Feb. 19: “No More Mr. Nice Guy”

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 ; Matt 5:38-48

“But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” I know what you are thinking. What Jesus is saying can never work in the real world. I’m not going to let some fiend or thug clobber me and then say, here, you missed a spot. I’m not going to give all my money away to beggars, not that it would do them any good anyway. I’m not going to love my enemy, as if there were no difference between my friends and my enemies; that will just encourage my enemies to take advantage of me.

Good. Let’s be honest with that for a moment. What Jesus is calling his disciples to do is something that sounds superhuman, and even self-defeating. In truth, we don’t want to be disciples like that. We don’t want to lose everything to follow him. That’s ok; we need to honestly acknowledge that. It’s too easy to say: “Sure, I’m a Christian. I follow Jesus.” That’s easy to say, so long as we pretend that following Jesus just means being nice to people, being polite. We are nice to our friends and even strangers, until they treat us badly, then we cut them off. This passage from the Sermon on the Mount forces us to confront the way that we’ve domesticated Jesus, making him trivial and tame, inoffensive and commonplace. We’ve made Christian discipleship into the same thing as being a good citizen or treating people fairly. “Sure, I’m a Christian; I follow the ten commandments. I don’t steal, kill, or commit adultery. I’m nice to my parents. Sure, I’ll sign up for that; and for not being a criminal or a jerk, God is going to reward me with heavenly goods forever.” Who wouldn’t take that bargain? Some don’t of course. So good for us that we are not murders, thieves, and adulterers. And we’re even nice to people (so long as they are nice to us in return). Let’s go ahead and pat ourselves on the back.

But what could be clearer in this reading today than the fact that Jesus is clearly going beyond “Christianity means being nice.” “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” That’s too easy, and too self-serving. Jesus is describing a life of discipleship that is very costly, that makes our life hard. This should not be surprising. “Take up your cross,” he repeatedly told those who would follow him. It’s much better for us to be honest that we don’t want to follow Jesus in this costly, trying way than to deliberately misrepresent Christian discipleship as something easy and gratifying.

But our objections are more sophisticated than that. It’s not just that we don’t want to suffer for following Jesus. We will object that Jesus is not being realistic. What if our police and military just turned the other cheek? What if no one resisted evil doers? Violent aggressors would run amok. Jesus doesn’t seem to know anything about “defending civilization.” He must have been a Pollyanaish idealist who thought that if we just treat aggressors with love, they will change into pussycats. What a dope. People are evil and wicked, selfish and anti-social. You have to threaten them constantly to keep them in line. People don’t understand anything but fear. (We say that, almost never including ourselves among “people.” I grew up hearing it as “they”: “They don’t understand anything but force”—those Arabs, those Russians. I once had to correct my Dad that people in Iran are not Arabs, they are Persians. That was uncomfortable.) After pointing out Jesus’ naivete, we congratulate ourselves on being so much more wise, more savvy than poor old bleeding heart Jesus.

Not so fast. We are quick to test Jesus’ moral prescriptions against whether you could run a whole society by his rules. That was not his concern. Nor was it the concern of Matthew, the gospel’s author. Jesus and the early church were in no position to institute the rules for governing a society. Jesus met with resistance within his own Jewish community from the start, and he soon enough knew that his own mission would end on the cross. The early church was small and derided. They faced minor persecution at first, and then a brutal crackdown later. They did not worry about laying the groundwork to effectively govern society. Many of them thought the world was going to end soon anyway.

But you and I—are we so different from those first Christians? Are we in a position to lay down the rules for maintaining so-called civilization? We react to Jesus’ teachings by saying, “That will never work for running society.” But who is asking us how to run society? None of us is in government at any level of power. We all live in a democracy, which perhaps gives us the feeling that we are responsible for how society is governed. But that feeling is mostly symbolic or unreal. By all means use your vote responsibly, and be active in voicing your concerns to elected representatives. But your little vote and voice do not require you to dismiss Jesus’ teachings today as insufficient for those charged with running society. The church used to have more say in how society was run, but I sometimes wonder how much society ended up running the church back in the good old days.

So let’s listen seriously to what Jesus is saying, knowing that it might indeed prove to be beyond us; he might be talking about a way of discipleship that we are not ready to adopt. But let’s hear him out; and if we rely on our scholars to help us listen to Jesus in his own time, maybe we’ll find that he makes a lot more sense than we first thought.

The first thing to notice about what Jesus is saying, is that he is not rejecting Old Testament teachings. Remember from last week that he said “I come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill.” He is correcting some misunderstandings of the Old Testament. “An eye for an eye” originally meant, punish someone only in a way that fits the crime; don’t take excessive revenge. Moses said that back before Roman soldiers or modern day police patrolled the streets. Nowadays we hear “an eye for an eye” as a call for revenge, if not vigilantism. So Jesus is correcting the popular misuse of the saying, “an eye for an eye,” in his day, and it holds for our day too.

But the case is different for the next saying: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Now, that’s not anywhere in the Bible. Did you ever hear someone quote the Bible as saying, “God helps those who help themselves?” Yeah, that’s not in there either. So this time Jesus is correcting a complete misattribution of something to the Bible; we would today call this, “Fake revelation.” Indeed, we heard Leviticus proclaim: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It said nothing about hating your enemy. But there are places in the Old Testament where a Psalm asks God to defeat my enemies, or where God seems to side with Israel against neighboring peoples. No wonder that some Jews in Jesus’ day wished to hear in the Scripture that we have a God-given duty to hate our enemies. So Jesus is going to draw on the opposite spirit in Scripture, when God’s intention is shown to extend love and covenant to all of humanity. And he is going to fulfill that spirit, found in Scripture, perhaps even taking Scripture beyond itself.

So, let’s go back to “an eye for an eye.” Not only is Jesus denying that Torah is calling us to vigilantism. Claiming what seems like divine authority for himself (“But I say to you”), he is rejecting a fundamental rule that governs human ethics. “An eye for an eye” had (and has) become a wrongly-used shorthand for: people get what they deserve. We should repay actions in kind: reward the good, punish the bad. Jesus is rejecting that principle, because, I think, it is dehumanizing. We take it upon ourselves to sum up all the complexity of a fellow human being into good person or bad person, righteous or wicked, friend or enemy. To this, Jesus in verse 45 announces the contrary principle that God regards all humans beings as his creation: “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Notice Jesus isn’t repeating the exaggerated naivete of some liberals, that everyone has a good heart, deep down. He is acknowledging that there is such a thing as evil and good, righteous and unrighteous. But God regards humanity in a way that refuses to be restricted to those categories.

So when someone does wrong or evil to us, we are inclined to reduce that person to an evil doer who has forfeited his human dignity and deserves to be punished like a bad dog. That is how we “defend civilization.” Now when we look carefully at Jesus’ examples for acting in a way that treats everyone as human, they aren’t as foolish as we think. Jesus is not suggesting that we make ourselves victims of senseless brutality and violence. Someone who strikes the cheek, in his day, is delivering an insult. It is a symbolic gesture. To turn the other cheek is not to encourage more physical abuse, but to defy the power of personal insult. It is to declare, without saying a word, I won’t play this game where you enlist me in our mutual dehumanization.

I’m not sure I would follow Jesus to the letter in this case. Turning the other cheek might work as a way of shaming someone who is trying to start a bout of mutual insult into reflecting on why he is trying to start things. In the same way, giving someone more than he is suing us for might shame him into stopping. As for going the extra mile, this refers to the recognized right of a Roman solider to conscript a civilian into carrying his baggage for one mile. Jesus’ prescription to go a second mile might shame the solider, but it could also humanize the situation. By helping voluntarily beyond what is demanded, we recognize the occupying solider as someone with human needs, and so break out of the relationship of power and powerlessness, inviting the soldier to see us as human beings capable of acting humanely.

We don’t have to use Jesus’ specific examples as models for our own discipleship. As I said last week, I don’t think Jesus is setting up Moses-style commandments. Passive resistance has worked in civil rights campaigns to shame aggressors into recognizing an inhumane situation. But we rarely have to confront a Bull Connor and his thuggish police. If someone is aggressive toward us, we can also just say, “Why are you trying to provoke me? How can we make this situation better, and seek peace? Why don’t you and I think about how we can make things right between us?” Instead of escalating aggression, we can recognize, with both compassion and resolve, the humanity of the one who is desperately trying to make us his opponent. We refuse that attempt, and resolutely treat this person with the same human dignity we uphold in ourselves.

The same approach works for loving our enemies, as Jesus commands us, and praying for those who persecute us. “Love” here doesn’t mean being filled with warm fuzzy thoughts about some jerk. (And we often try to dismiss this command by applying it immediately to a caricatured enemy, like a terrorist or something. Most of us have enemies much closer to home.) Loving your enemy doesn’t mean being nice to people who hate you; that will only seem insincere anyway. It does mean being real with them, treating them like real human beings in all their faults and dignity. Loving your enemies does not mean pretending that you don’t have any, that everyone is your friend. Jesus is telling us to recognize that we do have enemies, just as God recognizes that there are good and evil people, and many more somewhere in between. But loving them means seeking their good, seeking reconciliation, and refusing to let our common humanity be severed into friend and enemy. Look again at Leviticus: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin. You shall reprove [or correct] your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people {do all you grudge-bearers out there hear this?}, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love goes along with correcting people; indeed, it demands it. It means seeing that my neighbor’s guilt entails my own. We share the same humanity. And I cannot correct my neighbor without inspecting myself for hatred in my heart, for grudges that I bear that are motivating my desire to correct his faults. Love here does not require pretending that this other person is wonderful and beautiful. It does require purging yourself of ill-will so that you can seek his or her good, unclouded by impure motives.

“Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” That doesn’t mean, be a perfectionist! Never ever make a mistake! It means regard others as God does: there will be those who mean you harm or regard you with ill will. God sees this, but God also sends the basics of life—rain and sun– upon all human beings. So treat all human beings as growing. Don’t withhold from them the encouraging sun they need to reach higher, nor the sometimes discouraging rain, the corrective nudge, that they also need./

None of this is pie-in-the-sky idealism. What Jesus is saying can work very well in our real world indeed, and work better than repaying everyone tit for tat. It will work best when we can still reach our enemies and those who do us wrong on the personal, human level. For most of us in most situations, we can do that. It won’t work on the terroristic fanatic of whatever persuasion. It probably won’t work on someone consumed by a demonic conspiracy theory or a schizophrenic who is not capable of hearing what we say. And it didn’t work for Jesus; his enemies, despite Jesus’ earnest attempt to steer them right, conspired to have him killed. In such cases, we have to use wisdom to figure out when loving enemies will make an important witness to principle, and when it will result in harm with no good, no redemption. Notice Jesus didn’t let the demoniacs hurt him; he healed them. But when Jewish leaders conspired with Roman power to suppress a godly challenge to their corrupt authority, Jesus took his stand, even at the cost of his life.

And so finally, come what may, Jesus is telling us to reject the false principles of the world, whereby aggression begets aggression, or love is constrained into a deal for mutual benefit. Instead, we follow the way of the Kingdom of God, where we resolutely hold on to both our humanity and that of our opponent, where we subject both ourselves and our enemy to both the love of God and justice of God that calls us all into correction. God wants this reign of the rule of love to spread to the whole world, because it really does work best. God does not intend these rules to lead to our self-sacrifice and suffering. But Jesus’ fate reminds us that that outcome is possible. Let us be prepared, praying that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


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