Anglican Church of Canada
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany February 19, 2017
This is a hard saying, these words of Jesus we have just heard, who can receive it?
We have moved into the very core of the Sermon on the Mount, to the point where Jesus’s teaching seems most difficult, most impossible, most unhelpful even. “Do not resist evil; turn the other cheek; if someone wants to take your coat, give them your shirt as well; love your enemies;” and finally, to top it all off, “be perfect as God is perfect.” Where do we even start?
It’s not so much that this teaching is difficult – we can expect following Jesus to be difficult. It’s not even so much that it is impossible, though we will have to talk about that, too – with God, nothing is impossible. But there are so many situations where it is so unhelpful. Does Jesus mean to say to an abused woman, beaten up for the nth time by her husband or boyfriend, go back and turn the other cheek? That’s what women have been told for centuries, and many have come to believe it, and it has not been helpful. Does he say to a bullied child, just be a doormat? Because the bullies of this world won’t lose interest; the smell of weakness excites them, and they will only humiliate their victims more. Does Jesus mean to say to the exploited poor, don’t resist your exploiters; they have taken away your union and your job protections to make the wealthy even wealthier – now give them your health-care too. Because it’s guaranteed, they will take it, and they will keep on demanding more. And is Jesus saying to us, at a moment in our history where evil, where arrogance and cruelty and intolerance and our worst instincts seem to be gaining ground in our society, “don’t resist evil; just ignore it and it will go away”? Because that is incredibly dangerous; and what is more, it doesn’t seem to be what our faith teaches us.
In all these cases, and many more, there is a common theme: often not resisting evil is in fact a way of feeding evil. It puts us in a co-dependent relationship where the worst instincts of other people are strengthened and fed by our weakness. We’re not really being selfless for another person’s benefit; we are actually harming that other person as well, by letting them get away with their bad behaviour, by encouraging it, in fact, on some unconscious level. Surely that is not what Jesus wants from us.
It is easy to look for some way of explaining away Jesus’s words, of reading them as an exaggeration, or as symbolic. I think it is important to take them at their face value, to assume he is speaking literally. But reading words literally means we need to pay close attention to what words mean; and in the Bible there is always the possibility that something has gotten lost in translation. And in fact there are at least two places in this passage where our translation is a bit misleading.
The first of these is the phrase “do not resist evil”. New Testament scholars tell us that the Greek word for resist is almost always used in a context of violent resistance, of fighting back. If this is the case, then the more accurate translation would be “do not resist evil violently”. And that makes a big difference. It means Jesus is not asking us to cooperate in evil, or to shut our eyes and hope it will go away. He is teaching us the hard lesson of non-violent resistance, of confronting evil by refusing to play its game.
“Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” That is in fact another form of resistance. First of all, it can really piss them off. It can, sometimes, transform relationships: if we refuse to hate back, sometimes it forces the other person to look past their hatred. Sometimes: there are no guarantees, it would be naive to believe it always works that way. We can’t always be reconciled, and sometimes we just need to step away from a relationship. But whether or not the other person is changed, trying to love them changes the dynamic of the relationship. We remind ourselves that the real enemy, the real evil, is their behaviour and attitudes; it is not the person himself or herself. That person is a beloved child of God – as hard as that may be to see. By trying to see the person through God’s eyes (because that’s what love means), we are distinguishing between the person and the evil they are doing – and that keeps us focussed on the real enemy, the behaviour, not the person.
“If someone compels you to go a mile, go a second mile as well.” Here Jesus is being, quite simply, political. Who forces anyone to go a mile, anyway? Well, in an occupied country, it is the occupying power; it is only a Roman soldier who would do that to a Jew, requisitioning them to carry a burden for them. It is the brute use of power. There were many in Roman Judaea who knew the answer to that problem: it was to revolt, to kill the Romans, to drive them from the land. By suggesting an alternative course, Jesus is making a political statement. Going the extra mile transforms the original act of oppression; it makes it something voluntary, and so it turns the victim into an active participant. The soldier suddenly has to see them not just as a body to be exploited, but as a person they have to find some way of living together with.
“Turn the other cheek” – think of how Gandhi and Martin Luther King used this principle as a force for change. By not resisting evil, by offering their bodies prayerfully and publicly to the abuse of others, they changed hearts and minds. Not necessarily the hearts and minds of the thugs who beat them up; but the hearts and minds of a nation. You may remember the scene in the Gandhi movie, when the rows of men step calmly forward to be clubbed down by British soldiers; and then the next row, row after row. It is horrible to watch. But it was a victory. Because at that moment the British regime lost any claim to legitimacy. It was shown up for what it really was: not the enlightened civilizing European influence, but a regime of brute violence. By not resisting the soldiers, Gandhi’s followers effectively resisted and ultimately ended the imperial rule.
Thank God we live in less brutal times. Or perhaps in a less brutal place: what has happening at Standing Rock this week is brutal enough. These are challenging and dangerous times nonetheless. In a democratic society, in any society that strives for simple human decency, there are attitudes and forces that threaten that decency. We are seeing a resurgence of those attitudes: racism and bigotry, anger and resentment, selfishness and an unwillingness to listen to and understand the other. Make no mistake about it, it is our job – as citizens, but especially as Christians – to resist these attitudes whenever we meet them. Jesus reminds us, though, that it is the attitudes, not the people, that are our enemies. And so we resist non-violently. We don’t attack the people, even in words; we respect them. After all, their bad behaviour probably comes from a feeling they don’t get any respect. But we call them, respectfully, on behaviour that is unacceptable; we tell the truth and confront the lies; we invite them to think more deeply; we try to listen to where they are really hurting, and so we model for them how they should be treating other people.
I said there were two places in this passage where something gets lost in translation. The other is the phrase: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” To me, at least, the English word “perfect” implies never ever doing anything wrong. A perfect score on a test means we got every question right. So it sounds like Jesus is saying we mustn’t ever make any mistakes, or have any faults, or ever mess up. As though we’re just supposed to be like God. And if he means that, well, we can give up and go home now, because it’s never going to happen.
But here again, the Greek word the gospel uses has a different flavour altogether. It means something more like “whole”, or “complete”, or “single-minded”. It is referring to a state where we are at one with ourselves, where we have become the person we are supposed to be, where our beliefs and words and actions all line up. A state where we don’t profess to live by love, but then whenever we are hurt or angry, we just forget about love and strike back in hatred.
Now of course this kind of wholeness and integrity is also a long way from us, it may also seem impossible. But it is a different kind of impossible; not a one-strike-you’re-out kind of impossible, but a ideal that we can continue to grow into. Even though we will never get there in this lifetime, never be completely at one with ourselves, we can make progress.
And we must never forget who is telling us this. These are not simply commandments from the sky, telling us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies and the rest of it, and then leaving us to sink or swim. Because we are going to sink.
These are the words of Jesus. The words of one who doesn’t just command these things; first of all he came to live them. Words of one who practised loving his enemies, who practised non-violence, who practised turning the other cheek until it took him to the very cross. And by practising all these things, he offered the final resistance to evil: he exposed its brutality and contempt for human life; he raised up the persecuted, despised victim to the highest dignity, so that we see there God himself; he allowed hatred and sin to do its worst, and then to stand defeated and helpless as love rose triumphant.
So we are not left alone with these hard sayings. Jesus has gone before us down this road, and he walks with us today. On the one hand, this is not good news: it means there are no guarantees that things will go well, at least in the short-term. Look where it got him: we could get hurt; we could even get killed. On the other hand, though, it is the best news ever. It means that it has already been accomplished: he has overcome the power of sin and death, and all that is left is the mopping up operation, all that is left is to bring the clear pure light of his love into the pockets of darkness and ignorance and resentment that are still out there. All that is left is for us to grow into wholeness and integrity, as the world grows with us. And all the while, in the words of one of the ancient theologians of the church, “Jesus accompanies us on our road, offering his cheek to blows and his back to whips,”((Hilary of Poitiers, On Matthew 4.25, quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 1, p. 382.)) transforming this world by the power of his love.