|Posted by chesterlanducc on February 14, 2017 at 3:20 PM|
SCRIPTURE Matthew 5:38-48
‘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. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour 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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Sermon: Radical Love
Jesus said you have heard it said, but I say to you… For me at least, these sayings are some of the most challenging verses in all of scripture.
To begin with, first century Israel, like much of the world at that time, was a culture highly influenced by codes of status, shame and honor. To be struck in the face was not simply an act of violence, but a much more significant sign of disrespect and hostility. To turn the other cheek rather than retaliate was to go strongly against the social norms of that time.
Also, in first century Israel, if someone was sued for their clothing, than they likely had no other possessions. Their cloak was more than a coat; it was perhaps their only protection from the elements of weather—it could likely be the basis of their survival. It would comparatively be easier for me to give my coat, my shoes, my wallet, my car, even my home way, than for a poor person in first century Israel to have their clothing taken and then to give their cloak away.
Finally, in the case of compulsory labor—Israel was an occupied land and Roman soldiers could and would force non-Roman citizens, Jewish peasants in this case, into compulsory work—even forcing them to walk along roads which might be fraught with danger.
So when Jesus talks about turning the other cheek or giving your coat away when someone sues you for your clothing, or walking the extra mile—most of us in our culture and society today have absolutely no real understanding or experience with such extreme forms of aggression, oppression and poverty.
Although I have experienced violence I have literally never had an experience in my life that compares with what Jesus is truly talking about in these sayings. However, there is a story that Dr. King told that might point towards the truth of what these sayings are getting at.
Dr. King was only 26 years old when he was appointed leader of the civil rights campaign in Montgomery, Alabama. Following the success of the bus boycott in Montgomery Dr. King became the target of white supremacists.
One night after his family had gone to bed the phone rang and he answered it and the man on the other end of the line called him obscene names and threatened to kill him and blow up his house and kill his family if he didn’t leave Alabama. Shortly after the phone call Dr. King sat at his kitchen table drinking coffee. “And I sat at that table” he said, “thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me at any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted and loyal wife, who was over there asleep…And I got to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I was weak…
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it… I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage…And it seemed to me at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’…I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone.. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
Many men and women like Jesus and Dr. King and Gandhi, have time and time again, made the decision to push back against oppression and violence with the strength and the conviction of God’s love. But this isn’t to say that it’s easy or it always works out the way we might want it to. Later in life, Dr. King came to realize that he was likely going to die for his faith and for his persistence in speaking truth to power—just as I imagine that Jesus knew his fate long before he was put on trial and hanged, and Gandhi was realistic that he was always vulnerable to violence. And yet, somehow they persisted. And I think that’s what this scripture is about—about persistence and resilience even in the face of unfathomable hardships.
Indeed, this isn’t easy stuff. The oppression of the poor is so horrible and so unimaginable for most of us that it just doesn’t seem real—that the sayings of Jesus this morning about turning the other cheek, about giving our cloak away, about walking the extra mile—these are not trivial experiences—these are the similar in some ways to the phone call Dr. King got that night. He had to make a choice, religion had to become real for him—he had to make a choice. And in fact, as you probably know, his house was bombed, but luckily he and his family was not harmed that time.
Jesus being of the oppressed, Jesus being a non-citizen in his own land—Jesus knowing his actions would be met with violence—I imagine he too struggled with this dilemma of standing up for justice, this struggle of standing up for righteousness. Somehow, some way, Jesus seemed to believe that you could only successfully fight hatred with love—that you could only succeed against an Empire like Rome by emptying yourself and handing yourself over to love.
It wasn’t fair that Jesus was tortured, it wasn’t fair that he was killed, it wasn’t fair that he was born and lived in an occupied land, and it wasn’t fair that he was oppressed by the Roman Empire and the wealthy Jewish elite of his time.
Today’s scripture today speaks perhaps directly to those who are oppressed and it likely recognizes that life is often unfair and the poor and the oppressed have limited options for seeking justice, limited choices for advocating for their humanity.
Jesus could have been one like many thousands of Jewish people in the first half of the first century in Israel who took arms up against the Roman Empire for their freedom and I would not blame him or any man or any woman for fighting for their dignity, for their livelihoods, for fighting for their freedom.
Jesus however took a different path, he left the boat behind, he found the courage to choose to love his enemies—he found the courage to choose a path that seems still today nearly impossible—and this is why we know Jesus to be the Christ—because Jesus illuminated for humanity the very nature of God—through his life the divine was made present to and with us. Jesus is an example of what love can accomplish—Jesus is an example of how people can be killed but love and overcome even the seeming finality of death.
Albert Einstein once said of Gandhi, a man who had a very similar ethic of love and non-violence as Jesus, a man who was repeatedly jailed and beaten and eventually murdered like Jesus—Einstein said something that I always will remember—he said: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood".
The phone rings, the threats come, minorities are beaten and shot and imprisoned. Immigrants and refugees are scorned and turned away—women are attacked and violated—people all over our world live in fear of violence—people all over our world don’t have a coat to give away—people all over our world are forced into slavery—are abused and neglected—and Jesus addresses these unimaginable circumstances and responds by saying that love, not violence, not hate, is the only answer. It’s not easy, it’s not right, it’s not fair, but love is the only force capable of responding to violence and oppression which allows those who are oppressed to retain their dignity and their humanity.
For those of us of privilege and power in our world and this country, as we hear this message, I imagine we are called to seek to be in solidarity with those who are forced to make such choices as Dr. King did, as Gandhi did, as Jesus did, as the thousands of Jewish people in the first century did and as the billions of people in world today have to do all the time. May we seek ways to pry ourselves away from the boat—away from the comfortable—away from the secure—so that we might somehow be in solidarity with those for who find themselves at moments in their lives where they have to make choices about how to respond to violence, poverty and oppression.
Thanks be to God for God’s still speaking voice. Amen.