A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, February 23, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:38-48
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was such an important legal shift it has a name.  Well, two names, really.  I have known it as the lex talionis, but I have also seen it referenced as the jus talionis.  This law is believed to have been introduced to curb violence.  “Ten of yours for every one of mine,” was the typical method of retaliation.  But it became “one for one” when this legal concept was introduced.  “By Jesus’ time, many rabbis had recommended that such injuries should be compensated financially rather than physically.”[1]

Jesus says, You know this rule:  an eye for an eye.  But I say, don’t react violently against one who is doing evil.  And don’t be a doormat either.  There’s a third way.  Jesus offers three examples of this third way.

For his first example he says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”[2]  “You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist.  But such a blow would fall on the left cheek.  To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand.  But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks …  [H]ow would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? …  [T]he only feasible blow is a backhand.

“The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade.  It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior.  Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews.  The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.

“Notice Jesus’ audience: ‘If anyone strikes you.’  These are people used to being thus degraded.  He is saying to them, ‘Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore.  If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.’ …  By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again:  his nose is in the way. …  The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.  This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship.  He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him.

“By turning the cheek, then, the ‘inferior’ is saying:  ‘I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.’ …

“In that world of honor and shaming, the ‘superior’ has been rendered impotent to instill shame in a subordinate.  He has been stripped of his power to dehumanize the other.  As Gandhi taught, ‘The first principle of nonviolent action is that of non-cooperation with everything humiliating.’”[3]

To understand Jesus second example, it might be helpful to think about Monsanto and India.[4]  Monsanto has been accused, I think justly, of ruining the lives of many Indian farmers.  They have been selling genetically modified seeds to farmers, promising higher yields and lower damage from pests and drought.  The seeds are expensive.  The seeds are also often sterile after one generation (farmers can’t plant next year from seeds harvested this year because they won’t germinate).  And if they are still fertile, farmers had to sign contracts that they wouldn’t save seeds from one season to the next.  Seeds were bought on credit with their farms as collateral; the yields weren’t as promised; farmers went into debt and lost their farms, sometimes leaving them with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence is set in a court of law.  A creditor has taken a poor man to court over an unpaid loan.  Only the poorest of the poor were subjected to such treatment.  Deuteronomy 24:10-13 provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening so the poor man would have something in which to sleep.

“Jesus is not advising people to add to their disadvantage by renouncing justice altogether, as so many commentators have suggested.  He is telling impoverished debtors, who have nothing left but the clothes on their backs, to use the system against itself.

“Indebtedness was a plague in first-century Palestine.  Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. …  His hearers are the poor (‘if any one would sue you’).  They share a rankling hatred for a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments.

“Why, then, does Jesus counsel them to give over their undergarments as well?  This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked!  Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Gen. 9:20-27).  By stripping, the debtor has brought shame on the creditor. …

“Shortly before the fall of political apartheid in South Africa, police descended on a squatters’ camp they had long wanted to demolish.  They gave the few women there five minutes to gather their possessions, and then the bulldozers would level their shacks.  The women, apparently sensing the residual puritanical streak in rural Afrikaners, stripped naked before the bulldozers.  The police turned and fled. So far as I know, that camp still stands.”[5]

“Going the second mile, Jesus’ third example, is drawn from the relatively enlightened practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced or impressed labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples.  Such compulsory service was a constant feature in Palestine from Persian to late Roman times.  Whoever was found on the street could be coerced into service, as was Simon of Cyrene, who was forced to carry Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). …

“What we have overlooked in this passage is the fact that carrying the pack a second mile is an infraction of military code. …

“It is in this context of Roman military occupation that Jesus speaks.  He does not counsel revolt.  One does not ‘befriend’ the soldier, draw him aside and drive a knife into his ribs.  Jesus was surely aware of the futility of armed insurrection against Roman imperial might; he certainly did nothing to encourage those whose hatred of Rome would soon explode into violence.

“But why carry the soldier’s pack a second mile?  Does this not go to the opposite extreme by aiding and abetting the enemy?  Not at all.  The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed.  The rules are Caesar’s, but how one responds to the rules is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.

“Imagine, then, the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack, and the civilian says, ‘Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.’  Why would he want to do that?  What is he up to?  Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop!  Is this a provocation?  Is he insulting the legionnaire’s strength?  Being kind?  Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment?  Will this civilian file a complaint?  Create trouble? …  Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack!  The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.”[6]

“Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy’s becoming just also.  Both sides must win.  We are summoned to pray for our enemies’ transformation, and to respond to ill treatment with a love that is not only godly but also from God.”[7]

Jesus logically moves on to another bit of conventional wisdom:  “love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  Only Jesus offers this radical alternative:  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus says that this is necessary to be children of God.

He has just encouraged the crowd around him to claim their status of children of God by standing up to their oppressors.  Now he says that standing up for yourself is not enough.  Love and pray for your enemies.

But this is hard to do!  Right now, I’m finding it very hard to love the Arizona legislators who passed an “it’s okay to discriminate if you do it in the name of religion” bill.  I’m finding it hard to love Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad or Nicholas Muduro.  Yet this is Jesus call to us.

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with a blessing.  He starts with the beatitudes and then tells the people around him that they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  And, so, they are called to something more.  The letter of the law isn’t enough.  There is another way, a way that allows them to claim their inheritance as children of God without dehumanizing others.  You don’t have to put other down to lift yourself up.  Then Jesus offers this conclusion:  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

“Be perfect.  Not be pretty good, be prepared, be all that you can be.  Be perfect.  Not practically perfect, almost perfect, or really something.  Be perfect.”[8]  I know that there are some who say the Greek doesn’t mean “perfect” the way contemporary American English uses the word today.  Some say a better translation is “complete” or “finished.”  I think “perfect” is the right word here.

At the end of his series of commands “extending the ethical demands of the law, Jesus does not wind up with, ‘Be mature/complete/headed in the right direction, as your Father in heaven is mature/complete/headed in the right direction.’  Rather, he says, ‘Be perfect, … as your heavenly Father is perfect.’”[9]

But this entire chapter is crazy, so why not include this crazy call to be perfect?  I mean I’ve had days that have started off pretty well.  I’ve avoided being angry at people.  I haven’t objectified anyone.  I’ve kept all my commitments.  I haven’t told even a white lie.  I’ve claimed my identity as a child of God without resorting to violence.  I haven’t had a hateful thought about my enemies.  But then I got out of bed.

Maybe we can understand this call to be perfect as one of the elements in that list of before-rising achievements.  Perhaps Jesus is taking not just seriously, but literally, the imago Dei, the image of God in which we are created.  “What he seems really to be after is not an improvement in our morality, but a recasting of our theology.  The challenge, one that Jesus will take up time and time again in the Gospel of Matthew, is to help us see what it means to understand God as ‘our Father in heaven.’  [The challenge here is] not the problems, although very real, of patriarchy, abuse, neglect, exploitation, and oppression that can tragically attend to the word ‘father,’ but the problem of accepting that this theology means we are God’s children.  We are, Jesus implicitly argues, God’s heirs, and also God’s flesh and blood, God’s family, God’s descendants and legacy.  We have more to live up to that we ever imagined.”[10]

But before you get all overwhelmed with the burdens of this task of living up to being God’s heirs, consider this.  Maybe it isn’t a task.  Maybe it’s a metaphor.  “Perfection is not an accumulation of good deeds, restrained actions, and pure desires.  Perfection is a state of being, and if Jesus is to be believed, it is our birthright.  The ‘command’ to be perfect is not a call to devout and holy action; it is an invitation to self-recognition, to a level of theological awareness that requires an embrace of the gift given at creation.  To be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect means neither more not less than to be who we already are, in God’s image.”[11]

I’ve been doing some reminiscing these past couple weeks.  I’ve thought back about what we called “the discernment process,” back when we were two congregations trying to determine if God was calling us to merge into one.  I’ve thought back about decisions that were made along the way, including the decision about which building would ultimately be our home.  I’ve thought back to the plans we made to guide our process – and then revised and then revised again.

I will say this about the whole thing:  it wasn’t perfect.  But then I don’t think “perfect” is possible – at least not in the way we typically use the word.  It was, however, one where we sought to live out our identity as children of God.  The guiding question all along the way was, “Would we be able to do more ministry if we make this decision or that one?”  And by “more ministry,” we meant “our part of God’s mission in the world as God’s descendants and legacy.”  And in that sense, it was as perfect as possible.

Today is the last Sunday we will worship in this building as the owners of it.  One Friday, the sale is scheduled to close, and next Sunday, we will worship here as renters.  This is a time of transition, one that we should mark in some way, so I invite you to turn to the Litany of Release, printed on the insert in your bulletins.

A Litany of Release

One:  For a dozen decades, we and our spiritual ancestors have been stewards of this land and the buildings that have stood here.

Many:  For a dozen decades, we and our spiritual foreparents sought to minister in this place, living by faith and love.

One:  People who live this way seek a spiritual community, build a spiritual community, bring in and embrace a spiritual community.

Many:  They desire a better world, one where God’s will is done, as it is in heaven.

One:  These are our spiritual foreparents.  These are the old alumni.

Many:  These are the ones who established, with their sweat and tears, facilities to serve God’s mission.  These are the ones who taught us good stewardship, and so this facility has served us well as we have sought to serve God.

One:  Yet the old hymn teaches us, “New occasions teach new duties.”

Many:  And so we take another step into the future, embracing change even though it can be difficult.

One:  Today, we acknowledge a change in our stewardship.  At the end of this week, we will no longer be the primary stewards of this property.  We will be released from this responsibility.

Many:  Today, we acknowledge a change in our stewardship.  At the end of this week, we will take on the new stewardship responsibility of being good neighbors to the new stewards of this property.

One:  And we remember, all that we “have” isn’t really ours anyway.  All that we “have” is really God’s.

Many:  God places different resources into our hands at different times so that we can fulfill our part of God’s mission in the world.

One:  And so we pray:

All:  We thank you, O God, that you have entrusted to us and to our spiritual foreparents the care for and use of this land and buildings.  We pray that you look upon this history with kindness and can say to us, “Well done.”  Nurture us through these transitions.  Empower us in our new duties.  And bless the new owners as they become stewards of this place.  Amen.

[1] Karen C. Sapio, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels:  Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 111.

[2] At this point in the manuscript, I quote Walter Wink at length from his book The Powers That Be.  When I was actually preaching, I simply talked, sometimes referring to my manuscript, sometimes just paraphrasing Wink.

[3] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 101-102.

[4] See, for instance, Vandana Shiva, “The Seeds of Suicide: How Monsanto Destroys Farming,” Global Research, http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-seeds-of-suicide-how-monsanto-destroys-farming/5329947 (posted 27 January 2014; accessed 22 February 2014).

[5] Wink, op. cit., 103-106.

[6] Ibid, 106-108.

[7] Ibid, 110.

[8] William F. Brosend II, “Matthew 5:38-48 – Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Gospels:  Matthew, Volume 1 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2013), 110.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 112.

[11] Ibid, 114.