Sermon, Feb. 16

  1. Today’s Gospel – Continuing the Sermon on the Mount 
    1. The most complete sermon we have from Jesus.
    2. Shared in Luke & Mt – gotten from a common source whom Mark didn’t have. 
    3. What Jesus has said so far: 
      1. The “blesseds” (Beatitudes) – says, the people who are blessed, lucky, happy, might be very different people from the people who LOOK blessed, lucky, and happy by the world’s standards.
      2. He calls on those who follow him to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Living the way God calls you to live has a ripple effect on the people and community around you. Your holiness isn’t just for you or for God; it’s for others.
  1. Today’s portion: Faithfulness to the Laws of Scripture, of Torah. 
    1. Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
    2. He goes on to touch on a number of subjects from the Torah – murder, adultery, divorce, vows, revenge, how to treat enemies – and says that he’s not here to throw out these core practices of holiness, but to call people to even deeper faithfulness. 
      1. Not just avoiding outright murder – a rather minimal standard! – but striving not to demonize or diminish others, and seeking reconciliation whenever possible. 
      2. Not just keeping your promises, but living with such integrity that you don’t have to make promises – if you say Yes or No, people know you mean it. 
      3. Not just disciplining your body to avoid violating your marriage vows, but disciplining your mind, heart, and imagination to fidelity as well. And likewise, taking those vows seriously enough not to end them lightly. 
        1. Jesus’ words about divorce here can hit some people hard. Pay attention to his exact wording: it’s really clear that divorce in this setting was something men did to women. And since women only had standing and security through connection with a man, divorce was terribly destructive for a woman and potentially her children as well. Jesus’ teaching here is really  about defending the vulnerable.
      4. With all these topics, Jesus says: Go farther – much father – than the Law demands. And in a specific direction – the direction of minimizing harm. Of mercy and integrity. 
    1. Notice Jesus is being selective in the elements of the Law he invokes here! 
      1. The 613 commandments in the Torah cover everything from faithful worship to just business practices, from acceptable foods to what to do if a dead lizard falls into your food storage jars. 
      2. Jesus teaches elsewhere that many of the laws of Judaism are not that important for the people of his new movement. 
      3. And the Church discerned early on that Christians didn’t need to practice circumcision or keep Jewish food rules – remember “Arise, kill, eat”, from a few weeks ago? 
      4. The parts of the Law that seem to matter most to Jesus – the parts he is here to fulfill rather than abolish – are the parts that have to do with how we treat one another. And not only our actions but our hearts – because Jesus knows what we all know: what’s in our hearts shows in our actions. 
  1. Next portion of the Sermon on the Mount builds on this – 
    1. Cut off this year by a short Epiphany season. 
    2. As in today’s passage, Jesus quotes the Law & then describes how his followers should live beyond the Law. 
    3. ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 
      1. Quoting a legal teaching from the Torah. Clearest statement, Leviticus 24: “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.”  
    4. “But” – says Jesus – “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.” 
    5. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer the other one as well.” This saying is more famous in the version from Luke’s Gospel: “Turn the other cheek.” Have you heard that?… 
    6. It has a long history of being used to advise people to put up with bad treatment. To let bullies or abusers have their way. To be passive in the face of harm and injustice. 
    7. Does that sound like advice you want to get from Jesus? … Well, here’s the good news: Lots of people think that is NOT what Jesus is saying. It’s more interesting than that. 
    8. I did some research about this for our youth retreat last winter, and found some stuff worth sharing. I’m going to need a couple of volunteers… at lest one of you needs to be right-handed. 
    1. Mt says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Who’s right-handed? – OK, A, you’re the striker. B, you’re the person being struck; which is your right cheek? 
      1. A,  use your dominant right hand to pretend to strike B on the right cheek. Don’t actually make contact, just show us what you would do. So that’s a backhand, right? That’s a gesture with a lot of social context. Do you backhand a social equal, or someone you think is inferior?…. 
        1. It’s how you hit a child or a slave or someone you think is less than you. How a Roman soldier might smack a local peasant whom he thinks was looking at him funny. 
    2. So Jesus is talking about a specific kind of social situation: A superior striking an inferior. Somebody with power striking someone with less power or no power, with the intent to punish and shame them. 
    3. What do you think the powerful person expects to happen after they backhand this servant or peasant or whatever? … they certainly don’t expect them to stay here and ask for more! 
    4. Let’s continue our demonstration. If B here turns their left cheek to invite another blow, suddenly A has to strike with their open hand – it’s a different gesture, right? 
      1. (Dismiss volunteers!) 
      2. Look, it’s hard to be sure what these gestures meant in the distant past. … 
      3. But we have a clue in a Jewish legal text from maybe 100 years later, the Bava Qamma (8.6), which says that if a person slaps another person with open hand, he must pay him 200 zuz; if he strikes him with the back of his hand, he must pay him 400 zuz. 
      4. That difference isn’t about injury; it’s about honor. The backhand is more humiliating. Another Talmud text describes the backhand as a gesture of public shame. 
      5. Some interpreters argue that the open-handed slap – or maybe a blow with a fist – is more how you strike a social equal. So the person turning the other cheek upsets the social dynamics. 
    5. I don’t want to try to hard to lock down what this might have meant. But I do think it’s clear that Jesus is talking about a backhanded strike, a blow intended to humiliate; and that offering the other cheek instead of scuttling away would put the striker off-balance, both physically and socially. 
  1. There are similar arguments to be made about the next verses as well – the coat and shirt, and walking the second mile. 
    1. To unpack the simpler one very briefly: when Roman soldiers, the occupying army, were on the move around Judea, they were allowed to demand that Judeans carry their pack and equipment for a mile. Just, “Hey! You! Carry this!” Jesus says, If anyone – the “anyone” here is a Roman soldier – forces you to go one mile, go the second mile. Don’t just do what you have to do; go farther. Make it a kindness – a favor. 
    2. Like turning the other cheek, at first glance it looks like submission, like passivity – but when you think about it, especially in the context of the stark social divisions of Jesus’ time, these are actions that pose a subtle and uncomfortable challenge to the status quo. 
      1. In the letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20)
    3. The 20th century movement for non-violent resistance drew significant inspiration in this teaching of Jesus. What Jesus is preaching here isn’t, Just let the bad guys have their way. It’s responding to injustice and cruelty by visibly refusing to cede your humanity, your agency. And that, ideally, makes the oppressor feel uncomfortable and maybe even ashamed. 
  1. Jesus concludes this portion of his sermon with these words, more or less: “So what if you love those who love you? So what if you’re kind to those who are kind to you? Almost everyone does that. You are called to more.”
    1. I don’t think I need to unpack that – it speaks for itself. 
      1. It is one of Jesus’ teachings that nudges me now and then – and sometimes bites me.
      2. What credit is it to me if I love those who love me? So what if I’m kind to those who are kind to me? How have I loved my enemies lately? Where am I called to go the second mile? 
    2. Beloved in Christ, we live in challenging times, politically, socially, ecologically. 
      1. A lot of people are fearful, angry, or despairing…and with reason. 
      2. Between the climate crisis, global health challenges, and the travails of our democracy, the news cycle can feel overwhelming. Paralyzing. 
    3. Henri Nouwen, a great spiritual writer, talks in one of his books about responding to the news as a person of faith, of spirit. 
      1. He suggests that when there’s breaking news, we might ask ourselves, How does this call for my repentance anew? How does this call for my conversion anew?  (Here and Now)
      2. To use the vocabulary of our discipleship practices: How does this call me to turning? To metanoia, a change of mind and heart that bears fruit in a changed life? 
      3. What might disruptive kindness, subversive mercy, look like in the face of today’s challenges? 
    4. I don’t even have answers to these questions for myself, let alone for all of you. But I think they’re timely questions.
      1. For this chapter in our walk with the Gospel, when Jesus calls his followers to a paradoxical path of loving resistance, wherever sin shreds human dignity. 
      2. For this moment in the church’s year, with Lent around the corner – a fine time to wonder: is there something I might set aside for a season, to make more space in my life for turning towards mercy.
      3. And for this season in the life of our world and our country, when we seem in desperate need of more both kindness and more courage. 


Further reading…

Walter Wink on Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence:

A really interesting exploration of slapping in ancient texts: