Matthew 5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
How many times have you seen this in a Western movie? Some cowboys are seated around a table in a saloon playing cards when one of them gets disgusted and says, “These cards are marked!” Then he throws them down on the table. Next, the dealer edges the barrel of his pistol up over the edge of the table, puffs on his cigar and says, “Say that again, but this time with a smile.”
What’s going on in such scenes? It’s all about honor, even the strict honor code of the West, according to the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, at least. In the cowboy code of honor, you can tease each other about almost anything, mercilessly, except don’t you dare go anywhere near the subjects of anyone’s mother, or anyone’s horse. And if you ever question someone’s integrity or honesty, then “say it with a smile,” so we know you’re just kidding. Otherwise, the code of honor says it’s better to risk a bullet than to leave an insult unanswered.
Honor codes: every culture has them. One of the first proverbs we learned living in West Africa says: “Death is better than shame.” Every one of us also has a built-in honor code whether we recognize it or not. One of the first complete sentences to come out of the mouths of many toddlers is “But that’s not fair!” Especially if they have siblings. We react and chafe against mistreatment, unfairness, shaming, blaming and insensitivity toward ourselves because we sense deep down that we were created for something better. Our sense of value and dignity comes from our Creator, who is himself the source of all honor and worth, and who is most honored, honorable and worthy. So it’s not bad to want honor, worth, dignity and respect, as long as we remember where it comes from, and whose it is, as long as we are also willing to give honor when and where it’s due, and as long as we seek the honors that truly count and endure. As God told Eli in the Old Testament, “Whoever honors me will I honor.” Because of the extravagant providence of God, there’s no need to try to get our honor, worth and dignity at the expense of other people’s honor, worth and dignity. There’s enough honor to go around, and it grows with the sharing.
Yes, we Mennonites have been right to apply to apply Jesus’ words in today’s text to questions of war and our participation in it. But these words are as much about honor as they are about matters of peace, violence or injustice. They are as much about insults as about assaults. Jesus spoke these words because dishonor, prejudice and oppression by Roman overlords and their lackeys were the daily lot of Jesus and his disciples, mostly Jews, and as subjects and slaves to Rome, and not citizens. They address the institutionalized, structured social violence of caste and class and inequality of dignity and opportunity. Jesus also knew that his disciples would face these kinds of dishonor, persecution, blaming and shaming for bearing his name. Much of the church’s most powerful witness to Christ today is still done under the kinds of insults and assaults he speaks of here. In such circumstances, Jesus wants us to witness in the ways we hear of today.
I hope the two short dramas we saw made all that clear. For to be smacked on the right cheek is not about a cowboy punch in a barroom brawl. John Wayne always leads with the right fist, so his opponent gets it on the left cheek. A smack on the right cheek comes from a backhand slap with the right hand. That’s what a Roman would do to a Jew, a master to a slave, the rich to the poor, a creditor to his debtor, a wealthy landowner to a landless laborer, or a persecutor to a believer, to put them in their place, to hurt their dignity at least as much as their faces.
The cowboy code of honor would say, well then, just hit your offender back, only harder. Now, Jesus is concerned about our honor and sense of worth, too, at least as much as we are. But striking back in kind would only dishonor the one whose honor counts most to him: that of his Heavenly Father. And our eternal honor is already assured by the One who created us; he honors us with life, with grace, with our callings to service, and with spiritual gifts for service. At the end of our labors, God will honor us with a welcome into the portals of eternity with words like, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of the Lord.”
Such honors from God are way beyond our merit or deserving, and yet they are also infinitely more secure and certain than any honors we might seek from the world. No mortal can take those God-given honors away from us, no matter how much they may hurt or humiliate us. God’s eternal, unshakable divine honors are what Jesus cares most about, and what Jesus wants most for us. They are also what we should care about most and work for too, by honoring God in our will, our words, our works, our witness and our worship.
You’ve heard the saying, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Jesus wants us to honor God most by imitating God in our conduct, including our conduct toward our enemies, adversaries and offenders. Love them, pray for them, and don’t retaliate in kind, he says, “so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” What greater honor could there be for us than that? And again, in verse 48: that you may “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
And now a word of warning to us inveterate perfectionists. By being “perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Jesus does not mean that we never lose a chess game, that our checkbook is always easily and immediately balanced, that we never forget a birthday or a phone number, that we’re not a single pound overweight, with no hair out of place, that we never say a cross word nor even ever have a negative thought, and so arrive at a perfect state of grace totally beyond the reach of temptation. I don’t know what planet that happens on. That’s not what Jesus means when he says, “be perfect.” That would be perfectionism, a perfect setup for denial, depression, judgmentalism, and living in La-la-land. God is all the perfection we will ever get, or ever need.
The kind of perfection Jesus has in mind he has already explained in verse 45 when he says that our heavenly Father sends his rain to fall and his sun to shine on the just and the unjust. Those are just some of the ways in which God is perfectly indiscriminate in his love toward all people, giving all of us, saint and sinner, just and unjust, perfectly indiscriminately, the gift of life and all that we need to sustain life and enjoy it. So when Jesus says, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” he means strive to be equally and as perfectly indiscriminate in your loving actions for friend and foe, for those like ourselves, and those not like us. He’s not talking about feeling love; don’t expect to feel love whenever we get slapped in the face. Jesus talking about doing such love, whether we feel all loving or not. As a rule of thumb, love in action is most needed, whenever it is least felt.
The genius of Jesus’ teaching here is that it shows love both for our offender as well as for ourselves, the offended. Turning the other cheek to the one who slaps us is a way of asserting our own honor and worth, in the face of dishonor. For when the Jew or the slave turns the other cheek after his right one has been slapped, he’s saying, in effect, “If you’re going to hit me, hit me again, but as your equal, with a right hook.” Once the slave’s face is turned that way, that’s the only way the Master or the Roman occupier can come back at him, with a right hook. People in that time and place just would not touch each other with the left hand; in many cultures, they still won’t, not even in anger. But with his face turned to the right, the only way to hit his left cheek is with a right hook, like one would do to a social equal.
The same principle applies to walking the second mile with someone. The law of Roman occupation said that a Roman soldier on the march could demand of any conquered subject that they carry his backpack for up to one mile, but no more. If after one mile, the soldier demands his pack, and the subject says “No, I can go another mile with you,” that subject is again asserting his dignity and worth as a human being. He’s saying, in effect, I will choose how far I carry your backpack. And I will do so not out of the fear of punishment, but out of the goodness of my heart and my care for you as a fellow human being.
And so the slave or the Jew or the oppressed subject under occupation fulfills Jesus’s words in verse 38: “do not resist an evil person.” Some much better scholars of New Testament Greek than I ever was, even after the three times I took Introductory Greek 101, say that that verse should be translated as “Do not resist a person in evil, or by evil.” Resist evil, yes, but not by evil means, not by returning evil for evil. Or some other scholars would say that the word “resist” is better translated as “react” or “retaliate.” In other words, yes, stand up for right, and resist evil, but do not retaliate against persons, nor react in kind.
If those scholars are right, then those translations better match the life and the example of Jesus. He was never a passive push-over for evil, violence or injustice. But nor was he ever the violent avenger of our super-hero movies and most cowboy Western horse operas.
That is in direct contrast to the conventional wisdom so-called of the world that says either you’re a victor or a victim, the avenging superhero or the passive pushover, a hammer or a nail. In the cowboy and superhero movies, our only options supposedly are: “You’re either a hammer or a nail.” Supposedly we must beat others down, lest they beat us down.
But Jesus isn’t interested in making this world run just a little better by just tweaking and tuning up our practice of conventional wisdom of “You’re only either a hammer or nail.” In fact, Jesus’ words seem to assume that we will have enemies, adversaries and persecutors. If we don’t, maybe we should stop and ask why. The Bible tells us “As far as is possible to you, be at peace with all people.” But even that at times has gained his disciples enemies.
Jesus is not giving us a better way to win friends and influence others, either. Although anything has got to work better than our world of peace so-called held barely in place by the fear of mutually-assured destruction. Put these words in practice, like Jesus did, and we too could get a cross. But the mission of Jesus is all about the peaceful replacement of this war-torn world with the peaceable kingdom of Israel’s prophets, which God will bring to pass, with our obedience.
The command of Jesus, to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, to love, bless and pray for our adversaries and persecutors is nothing less than the foreign policy of God’s peaceable kingdom, which citizens and ambassadors we now are. Those are also the ways in which the citizens of God’s kingdom fight for God’s honor, again, by most closely imitating God’s perfectly indiscriminate love for friend and foe.
We can stop worrying then about whether we are hammers or nails in this world. Because God would honor us with an entirely different role: something more like this, which you see on the screen: Anyone know what that is? Right; those are old- fashioned soldering irons.
The old type of soldering iron was hard and solid and had a handle like a hammer. But trying to nail something down with it would only be an exercise in frustration. It’s just not made for beating things down. It’s long like a nail, too, but it wouldn’t work as a nail, either. Still, like a hammer and nail, it is meant for putting things together. But it does not work by force. It works by warmth. Old time blacksmiths and other metal workers would stick the iron end of this antique soldering iron into the glowing white coals of a hot charcoal fire, until the pointy end of it would start to glow. Then it would be hot enough to melt other metal pieces just by touch. With a white-hot soldering iron, a metal worker could join the spokes of a wagon wheel to the rim, or repair the parts of a broken hinge, just by softening the tips where they come together with a touch of the intense heat.
That’s what Jesus would make of us: not the world’s hammers, people who beat down other people with violence, exploitation or manipulation. Nor is Jesus telling us just to accept being nails, the ones beaten down by the violent, the exploiters and the manipulators. In the face of conflict and injustice, Jesus would make of us something more like those antique soldering irons, so aglow with the fire of God’s love that we can be used of God to join adversaries together and to repair broken relationships.
For that is how God softens our hearts and breaks our stubborn, fearful wills: by the warmth of his perfectly indiscriminate love. The goodness of God leads us to repentance, not blaming, shaming, hostility, violence nor vengeance. For us then to become God’s soldering irons in this conflicted world, we must continue resting in the warmth of God’s forge, in prayer, in the Word, in worship, in silence and study, until our hearts are warmed to glowing with God’s love for friend and foe, and we can pass on that warmth to others, for the softening of their hearts, and the repairing of relationships.
That was the brilliance and the power of the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, the boycotts, marches and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King repeatedly stressed that the movement was not against anyone; it was for white people as well as for African-Americans, to invite them into better and more just relationships. And that would bless and benefit everyone, whatever their color. King also repeatedly stressed that they were not demanding their worth and dignity from white people, because those things weren’t anyone else’s to give but God’s, any more than they were anyone else’s to take. Dignity was rather ours to accept from God, to assert and to express, Dr. King said. In another phrase he often used, he would say, “We have armed ourselves with dignity and self-respect,” and have met our opponents with love and good will.
Under the leadership of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, Alabama, everyone who participated in any demonstration against segregation, or in any act of resistance like the bus boycott or sitting at a segregated lunch counter, had to sign a covenant that stated the following rules, and obey them (project):
- Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus
- Remember that the nonviolent movement….seeks justice and reconciliation—not victory.
- Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
- Pray daily to be used by God in order that all persons might be free.
- Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all people might be free.
- Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
- Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.
Those are some of the practical ways in which our brothers and sisters in the African-American churches placed themselves first in the fire and forge of God’s transforming love, before they put themselves on the streets, in front of snarling police dogs, billy clubs and fire hoses. The courage and patience that we saw on the TV news in the 1960’s was only the tip of the iceberg; underneath and invisible were all the ways and the time spent in the white hot forge of God’s grace so that their patience, peacefulness, dignity, self-respect, self-restraint and compassion even for their tormenters were warm enough to melt so many hearts and mend so many broken relationships.
But Jesus makes no promise that adversaries will automatically become allies if we do what he says. But even if those hearts only become more cold and hardened, remember what Mahatma Gandhi often said: “No one can ride your back if it is not bent.” That is, if our backs are not bent by accepting and believing anyone’s disdain for us, nor by stooping to the level of anyone’s hatred and misconduct against us.
By so honoring God, we too can be God’s soldering irons, even in a world that only understands hammers and nails.