Sunday, February 20, 2011

“The Most Subversive Protest of All”

This is the sermon on Luke 5:38-48.1 I first preached it in my preaching class with Dr. Gary Simpson at Drew. I preached at Bernardsville United Methodist Church in New Jersey, where I preach once a month as part of my supervised ministry. It is a very small congregation, and the people are so wonderful and friendly. I thank them for their support of me as a student pastor!

Matthew 5:38-48:2

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. But 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 have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I don't know how many of you have been following the revolution in Egypt but one image in particular from this popular uprising really struck me. You may have seen it, but if not, here it is, a woman kissing a police officer during the protests.3

This week as I preparing the sermon, this image was just stuck in my head. Like when you have a song stuck in your head and you can't get it to go away. So I'm asking you today to hold this image in your mind as we explore this passage together.

Will you pray with me?

Patient Teacher, one who calls us to be hearers and doers of your Word, open us up to the movement of your Spirit as we gather here. May we be so bold to find the Word that lives within us today. Amen.

You know those scriptures you hear all the time, but are never explained? This is one of those passages for me. It is from what the Gospel of Matthew calls the Sermon on the Mount, which, if you have been following the lectionary for the past few weeks, you have been reading. This passage in particular includes two of the (what are called) antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: these are places where Jesus tells us something we have heard said (you have heard it that it was said), and then tells us to do the opposite. And these things we've heard, they make sense. I want to focus on that first part of the scripture this morning, on how we've heard the saying "take and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

Recently I was reminded that this rule was really used to be merciful rather than vindictive.4 If someone knocks out your tooth, allowing you to knock out their tooth brings a kind of equality and prevents people from killing those who have wronged them just by knocking out a tooth, you know? In principle, international rules of war operate on this same idea, calling it proportionality. For instance, according to the law of proportionality, if some lone person launches a hand grenade into your country, you can't declare nuclear war on their country. It is the same idea in our criminal justice system that the punishment should fit the crime, meaning that if you murder someone you get more time to serve than if you steal something from a store. Makes sense, right? It is about fairness.

Only, and I think this is what Jesus is pointing out, this eye for an eye system of handing out justice to one another doesn't work. You've heard Ghandi's saying, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." More often than not, an eye for an eye means that you have little Palestinian boys throwing stones at an Israeli soldier, and the Israeli soldier retaliating by shooting at them. You have a woman put in jail for a long time after killing an abusive partner, but big bankers swindling millions of USAmericans get bailed out by the government. When we read Jesus' call to turn the other cheek, we think that he is asking us to do something that is too hard--- without looking at our failed attempts to follow that system we see as reasonable, an eye for an eye.

This is not to say that turning the other cheek is easy in comparison. But I think when we read passages like this, we often write Jesus off as some hopeless idealist, asking us always to do the impossible, but Jesus here is not about making us feel inadequate. Eugene Peterson in his contemporary language paraphrase of the bible called The Message presents this scripture as saying:

Here's an old saying that deserves a second look: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth." Is that going to get us anywhere? Here's what I propose: "Don't hit back at all." If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues you for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.5

Live generously, that's what Jesus is asking us to do here. It isn't about doing the impossible. It is about living into the abundance that God became incarnate in Jesus to show us how to do.

Living with an eye for an eye mentality ends up being so shallow. It ends up being about payback, a payback that seems no matter how many times you pay it still doesn't bring any sort of healing. We can't keep up with our own misplaced sense of fairness, thinking maybe it will bring us happiness or something. But it turns out that rather than caring for people and relationships, we are keeping a tally, only caring about that tit-for-tat stuff. It is not about living generously. We know from experience if we think about it that this attempt to follow an eye for an eye turns into this vicious cycle.

Now some of you might read this passage and say, well I don't think that being walked all over is living generously either. Because isn't that how we read it sometimes? After all, in The Message, Eugene Peterson paraphrases Do not resist an evildoer, which in and of itself seems to be all wrong as, Don't hit back at all. We can easily read this as meaning that we ought to just smile and take it. This is that notorious passage that has been used time and again to tell people to go back to abusive spouses. They use these verses to say that passivity and nonaction are good things. This reading in effect says then to take yourself out of an abusive situation, to liberate yourself, is against the will of God.

But how is this living generously? Giving in to abuse does not fit with the end vision of the kin-dom, the end vision of how humanity will live together as whole, healed persons, Jesus is painting for us in these verses. Though it is easy to look at these verses and see that a literal understanding of them is calling us all to be pushovers, in fitting these pieces in with our readings of other scripture and our experience of God as a liberating God we know that on a much deeper level, these verses are pointing to something much different.

Clarence Jordan, New Testament scholar, farmer and Habitat for Humanity founder, translates Do not resist an evildoer in the Cotton Patch Gospels, as

But I'm telling you, never respond with evil.6

The living generously comes out of this refusal to respond to evil with evil. By turning the other cheek, we are not passively avoiding conflict, but we are standing up for a vision of living that is much different from the world as we see it today. We are responding, but our responses don't fit into those rules society has come to see as true and sensible.

Here's a big picture example what turning away from tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye living looks like. I've spent a lot of time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, starting with mission trips and then continuing to go back because of the relationships I developed there, so I've read a lot about the history and it just so clearly shows that tit-for-tat system at its worst. See, during World War II, Serbs and Muslims were put in concentration camps by Croats. And then during the Bosnian genocide in the early 1990s, in the north of Bosnia, Croats and Muslims were put in concentration camps by Serbs. And in fact, the Serbs used the cultural memory of a battle lost to the Ottoman Empire in 1389 to rally people to commit genocide against Muslims. Today, the country is still economically destitute and every few months I see a report from the BBC asking not if but when the Balkans will erupt again. Or just during the European Cup a couple years ago some young man was killed in the ethnically dividing uproar over the Croatia-Turkey game.

Yet there is hope in the actions of those who move to break this cycle of retaliation. I have worked with a support group for Muslim women survivors of concentration camps. I go and sit with women who lived through the genocide and listen to their stories and the horrors they lived through, yet they don't look at their Croat or Serb neighbors with violence. In fact, they see in the other women the same pain and fatigue that reside in their own eyes. Their response to the wars they have lived through is not to teach their children that they have been wronged and so must wrong those who hurt them. No, they want to educate, to tell their stories, to make that much-talked-about but little-done-about mantra, Never Again true for their community. They are turning the other cheek, not by rolling over and staying silent, but by choosing to use their experiences to educate their community about the horrors of war and encourage them to instead come together to return evil with good.

Turning the other cheek, giving our coat in addition to the shirt off our backs, then are not some passive action, a nonaction that we so often think they are. Rather it is a conscious decision to look in the face of evil and say, I will not. I will not stoop to that level. I will not continue living in this world of cold supposed fairness that doesn't work. Jesus has shown us another way, a way of abundance.

This is the revolutionary kind of living Jesus is calling us to, a generous way of living breaking free of the old way. Let it be so for you and for me. Amen.

1 Sermon title from the Atlantic's title for the picture. See footnote 3.

2 Matthew 5:38-48, The Wesley Study Bible New Revised Standard Version.

3 Egyptian protestor kisses a riot police officer, The Atlantic, 28 January 2011,

4 Bart D. Ehrman,The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writers, Fourth Edition (Oxford University Press, 2008), 112.

5 Eugene H. Peterson, Matthew 5: 38-42, The Message (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1993).

6 Clarence Jordan, The Cotton Patch Version of Matthew and John (New York: Koinonia Publication, 1970), 25.


  1. Great sermon, S! Way to bring a fresh perspective to the text. That picture brings the gospel alive in a profoundly visual way, and reminds us that the gospel has never been more relevant.

  2. I love this. It's so good.

    I'm guessing you've read Walter Wink's interpretation of this passage?

  3. Thanks guys.

    I was going to talk about Walter Wink's interpretation, but was moved in other directions. My friend Evan though preached on the same passage an talked about it. Good stuff.