Three weeks ago, when the lectionary invited us into our month-long sojourn with the Sermon on the Mount, I didn’t imagine that these four weeks would end up being a kind of preaching series here at Grace. I guess that’s because this is an Episcopal parish and, for whatever reason, the notion of a preaching series, of taking a theme and running with it over a month or two months, is unusual in the Episcopal tradition. But whether we meant to do it or not, a preaching series on the Sermon on the Mount – and in particular, on the implications of Jesus’ words for you and me right now – is more or less exactly what we did at Grace this winter.
Three weeks ago, we explored the difficult and almost paradoxical blessings of the Beatitudes, of God’s calling to us, of God’s command to us, to imitate Christ and to stand with those who suffer and who are excluded, to engage in the work of justice. Two weeks ago, Corbet invited us to remember that this work of justice is something that needs to begin locally: yes, it’s important to call and write your elected officials, and it is important as well for us to be the light of the world, to share compassion and mercy, with those near at hand. One week ago, we talked about Jesus’ broad prohibition on violence – on physical violence and also on violence of the tongue and of the heart.
And now there is today. Part Four. In which we hear the final two of Jesus’ six theses and responses. Here is the first part of this pair:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I say to you, Don’t resist an evildoer. 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.
I don’t know if anyone has ever ranked the most misunderstood passages in the Bible. But my guess is that this particular passage would make it into the Top 10. There is a long history of reading these words as a kind of ode to passivity in the face of injustice, so that Jesus is teaching us that being a peacemaker or building up the Kingdom of Heaven means politely sitting still while someone kicks you in the pants.
There will be justice, this inveterate interpretation says, but it will be in the next world, in heaven. In the meantime, it is our job to accept and to live with the life and the station that God has ordained for us, no matter how much it may hurt or how unfair it may seem to us. This interpretation has probably helped along by Madison Avenue’s thoroughly odd advertising practice of using the expression “going the extra mile” in advertisements for cars and TVs and hotels so that, somehow, what Jesus is talking about today is outstanding customer service.
At best, this interpretation domesticates Jesus, it makes him into a champion of order and of uncritical obedience, it makes him into a booster of the status quo. And at worst, this interpretation makes Jesus into someone who is complicit with systematic injustice, so that God looks upon the slave or the suffragette or the refugee or the GLBTQ person and God orders them to quietly take a beating.
The late theologian, Walter Wink, played a huge role in refuting this reading, in rediscovering the challenge, maybe even rediscovering the revolutionary nature, of Jesus’ original words. Wink devotes a whole chapter in his book, The Powers That Be, to this saying about turning the cheek and giving up your cloak and walking the extra mile. I’m going to draw heavily on Wink’s work this morning.
Let’s look at each instruction in turn.
Turning the other cheek.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek…” Notice two things right off the bat. First, there is an assumption in Jesus’ words that this is a crowd that is used to being hit, that it full of people who are accustomed to being beaten. This is a saying addressed to the oppressed, to the poor, to those who are living under occupation.
That is confirmed by the second part of the instruction, the curiously specific right cheek.
Let’s stop and think about that for a second. Because most of us, today and in Jesus’ time, are right handed. And therefore, most of us would throw a punch with our right hand, most likely landing our blow on our opponent’s left cheek. In the Ancient Near East, there is evidence that the public use of the left hand was actually prohibited, that the left hand was ritually and maybe even literally unclean and, thus, that even a left handed person would strike with the right hand.
What the blow landing on the left cheek tells us, therefore, is that this is a backhanded blow. It is the way that a superior strikes an inferior. Then and now, striking someone with the back of your hand announces the status of the one striking and the contempt that he feels for the one whom he strikes. A person of status might have a straight-on fistfight with an equal. But it is an inferior – a child, a slave, a member of the occupied people – whom he strikes with the back of his hand.
For the slave to turn the other cheek is to make a second blow with the back of the right hand impossible. Now the slave’s nose is in the way of such a blow. Now the one being struck says: I am not going to acquiesce to your violence and to the message of contempt that is contained within it. You may not strike me in a way that declares that I am your property or that I am an animal or that I am less than you. If you are going to hit me again, you will do so directly. You will hit me straight on.
If anyone wants to sue you and take your cloak, give your coat as well.
There are times when it feels like the Bible could’ve been written last week. Thanks to the leadership of Sally Fraser, LeRoy Patton, and Julie Romberg and their friends on the Interfaith Alliance for Poverty, a number of us are participating in the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads programme and reading Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted. Evicted is non-fiction and, just as the title implies, it is about losing your home. It follows a number of families and individuals in Milwaukie, Wisconsin, all of whom are in deep and generational poverty.
Today, and in Jesus’ time, one of the defining characteristics of poverty is a debt load that you can’t get out from under, a debt load that operates like a whirlpool or a vortex with your other problems, so that getting sick means you can’t work which means you get further into debt which means you can’t afford good food which means you get sick which, as Desmond details, means you get evicted over and over again.
This particular part of Jesus’ instruction – about someone suing you and demanding your cloak – is about collateral for the debt that you owe them. Imagine handing over your guitar at the pawn shop, imagine signing a document agreeing that the bank or the landlord can take your car or your house if you can’t pay, and you have the broad sense of what is going on here. Taking a cloak, like taking a home, is a particularly brutal form of collateral, because it leaves someone vulnerable to the elements.
And so Jesus says: when someone sues you and demands your cloak, give them the rest of your clothes as well. Stand there in court in your underwear or maybe even buck naked. This stripping down, like turning the other cheek, is a way of saying: I refuse to participate in this violence. I refuse to act as though it is reasonable or fair or humane. I am going to announce to the world that you are taking the clothes off of my very body, that you are leaving me naked.
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
Notice the verb in this sentence and in the sentences that precede it. First we had being struck, then we had being sued, now we have being forced. Again, the intended audience is comprised of those on the margins.
Who would be forced to go a mile? Well, picture a soldier – maybe a Roman one, maybe one marching right now somewhere in the world. That soldier is wearing armour (interestingly enough, soldiers wore armour across most of history, they largely stopped wearing armour for the last century or so, and now they wear it again) and he is carrying sixty or even eighty pounds of gear in a backpack.
If that soldier is a Roman one, and if it is thirty or so years into the Common Era, that soldier is permitted by Roman law to compel one of the people whose land he occupies to carry his burden, he is permitted to say: you carry my backpack or these tools or this lumber. We see, by the way, this law in effect at the end of Jesus’ life: as he marches to Golgotha and the soldiers see that he is becoming exhausted, they compel Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross for a time.
In something approaching progressivism or mercy, however, there was a limit on the law: the soldier was only allowed to demand that the local carry his gear for but one mile. After that, he had to take it back. There might even be punishment for the soldier if he made someone carry his gear for longer.
What Jesus tells the gathered crowd – most of whom, maybe all of whom, have been forced to carry soldiers’ burdens – is that, when and the soldier says, “Okay, that’s a mile, hand me the pack” the one carrying the burden is to smile and say, “I’m good. I’ve got at least another mile in me!”
We can imagine the crowd listening to Jesus laughing at this moment. It is a comical scene, the status between the soldier and the oppressed suddenly reversed, the one who, up until a moment ago was issuing orders, suddenly saying, “Dude! You’re going to get me in trouble. Come on, give me my pack.”
Like offering the master the right cheek, like stripping naked, carrying the pack the extra mile is a way of saying: I am not going to participate in this act of domination, I am not going to follow the rules.
I am going to resist.
Now, the notion that this is a passage about resistance may strike us as strange, especially because we are reading it in English, where Jesus prefaces these three examples by saying, Do not resist an evildoer.” Resist is a translation that goes all the way back to the King James version of the Bible. But Wink argues that it isn’t an especially good translation, that in the original Greek, the word that we render “resist” refers to the clash of two armies, it refers to armed combat, it refers to violence. He suggests that this passage is better rendered, “Do not react with violence against the evildoer.”
Do not return evil for evil. But absolutely, resist.
I’d like us to notice something about the creative, non-violent resistance that Jesus teaches. I’d like us to notice that not only does it reclaim the agency and the power and the dignity of the one being oppressed, not only does it give the oppressed a reaction that is neither cowed obedience not violence or her or his own, but this non-violent resistance also holds open the possibility that the oppressor will be converted.
There is a moment in each of these acts – the moment when the master has his hand drawn back for a second backhanded blow, the moment when the wealthy person bringing the lawsuit sees the one standing naked before him, the moment when the soldier looks at the peasant breathing hard and covered in sweat who will not give back his pack – there is a moment when the oppressor is confronted with the evil in which he is participating and in which he has the opportunity to repent of it, to change.
Each of these acts holds open the possibility of the oppressor’s conversion.
And this is where our four weeks with the Sermon on the Mount, this is where our unplanned preaching series ends. With the possibility of conversion, with the possibility of new life. Jesus explains the holy possibility this way:
Love your enemies. And pray for those who persecute you.
Living into the Beatitudes, doing justice locally, choosing non-violence, and today, creatively resisting. This way of being, Jesus proclaims from the mountainside, will change you, it will change the world, it might even change your enemy. By the Grace of God, this way of being might just break open all of our hearts.