Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
1st Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Last week at my pastor’s text study, we had just finished discussing all these readings. I went to the kitchen to wash out my bowl from lunch. I saw there that one of my beloved colleagues had left his dirty bowl in the sink to soak. I decided to wash his bowl for him. As I stood there feeling really good about myself, and congratulating myself on my kindness, all of a sudden this reading came back to me: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? … I say, love your enemies.” Even slime balls do kind and loving things for people they like. I wasn’t really doing anything special at all!
What if this had been the bowl of one of the pastors I don’t like very much? I probably would have said to myself, “What a slob!” and left it there.
The values of this world teach us to love our neighbor and hate our enemy. We didn’t hear it from the Bible, but we hear it and see it in those around us and in the internalized values we hold. Even our own hearts usually tell us this is the way to be. But God’s values are different. If we are just going to keep living under the world’s value system, what is the use of believing in God and of having faith? We are called to be God’s children and to take upon us the values of God, not just to follow the rules but to make life better for ourselves and others. God’s values are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. God’s values are not hating anyone, being kind to those who are unkind to us.
What would have happened if that bowl had been my enemy’s bowl and I had washed it? I think there is about a 20% chance that he would have noticed and then been nicer to me in the future because of this small kindness I had paid. When I am kind to my enemy there is no guarantee that my act will change him. So why do it?
As I washed that bowl, how long would I be able to continue that story I keep telling myself about my enemy? You know the loop: the one that rehashes every wrong he’s ever committed, the one that makes him out to be uncaring, unfeeling, and hurtful. As I washed that bowl, could that act begin to change me? In that bowl, I might begin to see that he’s flesh and blood like me. He’s got concerns like I do about food and drink. He’s got insecurities just like I do. He is fragile and vulnerable and needy, just like me. He’s got fears, and that’s probably why he acts like he does. He, too, probably lays awake inventing clever rebuttals to his perceived enemy’s onslaughts. There is not this huge chasm between us. We are the same.
As I stood there washing my enemy’s bowl, I might begin to think of his mother washing his bowl as a child. I might begin to feel some tenderness toward my enemy that his mother once felt. Could this small act of kindness begin to soften my hard heart against my enemy?
And would it be such a leap to think of God creating him, with hands and a mouth and digestive system for eating—to think of all the complex cells and bacteria and muscles that go into eating, the reason this bowl is here in this sink. And would it be so hard to see this person through God’s eyes, facing life troubles and crying out to God for help, suffering injuries and experiencing God’s healing, being hungry and God providing? Might I be changed by this little loving act?
Usually in life when we are faced with anger or violence or conflict, we either react with violence ourselves or we let people walk all over us. Jesus is asking us to consider God’s way, instead, which is a kind of creative resistance. It is resistance to powers of violence in our world, both outside of us and within us that keep us from wholeness, that make our lives less than what they could be.
To turn the other cheek, is creative resistance. Here someone has acted in anger and violence and slapped you. To some, turning the other cheek might seem like a doormat response and sadly this scripture has kept some women in abusive situations. To turn the other cheek is to challenge the other person. It may shame them into seeing what they’ve done. When you turn the other cheek, maybe you would see what it is that is so threatening to this person. Maybe you’d see the little child having a tantrum and not having the tools to calm themselves and think rationally. Maybe you’d start to feel sorry for the other person instead of violent in return.
To go the extra mile is creative resistance. During Jesus’ time, his country was occupied by the Romans. A Roman Soldier could make any person carry their pack one mile, but no more. To offer to carry it another, would have been embarrassing to the soldier. They would be in violation of their orders. There is a chance that they might see what a violation it already was to make you carry it one mile. They might begin to see, as the two of you get to know each other, walking along together that you are a person and that even his presence there is an act of violence on ordinary peaceful people. Maybe as you carried that pack, you’d start to think about the baggage this soldier carried around, everyday—the guilt of all the lives and livelihoods he’d destroyed, the family he missed back home, the failures he’d faced. Maybe a relationship could be forged and two people who are so completely different could work together to see that they are really the same, with the same needs, the same fears, and the same hopes and joys.
Jesus’ whole ministry is one of creative resistance. He doesn’t act out in violence. Instead he feeds people, he teaches them, he builds relationships with all kinds of people, he is inviting, he heals them from physical, social, and spiritual illnesses. This kind of healing relationship was very threatening to people who liked the power they had to control others through violence, through threats, through hunger and disease. And because we think we have a right to hate our enemies, we put Jesus to death on the cross. We took his cloak and shirt. We made him carry our pack, our sins. We struck him on the cheek and more. He didn’t lash out. But he didn’t acquiesce either. He took our violence upon his body and he died. In doing so, he shined a light on our violent ways, on systems of oppression that rob people of their livelihoods, that leave the earth dead and lifeless, that leave millions of people hungry.
Jesus didn’t just rise again, but in an act of creative resistance, rose again to take away the power of death. Those who die in the Lord will rise to eternal life. The physical death is meaningless to us now. It isn’t a real death. The only real death we can die is in this life—we can die to our violent ways and die to all the ways we take life from others and from ourselves. We can die to our selfish desires so that others might have the opportunity to live today in God’s Kingdom on earth. We can die so that we quit wasting our time resisting the new life God is trying to give us and those around us.
In the end, we can’t be perfect or holy like the scripture suggests. Only God is holy and perfect. But we are made in God’s image and God is revealing God’s own holiness and perfection through us. If we think of things that way, we might start to regard that bowl in the sink a little differently—that annoying person, that terrible driver, that trying family member--they belong to God—they are God’s precious children and it isn’t up to us to punish them or reform them. And remember that we belong to God—it isn’t our decision to use violence. God forbids it. Instead, take a step back and ask ourselves—what would it mean to use creative resistance here? What would it mean to go the extra mile, carry the pack, or turn the other cheek? How might that change the enemy and how might that change me?
Most of what I’ve said so far is about times when we are on the receiving end of violence and hatred. But we must also ask ourselves, how are we sometimes the one striking with a hand, taking the cloaks of others, and dumping our heavy burdens on others to carry? Often we don’t think before we act or we don’t have enough information and sometimes we are so isolated from one another that we don’t see the violence we have done. I have to admit that I am starting to see how I perpetrate violence upon this earth every day and that violence has a ripple effect that means that other people have a more difficult life and are exposed to the violence of hunger and drought and war because of me, because of us. I am, unthinkingly, leaving my dirty bowl in the sink for someone else to clean up, and they are stuck with my mess.
It is a controversial point of view, but I have started to see driving my car with the emissions that it releases into the atmosphere as an act of violence. We are in the midst of a massive species die-off caused by humankind. I am part of the problem. I haven’t decided yet, what to do, but the first step is to admit what I have done and what I am doing. I am in the midst of a lot of pain regarding my part in all this. I am trying to stay in that pain for a while because when we are faced with a crisis like this we go into fight or flight mode in which we lash out in anger or run away in fear. To stay with the reality for a while and to face the pain will help me change my death-dealing ways. To face the pain now, might mean less pain for future generations. It might move me to a place where, rather than dump the burden of my trash on this earth and slap it around because I want to go where I want when I want and have every kind of new device that comes along, instead I can appreciate the world around me and share life in a more equal exchange I want to live so that the vulnerable people of this earth doesn’t just wash my bowl, but I do my share to also care for and wash this bowl that is the world we live in.
I guess in the end, God is the dishwasher and we are all the dishes. If we are, then we can play our part in the feeding, tending, caring for all of God’s people and all God’s creation. God can use us to make this a balanced and life-giving world. God can work with us and through us to make this the Kingdom of God in which love and relationship and creativity are the center so that all may have abundant life.