Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48
1st Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
2nd Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
When I was a kid, all the rules were around not inconveniencing dad. Don't talk with your mouth full because that irritated dad. Go to bed at 8 pm, so that dad could have the TV to himself. Do whatever mom said, or she would complain to dad and interrupt the ball game. Inconveniencing dad brought harsh consequences, so we found that we got by pretty well by avoiding dad, and sadly most of us kids are still doing so. We could break the rules, as long as dad didn't find out.
God's rules, the 10 Commandments, invite us to consider how our actions might impact another person, but this time it isn't dad, it is our neighbor. Our neighbor is not an afterthought and inconvenience. Our neighbor is central and essential—to be considered first, partly because when neighbors cooperate and relate well, it is good for everyone. And you may remember when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he gave the story of the good Samaritan, a story about a foreigner who was a good neighbor to a man attacked by robbers and left by the road to die.
God's rules, unlike my father's rules, are not to be followed out of fear, but for our own good and for abundant life to be lived by each person. Not only does God require us in the commandments to consider our neighbor, but God has done them for us. In everything, God puts us first, even though we are often bad neighbors to God. It is God who makes the grapes grow and shares that bounty with us. We are the needy in God's eyes. Likewise, we are to share the gleanings with those in need. God tells us the truth and doesn't hide things from us. God doesn't take advantage of us or our disabilities to hurt us. Likewise, we don't do that to others. God judges with justice, without favoritism. That is how we are to behave toward each other. God is love. So we as God's people are loving, too. There is nothing that God asks of us, that God doesn't do for us, first, and in order for God's food, God's justice, God's love to reach all of God's children, we cannot be hoarding it and stealing it, we must let that love flow out to our neighbor.
The times I treasured with my dad, were the times he modeled a life of love, generosity, fearlessness, and kindness. I treasured the times on the church softball team, when he was the coach, stretching himself to open the game in prayer, cheering on the players, and relating to our neighboring churches. I treasured the times our family, though needy, would put together a box of holiday surprises for some family worse off than us with food and presents and goodies, and we would all pile in the minivan. We kids would wait in the car down the block and here would come our parents running to hide so the person would never know who was so thoughtful and kind as to bring a little light into an otherwise dark time.
The softball team and the secret boxes of gifts were times when we looked beyond what was required and reveled in God's generosity to us. They were acts of resistance against all that divides us. In the Gospel reading for today, Jesus talks about the rules and laws. We have already read in Paul's letter to the church in Corinth that our rules and laws are foolish. Jesus takes those rules and laws and shows us what to do to resist foolish rules and laws. He names how things are done in in his time and he proposes an alternative that exposes the foolishness and lack of justice of the law in the first place.
Laws allow violence. In Jesus' time, they allowed taking from someone who took from someone else. In times more ancient than Jesus', a village might be burnt to the ground and all the people killed because someone insulted someone else. If you remember, in the Old Testament, when Joseph's sister Dinah was raped, Dinah's brothers told the family that if they were all circumcised then their sister would marry her attacker. If you remember, they agree to be circumcised, and while they are recovering, Joseph's brothers attacked and killed the whole family. When we read that story we never know what to be most horrified about, because the whole thing is disturbing. However, as time went on, people decided, “The punishment must fit the crime.” Let's make this proportional. If someone puts out an eye, then only an eye can be taken, not the death penalty, and not the whole village. That's what “An eye for an eye” meant then—an improvement.
There are rules. We may obey or disobey. When they are unjust or foolish, we often choos fight or flight. Now Jesus is suggesting another way. It is a shocking way. Jesus says, “Do not resist and evildoer.” Let me explain. It sounds like we should be doormats. However this word began to be translated this way with the King James version, because King James wanted the people to do whatever he told them and not resist. However the sentence really says, “Do not violently resist the evildoer.” Jesus is suggesting a nonviolent approach that is neither rolling over and accepting unjust laws, not taking up arms and fighting and killing to get our way. He suggests a third way. This is what it looks like.
If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. People hit with the right hand, in Jesus' day. The left hand is unclean. If you use it, you have 10 days of purification you have to go through. To hit someone on the right cheek with the right hand is to backhand someone. It still means the same thing today. It is an insult. If someone turns their cheek, it is cheeky. It is daring someone to hit them again. Only this time, it would have to be a hit with the front of the hand, which is a hit between equals. To turn the other cheek is to assert yourself as an equal and to defy the other person.
If someone makes you carry their pack a mile, which was the law, carry it two miles. Remember when Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus' cross as they walked up to Golgotha? That was an example of this rule. So Jesus says to carry it two miles. A soldier could ask for one mile, but any further than that, the soldier could be punished. Can you imagine the soldier on the side of the road begging for the return of his pack? To carry the pack further is an act of resistance that shows the foolishness of the original law.
These acts of nonviolent resistance are surprising—they aren't the usual reaction, so people will have to stop and think about how to best respond. And that's what God wants us to do, is not to take the rules for granted or go through the motions, but to question what is this law? Who does it benefit? Who does it hurt? Does it fit with the rules and laws that God gives us? Does this match how God treats us?
Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. It isn't going to happen. But the word for “perfect” actually is “whole” or “complete.” We can't be whole or complete without each other, without our enemy, without the foreigner, without the one we reject, Jesus. But Jesus has chosen to knit us together into one body and we get to work together doing God's work, healing the world, loving, forgiving, and praying for our enemies, and resisting evil and injustice.
God resists our unjust rules. Our rules say that you have to be like us to fit in and belong. Jesus says all are God's children. Our rules say you have to earn your rewards. Jesus says we all fall short, but we all need food, shelter, and love. Our rules say you must have your papers to live in this country. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor.” God constantly reminds the Israelites, “You shall not oppress a foreigner. You know the heart of a foreigner, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9 “When a foreigner sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34. Over and over, God reminds them of where they came from and gives them laws that put their neighbor's needs in front of them, because what is good for the neighbor and foreigner is good for everyone and means that God's love impartially reaches every last person, because we are all God's children.
When I think of all that God has done for us, how God has taken us from being broken, lost, sinners, who have been fearful and alone, to welcoming us into God's family and loves us as sons and daughters, even though we have done nothing deserving of that love, I feel called to open my heart, to share the gleanings from the great harvest. And when I think of all the forces that defy God and deny people their humanity in this world, I get very frustrated and angry. I go between wanting to give up and imagining myself using violence to get my way, even though I am a peace-loving person and I know that violence accomplishes nothing. Jesus invites us to be creative. Jesus invites us to find a third way to resist injustice, a way that reveals it for what it is. I don't know what that looks like and I know I won't discover it on my own. Only in community, in the body of Christ, do we find the whole. Our bodies can be easily crushed, but not the body of Christ. It was once crushed, but rose to new life. So we won't give up, but we'll work together to resist the evil forces of this world until everyone in God's family, and in God's creation, knows God's love.
I had a most heartbreaking relational meeting this week with the pastor of the Church of God of Prophecy, the church that uses this space and regarding whom the council is starting to use the language of “partner” rather than “renter.” We are partners in the body of Christ. We do this ministry in the community in two different languages, but we all love God and our unity is in Christ.
The Church of God of Prophecy consists mainly of undocumented immigrants who came to this country to give their children a better life. Our economy needed them. Now many of them have an uncertain future. This family has had direct experience of law enforcement putting a gun in the face of a child. Now several families fear deportation and being separated from their two young children who will not be permitted to go to Mexico because they are not Mexican citizens, but would be put up for adoption by strangers. I think of the law and I ask, is this how God treats us? Does God throw out the immigrant? Does God separate families?
I asked Pastor Juan what we could do to help. He said he'd like a list of telephone numbers of people to call to pick up his kids if he is picked up by Immigration Enforcement Officers, someone who could look after the kids until guardians and friends can get there. I said I would talk to you about it. And I asked if we could have a prayer service together. Our unity is not based on the language we speak. It isn't based on the color of our skin. It isn't based on our documentation or place of birth, it is in our Savior Jesus, who died for us, who died for them that they might have new life, that no one should live in fear, that we would all be brothers and sisters despite our differences. Some might accuse me of being political. However, I don't think either party has offered us solid answers regarding immigration. We have a problem of families being ripped apart, of creating orphans when we can't support the foster kids we already have. So we get to consider, who is my brother and sister and I hope, like the Samaritan on the road, we find ourselves pulling people out of ditches instead of pushing them in. I think we may find ourselves being ministered to by the one we persecuted and could never have imagined coming to our aid. Pastor Juan said on Monday through his son Juan Jr., “Thank you for all you've done. From the beginning, you've all been very welcoming.” It was gratitude to you all, he was expressing. And he said, “We love this country. That hasn't changed.”
Whether you think this is an unjust law or not, I hope you will consider the human laws that we live with and instead of taking them for granted to look and see who they benefit and whether they are foolish. And if they are, let us find a way to stand against them, as Jesus stood against the foolish powers of death and handed us new life as a free gift of God's grace.