Somewhere around the time I was in kindergarten or the first grade my parents took my sister and me to a carnival that had come to town. The only thing I remember about that day is the monkey on a stick. Mom and Dad bought us each a little fuzzy monkey tied to a stick by piece of elastic. We carried them around watching them bounce and swing. At some point we went back to the car and laid them on the backseat floorboard and then went on about the day. When we came back to the car my sister got in on my side. As she did she stepped on my monkey and broke the stick. It was an accident. Nevertheless, it was broken.
I got in the car, reached over, and stomped on her monkey. I broke it. Then my dad reached over the front seat and slapped my leg. Contrary to Jesus’ admonition in today’s gospel (Matthew 5:38-48, Epiphany 7A) I did not offer him the other leg to be slapped. “That’s not fair,” I yelled. It made no sense to me that she broke my monkey and I got slapped. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a monkey for a monkey. Now that made sense. That was fair.
Truth be told there are times when that still makes sense to me. As I read the news and watch other people it seems to make sense to much of our world today. Maybe it makes sense to you as well. We’ve all had our monkey stepped on and broken.
So often we hear those words, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and think it is permission to get even. After all it sounds fair. The problem is it was never intended as permission to get even it was a restriction, a limitation, intended to prevent revenge. More often than not we don’t want to just get even we want to exact a little revenge. We want to get ahead. This law was supposed to prevent that.
Jesus is doing with this law the same thing he did in last week’s gospel. He is intensifying the law. In some way fairness always ends up being about the rules. Jesus, however, is always about people and relationships.
While fairness might be the way of the world it is not Jesus’ way. Nor is it his Father’s way. God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good. That’s not fair. He sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. That’s not fair. God is God, however, and he gives based not on who we are or what we think is fair but on who he is. God does not act with fairness but with love.
While fairness might make sense to us and the world it does not make sense to Jesus. The world doesn’t need to be more fair it needs to be more loving. What difference does it make if we love only those who love us, greet only those who greet us, be nice to only those who are nice to us, accept only those who accept us, and hang out with only those who think, speak, act, and believe like us? That’s not love. That’s fairness. Too often we are fair to the exclusion of love. For Jesus fairness is not the answer but the problem.
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.
If we are to heal the brokenness in our lives, reconcile our relationships, and end the violence in our world we have to stop being fair towards each other and start loving one another. We must quit stomping on each other’s monkeys. Evil for evil, violence for violence, hit for hit, word for word will never change anything. It only escalates the violence and entrenches us deeper in the way things already are. It only reveals who we serve and who guides our thinking and actions, ourselves.
Fairness can never change our lives and world. Only love can do that. Turn the other cheek, give your last piece of clothing, go the extra mile. That means we “do not resist an evildoer.” That doesn’t mean, however, that we are to just sit there and take it. It means non-retaliation. It means choosing love instead of fairness. It means loving our enemies and praying for those who hurt us. It means no more monkey stomping.
I want to be clear about something here. I know there are people, more often that not women and children, caught in violent and abusive relationships. Faithfulness does not demand someone stay in that situation. Faithfulness, the choice to love, and the refusal to retaliate, means protecting yourself and getting out. It is always about choosing love.
While most of us are not being physically struck across the face I’ll bet each of us has heard the gossip, name-calling, and labeling that sting like a slap on the cheek. What do we do then? Fairness will only get us into a shouting match and replay the argument in our head. What does love look like in that context? How will we embody Christ in that moment? That’s the question.
Chances are no one is suing us for our clothes but have you ever felt as if someone was demanding more of you than you had or wanted to give? Time, attention, assistance. What does love like then? Do we offer a defense, negotiate a fair settlement, or offer all that we are and all that we have?
What about that extra mile? How far are we willing to go for love? In Jesus’ day a Roman solider could require a civilian to carry his pack for a mile. That’s not today’s world but I suspect you’ve had days when another interrupted and disrupted your plans and routines. You hadn’t planned on carrying their burdens; sorrow and grief, loneliness, sickness or addiction, depression, bad choices. Fairness says, “That’s their problem.” Love says, “I’ll go with you.”
In all of these the challenge is to stop being fair and instead be loving. Fairness is a transaction. Love is a relationship. It’s usually easier to be fair than to love. Love is messy and risky. It comes with burdens and obligations. You can get hurt. Look at the life of Jesus. He is not asking us to do anything he did not do. He received physical blows and abuse. He was stripped of his clothes. He carried our burden to the cross. That’s not fair. That’s love.
The problem with fairness is that it leaves us blind, toothless, and surrounded by broken toys. That is not the kingdom of heaven and it’s not what Jesus came for. Jesus came to call us into and show us the way of perfection. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus is echoing God’s command in Leviticus (19:2), “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” As St. Paul asks, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” That indwelling Spirit is both why and how we can be holy and live into perfection.
The thing is we most often discover our holiness, move towards perfection, and reveal God’s Spirit within in us in the painful, demanding, and burdened places of our lives. We don’t have to go far to find those places. They are in all our relationships, the people we live with, in our places of work, the busyness of everyday errands, the victims of injustice, and the stranger on the street. Will we be fair or will we love? The choice is ours.
Why settle for fairness when God offers holiness? Why maintain the status quo when Jesus shows and gives us perfection? Why live as anything less than our truest selves, God’s holy temple? Go love the fairness out of this world.
“An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus was the greatest teacher on this subject, through his life, and his passion. In modern times two others that practiced this were, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. If they taught, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”, it would have lead to a slaughter of innocent. They both got their message over, in, Love and in peace.
An eye for and an eye and tooth for a tooth is a dangerous way to live. It only ends when there are no more eyes and teeth left in the world.
Peace be with you,
Marvellous post, Mike. Thank you. xx
Have you read the Jewish scholar, Emmanuel Levinas? He examines the ethic of symmetry and reciprocity underpinning the everyday paradigm in which we live. He proposes an ethic (love) is only ever a radical asymmetry. This is what I hear in your elegant post.
I’m curious how you read the Bible injunction to “do unto others as you would like them to do to you.” What is it we not hearing in those words too (similar to us not hearing the constraint Jesus is intending with “eye for an eye”)?
Narelle, thanks so much for your encouraging words. I’ve not really studied Levinas though I read him a little bit in seminary. The idea of an ethic of love as radical asymmetry appeals to me and makes sense. You’ve raised a great question regarding the golden rule. I wonder if we fail to understand it as radical asymmetry and see it instead as a symmetrical relationship. We quantify the words instead of hearing them qualitatively. So it becomes (very simplistically) one unit of love for you and one for me, two for you and two for me…. The other thought I have is that we fail to hear it as describing and teaching a relationship of identity. I am my neighbor and my neighbor is me. I appreciate your question and the invitation to think a bit deeper on that phrase. Thank you. How do you hear that phrase?
God’s peace be with you,
In the everyday hearing, I hear the quantification, the calculation, the paltriness of it.
Reading it now in Matthew and Leviticus, I hear the relationship of identity.
I also notice the Matthew mention comes after the discussion of the mote in the neighbour’s eye, plank in one’s own. In this discussion, I hear it’s about me always already looking to my own shortcomings and failure to love. There is a forgone-ness that I don’t hear in the “golden rule”.
Always like to read your sermons when we are unable to attend St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. Starting a list of Father Mike’s statements. Will add ” Go love the fairness out of this world”
I missed you all Kay and am always grateful when you are able to be here.
Great title! Inspiring post! Thank you!
I particularly liked the following image: ‘The problem with fairness is that it leaves us blind, toothless, and surrounded by broken toys. ‘
Thank you Estera. I appreciate you reading my blog. So many broken toys throughout the world, Lord have mercy.