*Post 4 in a 4-post limited series on the Sermon on the Mount*
So here we are, at the end of our 4-part series on the Sermon on the Mount. We have gone through all of the 5th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. Jesus the rabbi sits on the side of that hill, as Moses did so long ago, and like Moses he has imparted wisdom and instruction on a crowd of people desperate for some Good News. He began by giving them 10 messages, like Moses, which we call the Beatitudes--messages of what blessedness looks like. He called them salt of the earth and light of the world, pretty high praise. And recalling the sacred Law, he rebuked those who follow it to the letter, while neglecting its deeper meaning and spirit. How then is he going to finish up? By offering them advice on how they can be in relationship even with their enemies and begin to undo the oppressive hierarchy that holds them captive.
"Jesus said, '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.'"
--Matthew 5: 38-41
We've said before that Jesus wasn't a politician, but his message had political ramifications. Like the prophets of old, he called out the oppressive, top-down model of Empire and offered folks a new way; after all, Israel had been taken out of Egypt for the very purpose of showing the world a way of being that wasn't Pharaoh's way; that is, a way that wasn't about power and submission but respect and relationship. Jesus' crowds were filled with people who had been victims--slaves, women, tax collectors, and others who felt the day-in-day-out oppression of living under the Roman regime. They wanted to know how and when things were going to get better. His instructions, then, are practical means by which they can resist their oppressors.
At first glance the instructions to "turn the other cheek," "give your cloak," and "go the second mile" sound like fine acts of charity and thoughtfulness. Don't fight back, always be generous, and do a little more for the sake of someone else. But we have to pay attention to something: Jesus says, "if anyone strikes you," "if anyone sues you," and "if anyone forces you."See what's happening here? He's speaking to people who are regularly struck, who are regularly sued, and who are regularly forced into marching by the oppressive, yet legal, Roman regime. The advice Jesus gives is not for folks to be doormats but for them to call out the absurdity of such a system, and in doing so turn the tables on their oppressors and change the nature of their relationship.
So we start with "turn the other cheek" We use this phrase a lot, but would it really have meant the same thing to Jesus' crowds? Let's say you a part of such a crowd, a Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine. If a Roman official were gong to strike your right cheek--as Jesus puts it--how would he do so? With the back of his right hand because no one slapped with the left hand. A backhanded slap was reserved for those who were less than--masters slapped slaves, men slapped their wives, and Romans slapped Jews. So you've been slapped in a humiliating fashion by someone who views you as beneath them. Jesus then says to offer the left cheek. Now what happens? That Roman official can't give you the disrespectful backhand slap, can he? The only way he can hit you, then, is with a closed right fist. And hitting someone with a fist was only reserved for an equal. Thus, if he hits you with that closed fist he has, without saying so, validated your existence and made you out to be his equal. Odds are, then, that he won't hit you for fear of making you look like his equal. And so, by turning the other cheek, you have changed the relationship, forced him to treat you as an equal, and you have taken away the power that he has over you. You haven't fought back, but you haven't acted as a doormat, either.
Now suppose you're being sued--poor folks didn't sue each other, but rich folks would sue the poor and exploit them for all they were worth and would almost always win. You've been sued, and the judge has ordered you to hand over your coat. Jesus says, go ahead and give your cloak, too. What happens if you give away your cloak? You're naked! So there you are, standing in the courtroom, naked as the day you were born. Kind of a funny picture, isn't it? But there's power in this; because in the ancient world nakedness brought shame, not on the one who was naked, but on the one saw the nakedness. This comes from Genesis 9 and the story of Noah. So if you're standing there naked it's not you who has shame brought on them, it's everyone else, including the accuser and the judge who let him take your coat from you. Once again, the oppressed is empowered and the oppressor is humiliated.
Naked in the courtroom.
And if someone forces you to go a mile, go one more. This is interesting because in an occupied state, the oppressed peoples could be forced into service for the ones in power, and there was nothing they could do about it. This is what happens to Simon of Cyrene, when the soldiers force him to carry Jesus' cross. So a Roman soldier would tap you on the soldier and say, 'Carry my gear!' And you had to, but only for one mile. That was the law. Jesus says, go one more. Now imagine this. You're going along, and the Roman soldier moves to take his pack off your back and you politely say, 'That's ok, I got it!' Imagine the embarrassment he would feel. There he is, begging you to give him his pack, while you keep on walking along with him. The one in the position of power has had that power stripped, the law is seen for how ridiculous it is, and the oppressed person has changed the nature of the relationship.
An embarrassed Roman soldier tries to get his pack back.
This is how change happens. It does not happen with fight, with violence, or returning evil for evil--an eye for an eye only makes us all blind. It does not happen with flee, with running away or letting the oppressors walk all over us. It happens with a third option that Jesus offers: nonviolent resistance. Many folks thought Jesus would overthrow Caesar and replace his kingship with that of God's Messiah. Instead Jesus dies on the cross. To some this looked like an act of passivity, of surrender, but instead it was an act whereby the instrument of humiliation and death is turned into a symbol of glory. The cross embodies exactly what Jesus is trying to tell the people in these three scenarios; that nonviolent resistance is the only way to affect change. Because of his nonviolent response Jesus turned the tables on his oppressors and changed forever how the world views the cross, and by extension Jesus himself and all those who follow him. This was the good news that all those folks were waiting for. This is how the voiceless ones stand up and cry out to their oppressors and say, "Here I am!" The text says, "do not resist an evil doer," but this isn't an accurate translation; in fact, for many years it has been used to justify evil action and collaboration with the oppressor. A better translation of the word antistenai is "do not repay evil with evil." That is the crux of these three scenarios, as well as Jesus' own sacrifice on the cross.
This guy knew a thing or two about nonviolent resistance.
To put it into a more modern context, Martin Luther King said it this way. He said "hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." Dr. King advocated nonviolent resistance, and while we tend to emphasize the nonviolent part, we tend to forget the resistance part. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King addressed a number of clergymen who were worried that his actions were too extreme, that they would just anger the white folks more, and that if he would tone it down, things would eventually change. But Dr. King said no. While he would not condone violent retaliation, he insisted on relatialtion of some sort, be it a bus boycot, a sit-in, or a march. As he put it, "freedom is not voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed." There is a way in which we can call out the injustices we see without repaying them with injustice ourselves. Dr. King, a modern-day prophet, knew that, just as Jesus and the prophets of old knew it.
“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.”
--Matthew 5: 43-48
In the last paragraph of chapter 5 Jesus sums it all up and gives us what we might call the central message of all Christian ethics: love your enemies. Three words that were not in any Jewish or Roman law. It is not enough to just love God and your neighbor, but love even those who strike you, who sue you, and who force you to go somewhere you don't want to go. Loving them does not mean condoning their actions. It does not mean sitting back and letting them walk all over you. Loving them means redirecting them, sometimes even forcing them to see you as their equal. Loving them means changing the relationship. That's what Dr. King meant when he said that hate cannot drive out hate, only love can. Rather than retaliate with violence or just allow the oppressor to have his way with you, you must continue to stand and do all you can to show him you are his equal: turn the other cheek, give them your cloak, walk another mile. And do it all from a place of love for them, not bitterness or hatred, for you'll get nowhere with those. If you love them from this place, you'll change the relationship, you'll slowly tear down the hierarchy, and you will change the world. Good news for those crowds then. Good news for us now.
The Sermon on the Mount--or rather the collection of teaching that we put under this heading--isn't over. It goes on for two more chapters, and I encourage you to keep reading them. But our time on that Tabgha mountainside is done. As we leave, let us ponder all of these teachings from the last four weeks in our hearts and ask how we might apply them to our lives. For I guarantee you this, brothers and sisters, if we do, if we live our lives as if these teaching are real--if we show the world what blessedness looks like the Beatitudes, if we are salt and light, if we follow the spirit of the law much more than the letter, and if love our enemies by exercising that nonviolent resistance--we will, indeed, redefine power, tear down the hierarchies, and change the world.
For that is what the Sermon on the Mount is. It is our blueprint for how to change the world.