye for an eye or violent resistance, or in the case of poor people of no one helping them, the society would quickly disintegrate into anarchy, and no one would be able to live in God’s love and obey God’s commandments of love and respect for their fellow humans. Jesus is trying to get his audience to see that violence against violence is not the answer.
Not only that but he takes it one step further and says: You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ‘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. The enemy, for anyone who was Jewish, was someone who was not Jewish – occupying Romans and Gentiles. Neighbors were your Jewish neighbors and enemies were anyone who was not Jewish. Never mind the nice Greek family down at the end of the street; for many people since they weren’t Jewish they didn’t count with God.
And then Jesus hits them with a serious truth: For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. Come on, he says, if God is the God of ALL creation then the gentiles are as much His creation as the Jews.
He then points out that it is easy to love those people who love you and are nice to you. But really what makes us so different from the other people? Don’t the other people have feelings? Don’t all those foreigners love their families and their friends like we do?
Remember LOVE is not a sentiment to Jesus – Love is an ACTION word that is shown through the courage of treating someone with respect, and compassion, and giving them charity when needed. And Jesus is saying that those other people should not be written off, and that our actions of love should be extended to them as well.
This was mind-blowing stuff for that day and age! This is mind-blowing stuff for our day and age!
Back then Jesus was challenging people to love tax-collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, lepers, Samaritans, and anyone else who was not in the accepted part of society.
Today who is our unaccepted part of our society? Is it immigrants, unwed mothers, people of different races, people of different classes, people with mental illnesses, people with substance addictions, people who are on the other side of a political fence? Sometimes we don’t want to admit that we all carry within us an aversion to the other: the ones who don’t think like us, or look like us, or talk like us, or have the same values as us – but that otherness doesn’t make them unworthy of God’s love or of our love.
Jesus challenged people to expand their love. He challenged people to think outside the box as to who was their neighbor. He invited them to love all people as God’s creation, not just a selected few. When he says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect, Jesus means that God’s love is perfect for EVERYONE, so our love must be for everyone.
Are you going to accept the invitation of God’s love for everyone? And are you willing to act for others in the spirit of the love of God? You might end up living outside of the conventional social box, but don’t worry about that. You will still be living in and for God’s love, because His love is here for all of us.