How do we respond to evil? There are three options: We can respond in kind, we can cower to it, or we can opt for Jesus’ third option. This sermon explores the third option and challenges us to combat the evil of our world by offering an unexpected response.
When we read such a passage as that found in the focus scripture for this week, it appears to make no sense whatsoever if we only read this on the surface. For instance, how could it possibly be Godly to let a murderer or sex trafficker do as they please? Does God want us to encourage others to abuse us? Why would God want us to give to every person who asks you for money? What if you have good reason to suspect they’re going to use that money to support their drug addiction? Because these teachings make no sense with a surface reading, most Christians today tend to downplay or completely ignore these teachings. Since they don’t fit our common sense, these teachings tend to get ignored or toned down.
This raises the question of when we take Jesus’ surface meaning for what it is and when we look for a deeper meaning. The answer is based in the fact that all biblical interpretation is based in the cross. Every Scripture must point to the cross and the cross must be used to understand a passage that does not make sense. As Augustine stated,
“Whoever… thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation on them that does not tend to build up the twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.“ (Christian Doctrine, 1.26.40)
This is called the exegetical “rule of love”, and it has been a staple of the church’s interpretative tradition.
What, then, is the right interpretation of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:38-42? First, it is important to remember the context. Jesus is talking to Jewish peasants in Galilee whose land is Roman-occupied territory, and they are lorded over by these Romans in often brutal ways. Jesus tells them, “You have heard it said, ‘eye for an eye.’” This is a reference to an Old Testament teaching called the law of just retribution. He is now retracting this teaching. Jesus is, in essence, conceding that “eye for an eye” was the most God could hope for from his people under the old covenant, but with Jesus comes a more perfect revelation of God, and a better reflection of how God wants his people to live.
His statement “do not resist” literally means “stand against.” It is a military reference that depicts taking a stand against an enemy. It does not mean “do nothing.” It means something like, “don’t respond in kind to the evil doer.” As an illustration, he says, “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…” To hit the right cheek, a person would have to use back of the hand, a back-handed slap. In this cultural context, a back-handed slap was meant to humiliate, not to inflict personal harm. By instructing peasants to offer up the left cheek, Jesus was teaching these people to refuse to be humiliated by their treatment at the hand of Romans.
Then Jesus says, “…and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well…” Through unjust economic practices, a small number of very wealthy landlords were able to acquire all the rights to the land peasants lived on. These landlords would take these peasants to court, and if the peasant couldn’t pay, the court allowed the landlords to be compensated by taking their animals, tools, and as a very last resort, even their outer garments. Jesus is saying, if you get brought to court and the court grants your landlord your outer garment, strip down naked! In this culture, the shame fell less on the naked person than on anyone who sees them. By stripping naked and giving your creditor your undergarments, you are exposing the shamefulness of the economic practices that have put you in servitude.
Jesus says, “…and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
Under Roman occupation, a Roman soldier had the right to force any Jewish subject to carry their armor or anything else for up to a mile, but no more. Jesus says, if this happens, offer to go a second mile. That would confuse the guard. If you’re carrying something of your own free choice, the person whose armor you’re carrying can no longer enjoy being the superior who is forcing you to carry it.
The question is, how do you respond to systemic evil when you have no hope of changing the system in the near future? One might respond with violence. Another might just go along being humiliated. A third way is to challenge systemic evil by giving an unpredictable response, to disrupt in ways that are unexpected – even shocking. We do this by assuming the opposite posture of the person who is against you.
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