Matthew 5:38-48, the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
When will we stop hurting each other? That question underlies today’s gospel (Matthew 5:38-48) and it’s a question we answer almost every day. Here’s what I mean by that.
What’s your first reaction when someone attacks your integrity? What’s your first reaction when someone openly flirts with your spouse, criticizes your child, or makes an unfair judgment about you or someone you care about? Have you ever raised your voice and offered a few choice words because of something someone else thought, said, or did? What do you want to say to the one who tells a lie about you, betrays a confidence, or uses something from your past against you? Have you every laid awake at night planning your revenge against someone who has hurt you, even though you may have had no intention to carry out the plan? What did you want to do or say to that person who undermined or usurped your authority? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone criticizes or makes fun of your candidate and your political beliefs? Have you ever replayed an argument over and over in your head thinking of just the right words that would cut the other down to size? Have you ever wanted to hurt someone because they hurt you or someone you love? Have you ever just lost it and slapped or hit another person? Have you ever wanted to get even, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?”
I’m betting that all of us have been in those kind of situations. You know what that’s like, right? The injustice. The unfairness. The fear. The hurt. The anger. The adrenaline. And finally, the surrender of control that gives way to a closed mind, an open mouth, or a clenched fist.
In that moment our reactionary thoughts, words, and deeds feel pretty sweet, right, and good. We feel strong and even justified. We tell ourselves that he or she started it and we were only finishing it. The problem is we don’t finish it. It doesn’t stop with “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” And don’t think that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is an Old Testament justification for violence. It’s not. It was never intended as permission for violence. It was, rather, a limitation on violence. It recognizes that we have the propensity to perpetuate and more often than not escalate the violence.
That propensity for violence is older than Cain and Abel and it’s in each one of us. It’s in our personal relationships, our domestic politics, and our foreign policy. It’s in our public and national conversation. It’s why we often seek retributive justice over restorative justice. It’s at the heart of the violence done in God’s name by all religious traditions. It underlies our fear, discrimination, and oppression of others. It’s why we have to have the last word, and why we often cannot let go of the hurts and wrongs done to us.
How many of us are truly surprised and taken aback when we turn on the news and see another picture and hear another story of violence? Violence has become business as usual. It is the currency by which the powerful profit and the oppressed fight back for their share, and it has left us bankrupt. It is, as Gandhi said, leaving the world blind and toothless. That, however, is not the gospel of Christ. It’s not the way of Jesus, and it’s not who we were created to be.
“But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’”
“But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”
Those aren’t just idealistic words. They are subversive words in a culture of violence. They are seditious words inciting rebellion and protest. Jesus is tapping into and awakening within us what a friend and teacher of mine calls “the seditious nature of every human being.”
Please don’t misunderstand what I mean by seditious. We have for too long given sedition a bad name. There is more to sedition that what we have come to understand.
- Let’s not forget the church’s history of sedition that made it a place of sanctuary for refugees, asylum seekers, combatants of civil war, criminals, slaves on the underground railway, addicts and members of support groups, you, and me. It’s what keeps the church’s doors open to all people in all times.
- Let’s not forget Martin Luther King, Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Rabbi Heschel, Congressman John Lewis, and a thousand others like them, rebels and seditionists who protested, marched, and worked for civil and human rights.
- Let’s not forget the Statue of Liberty, that monument to America’s sedition of welcoming and receiving all sorts and kinds of people.
- And let’s not forget the Rebel Christ whose sedition transformed the way of the cross into the way of life. He is our model and guide for a life of sedition and rebellion. In him we see and understand our seditious nature.
There is a rebel, a seditionist, in every one of us. When I speak of sedition I am not talking about inciting rebellion against the government, the usual and negative understanding of sedition. I am talking about the positive aspect of sedition. I am talking about that rebel, that seditionist, within us that wants to clarify, speak and standup for what is true, good, and beautiful. I am talking about the rebel that wants to live from his or her better and truer self. I am talking about the rebel that strives for justice and the dignity of every human being. I am talking about the rebel that resists violence and the values that diminish and impoverish life and the well being of the world. I am talking about the rebel that chooses life over death, the rebel who, like Christ, is willing to die but unwilling to hurt another.
Christ’s gospel is seditious. Do not resist an evildoer. Turn the other cheek. Give your cloak. Go the second mile. Give to those who beg. Don’t refuse a borrower. Love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you. Those kind of things are not taught, valued, encouraged, or rewarded by most of the world. If enacted they would shatter the status quo and bring business as usual to a halt. And that’s the point.
Jesus is inciting us to rebellion. He doesn’t, however, tell us what to do or what that might look like for us. We must each live the gospel in the unique and particular circumstances of our life and relationships. What it means for me to turn the other cheek, give my cloak, or go the second mile will likely be different from what it means for you. Neither does Jesus guarantee that the other won’t slap our other cheek, walk away with our cloak leaving us naked, or demand a third mile. That’s not what this rebellion is about.
This rebellion is about learning discipline and self-control so that we might again and again choose life and not add to the pain of the world. It’s about creating a safe place and an opportunity for the other to make a different decision, to choose life, and to live into his or her better self. It’s about keeping quiet long enough to listen to and hear the deep wounding, loss, and injustices the other has suffered. It’s about seeing the other as a human being and not just as a threat to be overcome or defeated. It’s about recognizing ourselves and the other as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s about choosing to stop hurting each other.
We might think Jesus’ plan is crazy and his rebellion doomed. But let me ask you this, how’s the current plan working for us? It’s not. And maybe that confession is the start of our rebellion. If Jesus’ plan fails it won’t be because it was found to be lacking something, it will be because it was “found difficult and left untried” (G. K. Chesterton).
I don’t want to leave Christ’s gospel untried and I don’t think you do either. So what would rebellion look like in your life? What is Jesus inciting you to? Don’t make it too big. Let if fit your unique life, your particular circumstances, your relationships. Trust that the rebellion will ripple out from there and that in some way, regardless of how the other might respond, you will have enhanced the integrity and the life of the world.
Maybe your rebellion is silence and stillness when what you really want to do is lash out and get even. Maybe it’s a nighttime of prayer for the other rather than a nighttime of planning revenge and watching reruns of old hurts. Maybe it’s more active and includes marches, letter writing, or speaking up. Maybe it’s donating time or money to organizations that care for the oppressed and those in need. For some the rebellion may be about reconciling and healing a broken relationship. For others it might be changing beliefs and the old ways of seeing and judging others. Maybe it’s learning about and meeting people, cultures, or religions we know nothing about except that they scare us.
How will you live today’s gospel and all the questions, fears, and challenges that come with it?
“But I say to you, ‘Be the rebel.’”