We have well-known text this morning—we’ve heard it many times before.
It’s a Gospel lesson that is sometimes understood to mean that Christians ought to be passive in the face of harm or injustice--
Because it’s right there in black and white, isn’t it?
“I say to you do not resist an evildoer.”
Jesus, continues: if you are hit, turn the other check; give your cloak as well as you coat, and go the extra mile.
And, then, finally, as if we weren’t confounded enough by these instructions--
Instructions that run so so counterintuitive to our natural human instincts Jesus tells us, to
“Be Perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”
I mean, honestly, I read these words and I feel like throwing my hands up in the air—what’s the point--
I don’t know about you—but as a recovering over-achieving-perfectionist—I don’t even want to try and be perfect anymore. It’s exhausting.
And, yet—we can’t write-off this teaching from Jesus as impossible—we can’t ignore the text—or think maybe Jesus didn’t mean what he said—or think it doesn’t somehow matter to us today--
we have to engage the text--
So let’s unpack this morning’s Gospel together.
First, we know that Jesus lived, and ministered and taught under The Roman Occupation--
We know that Roman Rule was oppressive and violent and militaristic.
It was not democratic. Jews were persecuted under Roman rule.
King Herod was a tyrant.
The poor were very poor. And the rich were very rich.
We also know that Jesus ministered primarily on the margins. To the poor. To the oppressed. To the outcast. To women and children and slaves and tax collectors and prostitutes. To people squarely outside the power structure of the Roman Empire. Jesus ministered to Crowds and Crowds and Crowds of people who were suffering under the Roman Occupation of Judea.
Our Gospel reading this morning comes from Matthew Chapter 5:38-48--
But, recall, that chapter five of Matthew’s Gospel begins with the beatitudes:
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he taught them saying, blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, blessed are you.”
Our text this morning is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount—Jesus teaching about how to live under the Roman Occupation--
One of my favorite biblical scholars is Walter Wink. And he offers a brilliant interpretation of this gospel passage from Matthew--
He notes that first, on that line about not resisting an evil doer—a different translation, from Scholars Version of the Bible, reads: Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.
Jesus doesn’t actually tell us not to resist evil—but instructs us to resist in a particular way.
Second, to understand this passage, Wink argues, we must consider the context—Roman Rule— in which Jesus was teaching:
So, let’s look at the directive to turn the other cheek:
Jesus says if any strike you on the RIGHT cheek, turn the other cheek. In that time, to be slapped on the right cheek was not to cause injury or harm—but to keep one in one’s place.
It’s a backhanded slap—men to women, slave owners to slaves, adults to children. Let me show you:
Volunteer. Illustration. How would I strike you on the right check—with my right hand. If you turn your other cheek, how would I strike you—the left hand only for unclean tasks—ONLY EQUALS FIGHT WITH FISTS. The last thing someone who is trying to put you in your place would do is fight you like an equal.
So, to turn the other cheek is to say, I won’t cooperate with this system—I won’t stay in my place—I demand to be treated fairly and with dignity. You cannot push me around anymore. I will not be reduced to your tactics of violence, oppression, fear, and revenge.
Turning the other cheek is what Walter Wink calls The Third way of Jesus—it’s not fight or flight—to fight is to rely on violence, revenge, and retaliation. Meanwhile, our flight instinct keeps us passive, submissive and withdrawn.
What Jesus is teaching is something all-together new--
Jesus is teaching how to resist violent oppression in a counter-cultural way—non-violently and creatively.
By instructing us to turn the other cheek, Jesus is literally teaching us how to be “cheeky”—a little sassy, a little irreverent, and a little playful in reclaiming power as children of God--
This third way of Jesus is how we are to be salt of the earth and light to the world—not hiding our light or losing our flavor.
We are called to be Salty, Cheeky children of God--
Not without a cost, of course--
Jesus tells us, We’re going to get in trouble for it:—Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness--
We don’t live under Roman Rule any longer—we are not slaves—children are protected and loved in our society—we we live in a democracy with civil rights and civil liberties.
But, of course, it wasn’t always this way in our country--
Consider the lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement--
Jesus’ third way of non-violent resistance to oppression and injustice was the hallmark of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Remember how Oscar Romero, a Roman Catholic Bishop turned martyr, led a non-violent army of peasants to resist the corrupt and repressive government in El Salvador.
This salty, cheeky third way of Jesus remains relevant to us today—because even though we might not be under Roman Rule—we live in a world where unjust power still oppresses far too many of our brothers and sisters--
As followers of Christ, we continue to be called by God to be light and salt in the world—to be cheeky and salty—as we assert our power and expose injustice—through active non-violent and creative resistance.
God persists in calling God’s people to discern a third way of non-violent resistance to evil—Even now in 2017.
I want to close with a word on that last line in today’s Gospel: Be perfect.
The word perfect is translated from the Greek word telos meaning end or purpose.
This instruction from Jesus to be perfect is less about moral perfection and more about intended outcome.
One way of understanding this call to live according to our purpose might be to “Be the person and community God intended you to be, just as God is the one God is supposed to be.” (loose)
As Christians, we are intended to become like Jesus: Salty, cheeky, capable of love and forgiveness, a willingness to go where other people don’t want to go—to the margins with the poor and excluded—we are intended through our baptism to become like Jesus: a light in the darkness— prayerful and compassionate and willing to resist evil and injustice.
Listen to how St. Augustine describes this becoming—he writes—the Lord’s supper is meant to be that place to “receive who you are and to become what you have received.”
Soon we will come to this table. We will receive who we are and be sent forth to become what we have received. Salt. Light. Compassion. Courage. Non-violent resistance to evil. Compassion and Love.
May God continue to shape us, St. James, especially here and now, as the people and community God intends us to become.
Anne K. Ellsworth
February 19, 2017
St. James Episcopal Church
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23
pages 98-111 of The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, Walter Wink, 1998.
My Sermons (and other thoughts)
a sampling of sermons preached in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and a sprinkling of other writings