SERMON 2/18/11 Epiphany 7A
Jesus said, “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. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
One of the most recognized acts of slapstick comedy is the group pie fight. We’ve all seen these on television. The Three Stooges and many other comics have entertained us with their “tit for tat” bakery battles. One side begins the battle with a volley of whipped cream filled pans, which is proceeded by a retaliatory volley, and then back and forth until all parties involved have pie on their face. We find humor in this absurdity, but this simple comedy routine is emblematic of something found in many of our relationships.
When evil is done to us, often times our natural reaction is to act in such a way that we maintain the upper hand. We feel we must react to aggression with aggression, to hurt with hurt. “An eye for an eye” “a tooth for a tooth,” was a legal penalty common in many cultures including early Judaism. It came into being in order to limit excessive retaliation against those who brought aggression to others. When this “tit for tat” moral code emerged, it was seen as real moral progress, but it didn’t quite go far enough. Revenge and retaliation does not bring things into equilibrium, it restores one person’s position over another’s. The intent is to restore and protect the ego. Protecting our egos is embraced as a norm in western culture however; it contradicts God’s way of radical love that we hear about in today’s gospel reading.
Love your enemies and prayer for those who persecute you. Jesus doesn’t propose a sentimental idealism here, but offers us a strategy for dealing with those with whom we come into conflict. The love strategy is not introverted aggression or passive aggressive behavior, it is a way of life that allows love to overcome differences. The Divine ideal for human relations is loving community. Jesus gives us some culturally specific examples of what that might look like.
The people of Israel were under the occupation of a foreign, armed force, namely the Roman legions. As these soldiers traveled throughout foreign lands, they carried their own personal equipment and belongings with them. As their travel distances grew greater, the individual soldiers compelled the people they ruled, to carry their gear for them. The minimum distance you would have had to carry a Roman soldier’s gear was at least one mile. It was symbol of their authority, and an act of humiliation directed toward those they occupied. Jesus teaches us that the outward act of humble self-giving love is not only to carry the one mile, that which is expected, but also to go the second mile.
Today, going the extra mile, going beyond, surpassing expectations is very different from humiliation; it is a way to move up the ladder and get ahead; a way to support the ego. Jesus command to go the extra mile turns the notion of ego inflation and even humiliation, into an act of loving humility. Letting go of the ego, and humbling oneself, would have been required to go that extra mile as a servant to the soldier. Imagine the soldier’s reaction, when after a mile, he began looking for someone else on which to heap his pack, but rather he noticed that the person he had earlier oppressed was going the extra distance with him. It may be that this simple act of humble love changed the heart of a hardened oppressor.
Remember the woman caught in adultery? The crowd was chasing her down ready to stone her to death in retaliation for her so-called breaking of the purity law. The woman did not retaliate with counter-accusations; she did not throw stones at the crowd. Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter and challenged the crowd’s thinking. Paraphrasing, he said, “OK, stone her … but the one of you without sin, cast the first stone.” They all knew they were guilty of some act of sin at some point. “Do not resist the evil doer, turn the other cheek.” There is a deeper teaching being highlighted here in the words of Our Lord. The reality is that we all have been the evil doer at some level. We’ve said the wrong thing to someone, we’ve mis-judged someone, we’ve spoken vile about someone else. Maybe Jesus is saying that when we are on the receiving end of evil, we are reminded that we too have been guilty of doing evil. Maybe we are called to stand in the humility of our own brokenness, and stop the vicious cycle of “tit for tat,” by embracing a non-violent resistance to evil.
Jesus reminds us to let go of our egos, to humble ourselves, and recognize that we are one family invited to participate in a radical kind of love. The love God summons us to embrace is one in which the other’s welfare is of greater importance than our own. Like the crowd ready to stone the woman, we must realize that in God’s eyes, we are all equally broken people, but we not of our own doing, are brought into right relationship through Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Divine notion for what human relations could be was fully revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus humbled himself. Jesus accepted the humility of the cross and did not resist the evil brought upon him. He died as a result. The reality is that God could have responded, but that was not in God’s divine heart. God’s passionate love for creation is grounded in self-giving love. God’s love did not end with death. Christ was raised to new life.
Humble, self-giving love overcame and stands as the model for human relations, which was God’s Divine dream from the start. Right relationships embrace letting go of our ego, and humbly loving the other as we love ourselves. This is not sentimental idealism; it is the promises of God that the fulfillment of right relationships will one day come to pass. This is the beauty of the Kingdom of God.
The church is the beacon of hope that love will win out in the end. God’s love is perfect, and we are invited to participate in that perfect love, not only for those we love, but those we find difficult to love. As the church, we can be agents and representatives of Christ’s humble, self-giving love. When we face conflict and relational brokenness, we have a choice. We can react with humility and with a non-aggressive spirit, or we can just hurl another pie. Humility begins with letting go of the ego and embracing the humble spirit of self-giving love. It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, in fact, it’s counter-cultural. It’s not radical love merely to love those we find easy to love. Back in the day, even immoral tax collectors loved those who loved them; Gentiles blessed those who blessed them. The life we are summoned to lead requires us to let go of our ego and love those we find unlovable. The life God demonstrated for us in Christ begins today. Being perfectly loving, as the Heavenly Father is perfectly loving is our ultimate destination, despite our shortcomings. Jesus simply said, “Love one another.”