This will make a lot more sense if you read Matthew 5:38-48 first.
A 14-year-old boy named Jason was on a retreat with the youth group at my church years ago. I was so delighted that he had decided join us. He was a nice kid, but always in trouble. He happened to be on suspension for getting into a fight at school. And this wasn’t the first time. He had a tough exterior that said, “Don’t mess with me.” He wasn’t really a church person and didn’t have a clue about what the Bible said.
So, we’re sitting under a tree in a little circle and we’re studying a passage from Matthew. One of the kids has a Bible and reads it for us. It’s the part about how when somebody strikes you on the cheek, you then let them strike you on the other cheek. Suddenly, Jason interrupts the reader when he bursts out laughing like this was the funniest thing he’s ever heard. “You’re kidding, right?” And he grabs the Bible to see it for himself.
That was the first time I realized just how absurd these words in Matthew are. And Jason’s question might be a good one for all of us to ask Jesus, “You’re kidding, right?” 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’re kidding, right?
Last week my sermon was about how, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is explaining to his followers what it means to be a part of the kingdom of God. Basically, it means that we are not like everybody else. As we continue with the Sermon on the Mount this week, the difference between the reign of God and the way of the world is obvious.
Unfortunately, these words of Jesus may be so familiar to us that we might just blow them off as something that’s impossible to live out in the real world. Or, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, we may use them as an excuse to become a doormat and let people walk all over us. And neither is the case.
So, what’s Jesus really talking about here? Well, he’s talking about something that is such a radical departure from the way people operate in the world that we can scarcely get our heads around it… nonviolence. For Jesus, it’s the only way to live in this world. Because it’s more than a tactic for coping with violence. It grows out of his understanding of the very nature of God.
Jesus takes a radical departure from the way many of the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures saw God. You know those passages where people are evil and God wipes them out? The ones that are so troubling to our modern ears? Well, remember that the Bible comes to us from the perspective of limited human beings speaking from their own experience and context. And the way the earliest writers of the Scriptures saw it, God rewarded good and punished evil. If you messed with God, you were gonna pay. God was retaliatory.
That primitive understanding of God carried over to the way people treated one another. If somebody messed with you, it was your God-given responsibility to make them pay. Justice meant that if someone took your eye out, you took their eye out. You were civilized about it. You didn’t kill them for it, you responded in like manner. It was a fair way of looking at the world that really came from the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. But Jesus refuted it on the basis of the fact that this is not actually the way God operates. God is not, in fact, retaliatory. God’s justice is always tempered with God’s mercy.
[As an aside, let me insert an observation here. Notice how Jesus isn’t afraid to say, I don’t agree with everything I read in the Scriptures. He was never one to say, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” I hope you take that as permission to read the Bible yourself and observe from time to time, “Yeah, the Bible says that, but I don’t agree with it.” Jesus taught us that we don’t have to agree with everything we read in the Bible. To disagree with something in the Bible is not blasphemy because the Bible is not God. A faithful way to read the Scriptures includes sometimes disagreeing.]
So, back to the Sermon on the Mount… Jesus challenged the way people had come to think of God as an eye-for-an-eye kind of God. That’s not the way God works, he says. When we do think of God like that, we’re just projecting out own stuff onto God. As my favorite Anne Lamott quote goes, “You’ll know you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.” And we certainly have a tendency to do that. But, Jesus says, God doesn’t behave like us. He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God doesn’t dole out rewards and punishments according to our deserving. God loves everyone unconditionally, good and bad alike. And instead of making God in our image, as God’s children, God has created you in God’s image, you were made to be like God. Like God in the way you love, even your enemies. When you’re living in the kingdom of God, that’s the way it is. And you’re clearly not living like everybody else.
To live like that, Jesus says, is to be perfect as God is perfect. The word perfect there doesn’t mean you never make a mistake. The word in Greek, telos, means to be complete, mature. I like the way Peterson translates verse 48 in The Message, which is truer to the original meaning: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-given identity. Live generously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
These verses are a handbook for nonviolence. Gandhi took them seriously, and often wondered why Christians didn’t do the same. Martin Luther King, Jr. took them seriously as well. In one of his sermons he said: “To those who hate us we shall say, ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at midnight and beat us and leave us for half-dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.’”
No, these words of Jesus are not suggesting that we go the way of a doormat. Jesus is not speaking about acquiescing to evil. He is speaking about meeting evil head-on. But without violence, which only breeds more violence. As Gandhi once noted, when we live by an eye for and eye we only end up with a whole lot of blind people. Non-violence does not retaliate against those who have wronged us. But it does stand up to evil.
The examples Jesus gives here may not resonate a whole with us as they don’t apply to our context. But Jesus’ original audience had personal experience with every one of them. Remember Jesus is not speaking to the people in power here. Slapping the right cheek, suing, forcing someone to carry your pack were not things his listeners could do. These were the things being done to them. Take his example about being forced to carry another person’s pack one mile, for example. This was a form of servitude the Roman soldiers were permitted to inflict on any of the Jews they encountered. But only one mile was permitted by the law. So, legally after that, the one carrying the burden put it down. But Jesus says, don’t do that. Instead, carry it a second mile. I suspect he got a big laugh from his audience when he said this because that’s the last thing anyone would want to do. But he was teaching them a powerful way of resisting their oppressors. A non-violent way. It was resistance by humiliation.
This reminds me of the four African American men who sat at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro 54 years ago this month. They politely asked to be served. And when they were told to leave, they remained in their seats. They were bullied and degraded in every way possible, but they never returned violence for violence. The more their attackers tried to humiliate them, the more those attackers humiliated themselves by their actions. That’s the power of non-violent resistance. It’s taking a stand against evil without being transformed into the very evil we fight. It is the only way possible of not becoming what we hate. And it is the only hope for our enemies as well.
Once when the South African government canceled a political rally against apartheid, Desmond Tutu led a worship service in St. George’s Cathedral. The walls were lined with soldiers and riot police carrying guns and bayonets, ready to close it down. Bishop Tutu began to speak of the evils of the apartheid system and how rulers and authorities that propped it up were doomed to fail. As he pointed a finger at the police who were recording his every word, he said, “You may be powerful – but you are not God. God will not be mocked. You have already lost.”
And then, when the tension couldn’t possibly get any higher, Bishop Tutu softened. Coming out from behind the pulpit, he flashed that radiant Tutu smile and began to bounce up and down with glee. “Therefore, since you have already lost, we are inviting you to join the winning side.”
To quote the words of Tutu in our hymnal:
Goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness; life is stronger than death;
Vict’ry is ours, through God who loves us.
It’s the Way of Jesus. A way that he embodied in his life on this earth, and his death on the cross. When we follow this way, his way, we’re acknowledging that love alone transforms, redeems and creates new life. Because this is God’s way.