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Last week we talked about how Jesus could be seen as giving “alternative facts”, changing scripture altogether with his series of assertions – you have heard it said that, but I say this. The reality is that he changes nothing, but only deepens the intent of the law, and such work is challenging. SUPER challenging. Blessed are the meek? Love your enemies? Turn the other cheek? Exhausting!! If you aren’t poor in Spirit at the beginning of his sermon, you will be by the end. Now one interpretive strategy is that this is not meant to be something that we actually do, but such a high ideal that we cannot possibly achieve it and must rely on God’s grace. Perhaps there’s some merit to that. Or we could take the stance of lots of other Christians and simply stay away from this text, sticking to 1st Peter or the late letters attributed to Paul, discussing how the Bible helps strengthen our marriage or proposing monuments to the Ten Commandments but never to the Beatitudes. Of course, we could also take this section absolutely to heart, as the core of what a transformational faith really means. And then there’s another option – choice D. All of the above, since theology is often much more like the old story of the blind people describing an elephant, each of us governed by our own lenses, our own experiences, our own identity as we attempt to describe something as vast and, ultimately, unknowable as God.
But for now, here in this place, let’s just take this passage at face value, OK? Let’s look at what’s actually here, in the context of Jesus, and see what his alternative values might mean for us today.
That begins with language. For translation really has a big impact on the ways that we hear, and thereby seek to follow, these instructions from Jesus. I’d like to highlight three words in the passage – in our NRSV translation they are: resist, love and perfect. Those words have really specific meanings, especially at a time of resistance, just after a holiday supposedly about love and in a culture where perfection in appearance, performance and relationship is sort of “in our faces.” So, here are some alternative facts on these words…
The word “resist” may inspire us right now, but what do we do with the phrase – “do not resist an evildoer?” That seems directly against what we are gearing ourselves to do, doesn’t it? Like we’re supposed to be resisting things that, perhaps hyperbolically at times, get labeled as evil. That word, in Greek, is antistenai, and it literally means “stand against” or “withstand.” Theologian Walter Wink suggests that antistenai has to do with violence. As John Petty notes in his commentary on this passage, Wink notes its repeated use in Scripture as a word for “warfare.” It also appears in Ephesians in a context of warfare (6:13) and the ancient historian Josephus, writing in the time of Jesus, continually uses antistenai to mean armed struggle. Therefore, Wink argues, the sentence should be translated: “Do not violently resist evil.” John Petty notes that, “This is entirely consistent with the over-all sense of the text, especially as Jesus then moves to some illustrative examples of how to resist evil non-violently.”
This matters because it is an alternative, not to facts, but to the values of even our own time, where we still hold the value of “might makes right” every bit as much as the Roman empire that Jesus criticized so often. Resistance itself seems to imply violence so much that we have a hard time separating them, with people going way out of their way to emphasize that a protest or a rally is “non-violent”, sometimes even to the people involved in the rally. We must be cognizant that the most obvious example of non-violent protest to most of us, the civil rights movement led, in part, by Dr. King, was inspired broadly by the ethos of Jesus, and the words attributed to him in these texts.
Dr. King wrote in his autobiography that,
“One of the greatest problems of history is that the concepts of love and power
are usually contrasted as polar opposites. Love is identified with a resignation of power
and power with a denial of love. What is needed is a realization that power without love
is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice.
Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
This “love” that Jesus calls us to in relation to our neighbors (and our enemies) is not greeting card love, nor a dozen roses love. It isn’t the irrational love that a parent has for a child, nor is it patriotism – a love for one’s country. It is, in the Greek, agape love, which is the philosophical “highest” form of love, self-sacrificial and devotional and is often described by scholars as the kind of love at work in salvation, not tied to our feelings about one another. It is quite possible, therefore to love your neighbor, to agape them, and not like them. At all.
Agape is not a kind of love we recognize much, for it is the love that fuels the “common good”, a love that holds up the intrinsic value of very human being – every single other. The agape demand lies at the heart of the Golden Rule, recognizing that we must first claim our own dignity before we can assert it for someone else. It is agape that Jesus evokes when he tells us to “turn the other cheek”, which is not a directive to take abuse, but an insistence that agape is for us, too…that God’s love devotional love without exceptions means that we are all worthy of dignity.
As many of you know, and as blogger John Petty describes well, Jesus adapts this well known scriptural directive on violence with a deeper assertion…
“People in ancient times did not initiate action with their left hand since the left hand was considered unclean. If they were going to strike someone, they would do it with their right hand.
The physics don’t work. How would someone land a right hook on someone else’s right cheek? They can’t because it can’t be done. The only way to strike another person on their right cheek is by back-handing the person, which is an insult, an expression of dominance…
Jesus does not counsel passivity in the face of insult–quite the contrary. If someone backhands you on the right cheek, lift your head back up, turn your cheek and expose the left one as well. You have dignity as a human being. Don’t let someone else take that away from you…[define] your own self and [don’t let] someone else define you as “lesser.” This is how to resist evil non-violently.”
This is the same language that non-violence training taught the bus boycotters in Birmingham, and the resistance in Selma…were you prepared, the trainers would ask the participants, to be so dedicated, so convinced, so faithful, that you don’t strike back? That was resistance.
The same is true of the language about the cloak and the loaning of money – both resistance to an economic system that treated some people as “lesser”, that did not recognize people’s dignity first and foremost. Agape is placed as the antidote to that. It is a love that does not depend on the world’s criteria for love…a love that pushes us to a higher standard…a love that asks us to see beyond how we might feel about someone or something at any given moment.
It’s a pretty high bar. And it might feel, at first glance, like Jesus is setting up the impossible for us. If you are like me, every day brings a new chance to be angry about something, a new opportunity to shake your head, lose heart, even give in to the very real temptation to start hating and plotting some vengeance. The words of Jesus seem platitudes for a nicer time, or perhaps even naively quaint, but certainly not instructions for a moral or spiritual life. Not here. Not now. Catch me when times are better, Jesus.
Yet times weren’t better then. Jesus doesn’t speak these words to a crowd of middle-class families, all getting their mortgage paid on a nice house, saving for college and taking a vacation once a year. He speaks to those on the very edge, deeply under the thumb of empire, far worse off economically and socially that we are in our context. These are people more desperate than us, not less. What then does it mean that Jesus calls them to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect?” Seems almost cruel to ask someone in such conditions to up their game, to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, theologically speaking. Is that what Jesus is saying?
So, finally, let’s look this word “perfect”, as in verse 48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In Greek, that word is Teleios. It is sometimes translated as perfect, sometimes as complete, often as mature or even as purpose. Perfect to us, especially in this context, implies a moral flawlessness that seems pretty daunting, if not impossible. Being perfect as the mark of faithfulness presents me with the same issue I had as a kid reading comic books. I liked Batman over Superman because…well, maybe I could get enough money, in good enough shape and have a voice gravely enough to be Batman. But even as an 8 year-old I knew I was never going to fly or be bulletproof. Superman was unattainable, as is the “sinless” perfection that is portrayed to us in Jesus, the archetype of our faith. But maybe that’s not really what is being said…
In his commentary on this passage, President of The Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, David Lose says –
“…the Greek word telos and implies less a moral perfection than it does
reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target.
The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, “Be the person and community God created you to be,
just as God is the One God is supposed to be.”
It is a far different task to try and be the person and community God created us to be than it is to be perfect. In fact, part of being that person, or that community, is that we aren’t perfect. We are broken and wounded, not enough and WAY too much. But, the old adage goes, our task is not to be able to see the entire distance, but to take the journey. Like driving a car on a country road at night, our headlights only let us see a few feet in front of us…but if we trust, and stay on the road, we can make the entire trip that way.
It is important right now for us to remember that the Sermon on the Mount is supposed to help us, not paralyze us as an ideal so high that we just walk away. And it is important for us to remember that it is not our task, each of us as individuals, to bring about the kin-dom ourselves. It’s our job to live like we really believe that Christ is at work, the Spirit is alive and God is still speaking, still creating, actively bringing in God’s kin-dom, and that our task is to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kin-dom in the meantime.
There is sin in the world…in each of us, and in our systems. But God is not limited by that. And this counter-cultural approach is shown to us by Jesus as a way of participating in what is not yet reality, but is real. The kin-dom, which Jesus promises us is all around us if we will have the eyes for it. It is very hard to see right now, in part because it is so tempting to begin to play the game the way the world does. So our first resistance starts within our own hearts.
Martin Luther once said that the Christian life is not about arriving but always about becoming. And St. Augustine at the Lord’s Supper would invite people to “receive who you are” and then “go become what you have received.” This morning is a chance to continue receiving the identity God gives us and to become the person God has created us to be, and to practice that…even in small ways. It’s a chance to be holy, to be, dare I say it, what the Roman authorities called “Little Christs” – Christians.