Matthew 5: 38-48
In the scriptures prior to these, Jesus give us the beatitudes and instructions on how to live in harmony with those closest to us. Jesus starts with telling us who is blessed, then moves on to the “you have heard it said” section so we know how God wants us to live and be with each other.
But, what happens, what are we supposed to do when others do us wrong? We may try really hard to be kind and treat others with respect and consider how our actions affect others but what are we supposed to do when people fail to treat us with the same respect we extend to them?
My first job out of college was with the Methodist Home for Children. It was a group home for kids in the juvenile justice system. We tried really hard to teach these kids about the golden rule- treating others the way they want to be treated. Many times these kids tried to turn it around- when they were wronged they justified retaliation by saying well- that must be how they want to be treated so I will wrong them too.
In some way that is justice right? When we are wronged- we want the offender to be punished…. An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth, Jesus quotations of OT ideas of justice seems logical right? This very old idea is manifest over and over again in new ways as culture and times change. Maybe you hear things like- She got what was coming to her, he got what he deserves, and maybe on a cosmic level people say it is Karma- whatever you put out into the universe comes back to you- Good and bad. It is the way the world works, or so we like to think. Especially when we are trying to justify our own decisions and our own actions towards others. We are a culture obsessed with ourselves, being in control and getting what we feel like we deserve.
These kids in the group home had been taught from a very early age that they needed to fight to get respect and to protect their honor. Being insulted was worse than being punched. These kids were expert marks men at pushing each other’s buttons. They could start a fight with just a look or a single word. Some of the biggest brawls started because someone insulted another child or their family- sometimes an actual old school- Yo Mamma joke.
In case you aren’t familiar with the Yo Mamma genra of comedy- I found this one on the internet (ahajokes.com)… Yo mamma so skinny she hula hoops with a cheerio! What started as a mean spirited joke would quickly escalate out of control. Words lead to pushing which led to punches until one of the counselors could intervene. All because someone felt their honor challenged and they didn’t get the respect they thought they deserved.
This is what God was trying to prevent when in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Leviticus God called for limited retaliation and measured justice. When someone was wronged or insulted they wanted to defend their honor and the honor of their family. This new Israelite community, which no longer had to follow the rules of Egypt needed a legal system that was fair. They wanted to curb the escalation of violence so they set parameters. Justice should be equal to the original infraction.
The problem with this is that we are humans and often we take grater offense to the original action than was intended. Maybe those ill-timed Yo Mamma Jokes were just supposed to be funny…. We allow a wrong done to us to justify our retaliation and because we are so deeply wounded we take to the next level. It is a cycle that never ends and as the old saying goes… we all end up blind and toothless. Not only that, the harmony and unity of the community is compromised as anger builds and people begin to take sides. We all know how that feels. We have all been part of that. The church is not immune to these feelings. Sometimes the church is the biggest offender.
It has to stop somewhere. World War 1 was supposed to be the war to end all wars… and yet we are still fighting today. Even the creation of the Atomic Bomb didn’t stop wars. That was nearly 70 years ago and we are still fighting over who can have the bigger bombs and who has the right to own them. While I know that there is a place for war and sometimes it is the thing that makes a society change but in most situations peace cannot be found with more violence or a bigger bomb.
Jesus tells us it stops with us. Jesus is telling us that while the rules still apply, the harmony of the community is more important than the perceived honor of one person or even group of people. While it seems weak and passive to the reader, Jesus image of peace is world altering. The image Jesus is painting with “turn the other cheek” “give the shirt off your back” and “walk the extra mile” is not one of submissive compliance. It is one of active defiance of the status quo. It is about standing up for ourselves and making ourselves equal to those who have offended us. It is not about being someone’s door mat nor is it about asserting a new found power over others. It is about honoring yourself as God’s creation and eliminating the power struggle by insisting on equality.
When the buck stops with us. When the violence and insults are stopped with love and respect it not only acknowledges the place of honor, value, and dignity of the person being persecuted but it honors the identity of the perpetrator too. It doesn’t bring one person down to the other’s level but it lifts them each to a level playing field.Gandhi, the modern day proponent of Non-Violent resistance, was inspired by these words of Jesus. He knew that violent response to discrimination and oppression would only lead to more violence. It was not about cowering down to oppressors but standing up to them in a way that allows for bridges to be built not burned. It is powerful but it is not threatening or coercive. This is what motivated the non-violent movement in the civil rights era with bus boycotts and lunch counter sit -ins. It wasn’t about being more powerful it was about acknowledging and insisting on equality and it continues to be used today to command respect and recognition.
This idealistic image of love and respect is not an arbitrary, pie in the sky ideal. This is an effort to stand up for what’s right, in a loving and respectful manner, towards all people involved. As Jesus teaches us how to be in Right relationship with each other he is teaching us about the love of God and uses this as a way to show us the ultimate example of God’s love for us.
We offend God on a regular basis. We live life focused on ourselves, our needs and our ambitious. We blame God for our poor choices; we curse God when bad things happen in our lives. We insult God when we fail to treat each other with kindness and respect. We disgrace God when we fail to use the gifts and talents we have been given to show mercy, kindness and honor to others and to God’s creation. We mock God when we use the title Christian to get ahead in the world, to gain power and authority and when we abuse the power that position gives us.
But, despite all this; despite all the reasons God has to write us off, we are still loved. God gives us an opportunity with each breath to try again, to be in harmony with God and one another, to make the right decision to honor God. The gift of love, life and grace are still ours, given freely and available for us to accept to be whole persons in relationship with God through Christ. This is the image of perfect love which Jesus is trying to paint. If we can do this; if we can understand that it is not about us. It is not about my honor or your dignity- it is about putting life, community, and unity in God in perspective- then we can fully understand the love God has for us and in turn treat each other with that same respect and desire for harmony and community, then we will know what it is like to be part of God’s perfection.Maybe this seems too overwhelming. We know what injustice looks like. We see it every day. It has been all over the news this week especially in the Ukraine and Venezuela. And, unfortunately it isn’t always a peaceful pursuit and what starts out peaceful sometimes ends in violence. We see it on the local news too, in our schools, at our animal shelters, our prisons, politics- you name it and there is injustice and it may seem like it is too big for us to handle. It is easy to see these problems and give up- throwing up our hands in defeat but while we may not be able to solve the world’s problems for every person we may be able to make a difference for one person.
There are numerous children in our neighborhood schools whose parents can’t or won’t help them learn to read- you could spend an hour a week reading to children- teaching them and letting them know they are valued. Some of you go have lunch with your grandchildren at school. When you do this it makes their day and they know they are loved. There are many children who never have a friend or parent come have lunch with them- one lunch every few months would be enough to make them feel special too.
Who knows what kind of difference your presence would make in the life of a child to realize that someone who doesn’t have to, cares enough to spend time with them and in the process we are blessed to know that we are loved too and that someone really misses us when we aren’t there. This is what God meant when we are invited to experience the love of God and to share that same love with others- friend and enemy a like. While feelings of anger and hurt are normal God calls us to pray for those who hurt us- it is hard to do this no doubt but it is even harder to hate someone you are praying for. And as our attitude towards those who we dislike softens the love of God will be easier to see in and through us.
This is how others will see and know our faith, our love and our relationship with God. Not in how we treat those like us but more so in how we treat those who we perceive as different, realizing that God’s love and compassion is not only for those who “deserve” it but for all people- God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good. We are all created and designed to be in relationship with God and each other. This is perfection, equality, and harmony that we are called to experience and exhibit to all of God’s creation.