To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.
So, turn the other cheek when someone belts you, give to everyone who asks of you, love your enemy and be perfect.
Oh, is THAT all?!
The Gospel for today (Matthew 5:38-48) sets the bar pretty darn high. Impossibly high, by definition, actually. For even if we could restrain our sense of justice enough to actually turn the other cheek when someone slaps us, we would still run up against that "be perfect" thing. And who could possibly win?
This Gospel does require some explanation. The first is Jesus' use of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". This law actually predates the first written book of the Bible by some several hundred years by our best estimates. But despite its age and general ubiquity across a variety of human cultures, it remains probably the most misused and abused statement. Ever.
This law was called lex talionis in Latin. Lex meaning 'law', talionis having the same root as 'retaliation'. So it is the law of retaliation. But whereas many people want to appropriate this law to justify revenge upon someone who has injured them or to demonstrate how God and religion call for unmerciful acts, this is actually a gross misrepresentation of the passage.
This passage was actually meant to be a constraint to legal punishment decided upon by courts, elders and judges. It was to ensure that the law didn't overstep its bounds. It was meant to ensure that the punishment fit the crime. It was meant that someone could not be beheaded for stealing an apple, or that someone who stole $10 could not be fined $1000.
It was meant to refer to legal administrators, and NOT to private individuals.
Another point is that it was not meant to be taken literally. No judge would award me the right to actually poke out another man's eye, even if he had poked mine out. But there was actually a monetary value assigned to parts of the body, and if I caused damage to a person's body, I was responsible for paying him the amount deemed appropriate by law, and no more. If you think that sounds archaic, check your insurance policy. We still do it: if you lose a finger on the job, insurance pays out X; if you lose a foot on the job, insurance pays out Y, and so on.
At any rate, Jesus calls us to not even be that litigious. He says that if someone slaps us, we ought not even take them to court. We should offer them to slap the other cheek.
So to be Christian, we must be somewhere between good-natured and a doormat?
But Jesus was keenly aware of some aspects of human nature. One being that if I you slap me and I slap you in return, we will most likely not consider the matter finished. We will likely escalate to closed fists.
But if I turn the other cheek, I short-circuit the process. Hatred does not build upon hatred, and perhaps reconciliation can begin.
What it all comes down to is one of the last statements Jesus makes in the Gospel: "Love your enemy". Notice he does not say "like". We are not called to invite our enemies over for supper, hook them up with our sister or send them Christmas cards. But we are called to love them. We are called to treat our enemies as children of God, with all the respect and compassion that any other child of God deserves.
But a thought occurs: what is love, after all? Not a particularly novel question, I know, but bear with me. Given the first half of the Gospel where we are seemingly called to permit all manner of abuse to be heaped upon us by our enemies, and the second half where we are called to love and pray for our enemies, one could draw the conclusion that Jesus is saying that to love our enemies, we must allow them to do whatever they want to us.
Here's a comparison: if you love your child, do you let them stick a fork in the toaster? Do you let them stay up to all hours and eat whatever they want? If you love you spouse, do you let them abuse you or cheat on you?
No. To allow them to do those things unchecked would be the ultimate disservice, both to us and the other person. To not establish our own boundaries and to not assert our own integrity would be to invite these people to be the worst people they could be. Not the best people they could be, as the Gospel for today is calling us to be.
I propose that Jesus is actually calling us to call others to accountability and personal integrity. If you slap me and I slap you back, you are off the hook in your own mind, because I have evened the score. If I don't give in to anger and I fail to even the score, YOU have just been called to accountability. YOU have decide whether you want to be the person that will reach out in anger twice.
Just because we are never going to reach perfection does not mean that we are allowed to stop trying. Just because we will never be like God does not mean that we have an excuse to go the other way.