A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
February 20, 2011
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota
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.”
Our world today is marked by nothing if not conflict. From playground bullies to suicide bombers, from road rage to retaliatory gang shootings, from Tea Party conservatives to liberal environmentalists, we seem to be at war with each other and sometimes within ourselves. The Bible has a great deal to say about conflict; Jesus has a lot to say about conflict resolution.
It does not take much preaching finesse to bring today’s Gospel into the present. Three of the statements in this lesson have been used – and misused — to justify moral choices, to support public policy, and to inform personal decision-making for over 4,000 years. If there is ever an occasion for looking beneath the surface of the words, it is here today.
The three statements are: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth;” “Turn the other cheek,” and “If someone demands your coat, give him your cloak as well.” Most of us have heard these expressions in all sorts of contexts.
Jesus brackets the three key statements with the words, “You have heard it said,” and “But I say to you.” It’s important to look at both parts. The first statement: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Let me offer some interpretations of these phrases which are, at the very least, thought-provoking.
This phrase, from Exodus 21, is found even earlier in ancient Babylon in the Hammurabi Code of 1790 B.C. and in many other early legal systems. The principle was originally formulated to limit the scope of public punishment and personal retribution for wrongdoing. (1) Or as Leviticus 24 says, “the injury afflicted is the injury to be suffered.” An eye for an eye, NOT two eyes for an eye.
Certainly this principle appears today when courts mandate that lawbreakers make financial or other restitution to victims, or make restitution to the community through service. However, the 35 states which allow capital punishment say, in effect, that a human life is the only possible reparation for certain kinds of crime.
Last August The Washington Post reported a perverse application of this precept:
“A Saudi Arabian court has ruled that a convicted man’s spinal cord should be severed so he is paralyzed as part of the kingdom’s Islamic-law-oriented retribution for similar injuries he is said to have inflicted upon another man in a fight. In the Saudi justice system, the court establishes guilt and the family of the victim or the victim himself has the option of inflicting the same injury upon the guilty party, seeking blood money or offering a pardon. So far at least two hospitals have refused to carry out the retaliatory procedure, citing ethical concerns.”
Gandhi observed that “an eye for an eye” makes the whole world blind. Jesus abhorred killing, and offers Statement Two as a response:
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The key to understanding this statement is that Jesus designates the right cheek.
First of all, it is assumed that you only hit people with your right hand. . In Jewish society it would be unthinkable to hit someone with the left hand because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn’t even gesture with your left hand in public.
If someone hits you on the right cheek with their right hand, it has to be a backhand blow, more like a slap. The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. The backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews.
But to offer the left side of your face after being slapped on the right put you in a different relationship with the oppressor, that of a human being instead of an inferior who would be slapped on the left check; it signaled that you had no intention of running away and you had more human dignity than to respond in kind. (2) (Hence the term “cheeky,” meaning insolent, nervy, disrespectful.)
The third statement: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” If you read my “Tuesday Letter,” this will be review. Walter Wink explains: “The situation here is dealing with collateral for a loan. If a person was trying to get a loan, normally they would use animals or land as collateral but the very poorest of the poor, according to Deuteronomy 24, could hock their outer garment, their cloak. It was the long robe that they used to sleep in at night and used as an overcoat by day. The creditor had to return this garment every night but could come get it every morning and thus harass the debtor and hopefully get him to repay.
Jesus’ audience is made up of debtors — “If anyone takes you to court…” He is talking to the very people who know they are going to be dragged into court for indebtedness and they know also that the law is on the side of the wealthy. So Jesus says to them, ‘Okay, you are not going to win the case. So take the law and finesse it into a point of absurdity. When your creditor sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well.’
They didn’t have underwear in those days. That meant taking off the only stitch of clothing you had left on you and standing nude, naked, in court. Nakedness was taboo in Israel. The shame of nakedness fell not on the person who was naked, but on the person who observed their nakedness. The creditor is being put in the position of being shamed by the nakedness of the debtor.” (3) The debtor gets everything, but is shamed in the process.
After the series of “You have heard it said’s,” Jesus says, “but I say unto you…” What is it Jesus says?
He says “Do not resist evildoers,” which is strange because Jesus resisted them all the time: throwing the moneychangers out of the temple, protecting those who were oppressed, rescuing underdogs who were hurt by others.
I think that basically Jesus calls us to a higher standard, maybe an impossibly-high standard for most of us. He calls us to love our enemies, as God does. For God sends the rain to the righteous and the unrighteous, and good things do happen to seemingly-bad people.
One way to dismiss this mandate from Jesus is to say that the “evil-doers” of our day possess unprecedented power to hurt thousands if not millions with one act: a nuclear bomb, a terrorist strike on a city; a school shooting. The easily-accessible technology and weaponry, the destructive possibilities we possess now are nothing that could have been envisioned in the first century. Islamic fundamentalists, it seems, hate us with a vehemence that is heart-stopping. .
But the more we give into this thinking, the more we fail to separate the Islamic leaders from the rest of the Muslim people, the more we risk dehumanizing our enemies. The Nazis could do what they did to the Jews and other categories of people because they convinced themselves these individuals were sub-human. So they could be shoved into cattle cars and thrown into ovens. Stunning depersonalization.
But Nelson Mandela said that the main thing that enabled him to endure twenty years in a brutal South African prison was his ability, to detect the humanity in his captors. He even invited his former jailor Christo Brand to his inauguration.
We have to be careful that it is not only our fear that determines our perceptions of our enemies.
I read a sermon by a Lutheran pastor in Stillwater that offered some less theoretical and more down-to-earth applications of today’s lesson:
He said, “It all starts with one. When you go to the store after church maybe you will let someone have that primo parking space, even though you got there first. When your neighbors dog does a number on your lawn, you don’t pick it up and put it on his doorstep; you just pick it up. When your employer tells you that you are no longer needed at the company, you swallow hard and say thank you for the privilege of working here When your Joey is punched by their Billy, you don’t call your lawyer. You call Billy’s dad and say ‘Lets take the boys to a ball game and see if they can become friends not enemies.’” (4)
Sometimes it takes some bold but good-natured humor: Years ago in Cape town when Bishop Desmond Tutu (who is black) was came to a narrow part of the sidewalk, a large white man challenged him to move aside, saying, “I don’t give way to gorillas.” With a smile, a bow and a flourish, Tutu stepped aside and said, “But I do .”
The lessons today are straightforward but their implications are complex; there is more to them than a surface reading suggests; but it is clear that the charge that Jesus makes to each one of us to love, to be gracious, to use violence as a last resort, to discern what is the greatest good..
In closing, let me discuss another common perception you’ve probably heard: that all snowflakes are different.
According to the New Yorker, “In 1988 a cloud scientist named Nancy Knight took a plane up into the clouds over Wisconsin and found two simple but identical snow crystals, hexagonal prisms as alike as if they were twins. She determined that snowflakes start off all alike; their different shapes are owed to their different lives…. They become more individual as they fall, and, buffeted by wind and time, they are translated into ever more strange and complex patterns until at last like us, they touch earth. Then like us, they melt.” (6)
Like snowflakes, we have all been altered by our environments in different ways to become what we are. Yet we are all the temples of God, all, children of God, all, beloved by God. Each and every one of us.
And Jesus “says unto us” today: act like it.
1.Article by Eugene Eung-Chun Park, in Lectionary Homiletics, February-March, 2011.
2. Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence, 2004.
3. Walter Wink, “Nonviolence for the Violence, “ 2004
4. “HE HIT ME FIRST!” by The Rev. Steve Molin, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Stillwater, Minn.,
5. The New Yorker, January 3, 2011.