7 Epiphany—Year A, February 19, 2017
Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
I heard someone the other day say they wish they had been around in 1st century Palestine so they could have known Jesus personally. I admit this would have been an amazing experience though I suspect most of us well-fed Americans would not have enjoyed the poverty, the sickness, and the Roman occupation. But, in fact, if we are to understand Jesus’ teaching today we need to take these conditions into account: Start with the poverty: there are lots of men, women, and children begging…all the time. Anyone who’s been to the third world knows this first hand. But Jesus says those who belong to God’s kingdom are no longer possessed by their possessions and so are free to give even more than is asked of them. Saint Francis was famous for gladly giving his very self to those in need. Francis is filled with joy to act as a free man who can participate in the generosity of God. Isn’t that the real joy of Christmas: giving gifts, and watching the joy they produce in others! Jesus says we can have that feeling all the time!
Then there is the Roman occupation: A Roman soldier had the authority to conscript a Jew to carry his equipment for one mile, and only one mile. So when Jesus teaches his disciples to carry it for two miles, he is inviting them into a form of non-violent protest that shows you are a citizen of God’s kingdom who is a free human being who loves as God loves.
Likewise, when a soldier or other person in authority hits a disciple, a “nobody” in this world, on the right cheek, most of the time it is with the back of their right hand, which means it is not just a slap, but also an act of shaming that shows the superiority of the one doing the striking. It is how a man of that day would hit a slave, a child, or even a woman. Thus, Jesus is teaching his disciples, as citizens of God’s realm, that by offering the left cheek as well as the right; they are equals and thus not subject to shaming.
And then what are we to make of the line: 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.” N. T. Wright says this means “don’t join the armed resistance movement” which is very active at the time, and would finally lead to the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD.
For millennia humanity practiced the creed that if you take my eye then I am justified in taking your life. Then, in Leviticus 24 we read an improvement, a moderation, which says, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”
But as Mahatma Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
But now Jesus invites us further into his level of consciousness that is higher than the rest of the species. Jesus is not teaching a doormat passivity. As Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” No, Jesus is training his apprentices so that they can live at a higher level of consciousness, because the problems that plague the human race cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that causes them in the first place.
And like everything else Jesus teaches, trying harder is not enough. We must follow Jesus and let him train our souls to be able to move to that higher lever.
During the Civil Rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s the night before a march or a sit-in the demonstrators would role play the event: Some would play the role of those yelling insults, shoving, and hitting. Others play those receiving the abuse, so they can practice keeping a calm spirit, never retaliating, always looking the oppressor in the eyes and doing their best to love the hell out of their oppressors.
Jesus has come to change the world but he is not going to do it our way, but God’s way loving both the evil person and the good person, walking in non-violent compassion all the way to the cross.
Near the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus gives what is known as the “Golden Rule”.
One default temptation is to turn the Golden Rule on its head, so that it reads: “Do unto others as they have just done to you.” This may feel just and good at the time, but it perpetuates the cycle of hatred and violence.
What Jesus actually says is: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12
A three year old simply can’t stand it when her older sister gets two pieces of cake and she only gets one: And she will say, “It’s not fair” and then pitch a fit. The parents though pray God that when she is 33 years old she will have progressed to the stage where love of others is more important than fairness to oneself.
Jesus asks what reward is there if all you do is love your people, your friends, your tribe, your skin color, your religion, your country.
Even ISIS terrorists do that!
No, Jesus calls us to come up higher where we love friend and enemy, neighbor and stranger.
And lest we think this is new with Jesus listen to Leviticus just a few verses further down from our reading: God says:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am YHWH your God.”
So when Jesus says do unto others—he means everyone on the planet.
Jesus is forming a cosmic covenantal community in the power of the mercy and grace of God. Jesus means to change the world first by revealing to the world the evil in the world. No one can look at his crucifixion and not clearly see the failure and sinfulness of the low level of consciousness of the human race.
As he reveals our sin he also models a different way of being human—the God Way, the Jesus Way, the Way of the Cross.
But remember Jesus knows it is impossible for a species caught in its immaturity, idolatry and narcissism to live this way. We can only live this way if Jesus first lives his way for us and then lives his way through us. It is not about having better morals but about being connected to, living inside, a truer Mystery.
That’s why as he tries to bring the church in Corinth to a higher participation in the Mind of Christ, Saint Paul says they we can be generous with their possessions, resist evil, and grow in God’s love, because of who they are in Jesus Christ. He reminds them in chapter 13 what Jesus looks like:
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude….Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Because Jesus loves us this way, we are set free to grow in Jesus’ way of living and loving. This is who we—All Saints Church—are!!!
Listen to this amazing line that Saint Paul writes to us today. “For all things are yours…whether the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.”
We don’t have to time travel back to the 1st century to know Jesus—we belong to him here and now!
This is the onlyt way to inner freedon and deep joy. This is the only way to a New World. This is why Jesus says what he does in John 8:31-32:
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”