Epiphany 7, Year A ~ Matthew 5:38-48
Have you ever heard the story about the woman who was bitten by a rabid dog and went to the doctor’s too late? Upon visiting the office, the doctor said, “I am sorry ma’am, there is nothing more I or any doctor can do for you.” The woman immediately walked over to the counter in the check-up room and began to write what seemed to be an endless list of names. The doctor, feeling very sorry for this woman, who just found out the end of her life had arrived, continued to give her sheet after sheet of paper to continue composing her list. Finally after several minutes of this ongoing litany of names he looked into her eyes, placed his hand on her shoulder, and said, “May I ask what it is you are writing this list of names for, perhaps a will or family members to contact?” She looked up at him and without batting an eye responded, “These are the names of all the people I’m going to bite!”
It’s a cute story. We are all allowed to laugh, no lightning from heaven will rain down upon us for doing so. Honestly, we all can associate with this woman’s plan at some point in our life. We have each felt the pain and scourge of enemies, often many of them having once been friends or family, attacking us. We know what it is like to wish certain people out of the picture once and for all. If we were rabid, chances are, at some point we would think of a person or two we would like to bite into, quite literally, and take down with us. We are human. God get’s it, he came to us as a human and no doubt knew the temptation to lunge and sink his teeth into a person who was doing harm to himself or others.
It’s human nature to seek justice, to seek some form of retaliation for evils committed by others. Our modern courts are established for this very reason. There has always been a sense of need to keep things in order and to protect by disciplining, this isn’t a new concept nor unique to American democracy. In ancient times it was the perception of most people that God worked in the same way, pouring out wrath on evildoers. Therefore, in the creation of the Mosaic Law (much of it can be read in the Book of Leviticus), the “lex talionis” or the law of retaliation was established in an attempt to create fair justice in the land of Israel. Regardless, if a harm, or evil, was committed intentionally or not the judges were to determine and authorize the law of retaliation. Those of us who are highly advanced in our state of endless love might jump to the conclusion that this law of retaliation is downright evil but actually it was created to safeguard against excessive retaliation. The law required that the punishment essentially “fit the crime.” It eliminated the possibility for arbitrarily chosen punishments seeking to get blood thirsty revenge rather than justice.
Jesus, however, comes on the scene today and once again turns the law, of his time, upside down, not seeking to destroy it but seeking to take the listeners deeper within its truths. Keep in mind we are still in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, he is still speaking to the same crowd, to people who were called the Salt and the Light of the Earth. Now, Jesus calls them to love in a way that wasn’t thought possible by most of his listeners. He says, “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.” Now let me throw the brakes on right here before you start hearing in your head the sermons you likely grew up with. You know, the sermon that proceeds to tell you to allow yourself to be beaten and destroyed, to be hated, to loose all sense of self-value in the supposed name of ultimate love. Many modern Biblical texts, including the one we used today, do us disservice in translation when it says, “do not resist an evildoer.” A much more authentic translation to the original texts would be, “do not oppose the evildoer violently.” Jesus isn’t, contrary to popular myth, asking us to lay die and be destroyed, without purpose, but rather asking us to never repay evil with further evil. He feels there must be a better way to combat evil! In case we begin to think Jesus is calling us to self-hatred and bodily harm we have our Epistle reading today from St. Paul reminding us that our bodies are God’s temple and we are called to protect and honor them.
Jesus is asking us to consider the possibility that repaying evil with more evil does not lead to peace nor to ultimate fulfillment, rather it only brings a brief sense of respite. The wounds for which we seek repayment will not suddenly disappear upon a successful execution of the law of retaliation, they will continue to sting and continue to manifest themselves because they hold a power of us. A power which only we can destroy with the choice of love over evil. We, as a people of faith, are called to seek the destruction of evil, humiliation and pain by shaming those who have seemingly held power of us. What is the best way to shame one who holds an abusive position of power? To show them that ultimately they have no power because our self worth and our hope does not lie in anything tangible, nor in their decrees or actions, but rather in our faith that Divine Love will have the final word. Our power of hope lies in our innermost being where we constantly recall that we are beautifully and wonderfully created, we are sacred.
Jesus asks us to be willing to turn the other cheek, this isn't a request for further pain, but a visible sign that slapped cheeks do not dictate the course of our lives. And how do we turn our cheeks? As we walk on by saying, “See ya later!” We are called to be willing to give up our cloak along with our coat as a sign that we have chosen to walk a path of love that is illogical to most of humanity but completely logical to God and those who choose to follow after God. We will walk two miles if asked to walk one, we will be willing to go that extra distance in life to remind those around us that our steps are not ordered by hate or by shame or by retaliation but by love. We declare that we choose our steps, in synch with the Spirit of life, and no one else dictates them.
Jesus continues his words of wisdom, knowing quite well what is often hiding in our hearts and agendas. Let’s just say, Jesus was no fool! In case any of the listeners on the Mount, or any of us today, decide…this isn’t so bad, I can love my family when they treat me poorly, I can stand up for myself in a spirit of love without seeking evil for evil…. He goes on to tell us that even our enemies are our neighbors! Jesus asks us a very logical question, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” It doesn’t take great philosophical or spiritual insight to understand that if we are only willing to give to those who have already given to us, we aren’t truly giving at all. The Scriptures tell us, “God first loved us before we loved him (I John 4:19).” It is to this same willing love that Jesus calls each of us today. A love that is so earth shattering that is not dependent upon the actions of others but flows forth freely from each of us to all those around us.
I do not believe, for a second, that Jesus asks us to allow evil, death and murder to run rampant. We need courts of law, we need order and, sadly, we need the law of retaliation. However, Jesus calls us as individuals to not set up courts of law in our hearts that only keep us captive, but rather to let go and allow love to bring healing. We are called to find our self-worth not in the sayings of others or in their actions toward us but in the image of God contained within us all. When we understand that all the power of God is found within us, we can carry out love in unthinkable ways and turn the other cheek as we move onto to new and better things.
Our Gospel reading ended today with words that are almost fearful, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Our minds jump immediately to moral perfection or the ability to never “mess up.” However, once again the original language of this Scripture conveys a very different understanding of perfection. It comes from the Greek word, “teleios,” which means goal, end or purpose. Jesus is asking us to set the ultimate goal of being like the heavenly father, the perfect loving parent. We are asked to become individuals who aren’t given over to anger easily, who love unconditionally, forgive always and give without expectation of reward. We are called to begin a thoughtful and purposeful process.
Jesus isn’t expecting us to walk out the doors this evening and never make a mistake again or to suddenly cease desiring personal retaliation. However, he is asking us to make a conscious decision to move from a place of seeking evil to a place of doing good, even to those we would never call our friends. To set an end goal of giving when someone is in need and choosing love always, even when we are spoken against. This is a demanding request, such divine perfection isn’t easy, but if anyone is allowed to ask this of us, it’s Jesus. The one who showed us the ability to do so most clearly as he hung on a cross and said, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” Are we willing to consider doing the same the next time someone crucifies us? I dare you to try. Chances are few, if any of us, will ever reach our end goal but all the same we keep trying. Radical love is the greatest miracle of all and we each have the power to create it in our own lives and the lives of those around us. And when you fail, just keep the ultimate end goal in mind. That is all Jesus asks of us…set a goal…to love all.