The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Pastor George Pejakovich
Matthew 5:38-48

TODAY’S GOSPEL CONTINUES WITH WHAT IS KNOWN AS THE ANTITHESIS OF THE BEATITUDES. LAST WEEK WE SAW HOW JESUS WAS CALLING HIS DISCIPLES TO AN INTERNALIZATION OF THE LAW OF GOD, NOW, THIS WEEK WE SEE WHAT GOD’S LAW WRITTEN ON OUR HEARTS WOULD LOOK LIKE IN THE CONFRONTATION OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD WITH THE KINGDOM OF THIS WORLD. THESE LAST TWO ADMONISHMENTS OF JESUS ARE ABOUT RESISTANCE TO EVILDOERS, AND HOW WE ARE TO LOVE. IN BOTH CASES, THE KINGDOM OF GOD STANDS IN CONFLICT TO THE WAY OF THE WORLD.

I RAN INTO THIS CONFLICT UNEXPECTEDLY, AND UNBELIEVABLY, WHILE I WAS STILL IN SEMINARY. I ENTERED SEMINARY AFTER TEN YEARS AS AN INFANTRY OFFICER, HAVING COMMANDED TWO COMPANIES IN COMBAT IN VIETNAM. HAVING TO TAKE AN ELECTIVE COURSE IN ADDITION TO THE REQUIRED COURSES, I SIGNED UP FOR A COURSE IN LIBERATION THEOLOGY, WONDERING WHAT IT WAS ALL ABOUT. IT SOON BECAME APPARENT TO ME THAT THE PROFESSOR WAS ADVOCATING ARMED STRUGGLE, WAR, FOR THOSE WHO WERE LIVING UNDER REPRESSIVE REGIMES, EVEN SUPPLYING THE DOWNTRODDEN WITH WEAPONS FOR GUERRILLA WARFARE. NOT ONE TO SUFFER COGNITIVE DISSONANCE WILLFULLY, I ASKED THE PROFESSOR HOW WE CAN DO THIS GIVEN THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS.

THE ANSWER I RECEIVED WAS LITTLE MORE THAN A DISMISSAL OF MY NIEVITE. I RESPONDED TO THIS DISMISSAL BY SAYING THAT ADVOCATING WAR FROM THE SAFETY OF A CLASSROOM IS EASY, BUT WAR IS A HORROR THAT CAN’T BE UNDERSTOOD FULLY UNLESS ONE HAS SEEN THE RESULTS OF WAR, AND THE DEATH AND SUFFERING IT CAUSES. THIS WAS BEFORE THE 24 HOUR NEWS COVERAGE. THE PROFESSOR RETORTED THAT WHAT I WAS SAYING WAS LIKE SAYING YOU HAVE TO BE ITALIAN TO APPRECIATE PIZZA. I STOOD UP AND LEFT THE CLASS AND SIGNED UP FOR SOMETHING ELSE. SOME FEW YEARS LATER, HE BECAME A BISHOP, WHICH STILL ASTOUNDS ME.

JESUS’ ADMONISHMENT ABOUT NOT RESISTING EVILDOERS IS NOT QUITE WHAT IT SEEMS AT FIRST READING. HE BEGINS BY CITING FROM THE LEX TALONIS, “AN EYE FOR AN EYE AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.” ODDLY ENOUGH, THIS WAS AN ENLIGHTENED CONCEPT FOR THE TIME; THAT THE PUNISHMENT FOR AN OFFENSE SHOULD BE NO GREATER THAN THE OFFENSE ITSELF. THIS PREVENTED FAMILY FEUDS, LIKE THE HATFIELDS AND MCCOYS, AND SERVED TO MAINTAIN PEACE IN THE COMMUNITY. “BUT I SAY TO YOU,” HE CONTINUES, “DO NOT RESIST AN EVILDOER.” THE WORD POORLY TRANSLATED IN ENGLISH AS “RESIST,” IS THE GREEK WORD ANTISTANOS, WHICH MEANS TO STAND AGAINST IN WARFARE. WHAT JESUS IS TELLING HIS DISCIPLES IS TO ENGAGE IN PASSIVE RESISTANCE RATHER THAN IN ARMED OR EVEN PHYSICAL STRUGGLE.

THIS TURNING OF THE OTHER CHEEK DOES NOT MEAN WE ARE TO BE DOORMATS, BUT IS AN EXAMPLE OF THE POWER OF PASSIVE RESISTANCE. THE LAW SPECIFIED THAT ONE COULD STRIKE A SLAVE, A WOMAN, A CHILD, OR ANYONE LESS POWERFUL, LIKE A PEASANT, ONE TIME WITH THE BACK OF THE HAND ON THE RIGHT CHEEK AS A PUNISHMENT. OFFERING THE LEFT CHEEK PUTS THE ONE DOLING OUT PUNISHMENT IN A POSITION OF HUMILIATION WHILE SEEMING TO BE SUBSERVIENT. HE CAN’T USE HIS LEFT HAND TO BACK-SLAP YOUR FACE, SINCE THE LEFT HAND WAS UNCLEAN, (THIS WAS BEFORE TOILET PAPER) HE CAN’T SLAP YOUR LEFT CHEEK WITH THE BACK OF HIS HAND, SO ALL HE CAN DO IS WALK AWAY EMBARRASSED.

SO TOO, JESUS SAYS, THAT IF SOMEONE WANTS TO SUE YOU AND TAKE YOUR TUNIC, GIVE HIM YOUR CLOAK AS WELL. STANDING NAKED IN FRONT OF THE COURT WOULD LAKE A MOCKERY OF THE SITUATION, AND, SINCE THE LAW SPECIFIED THAT YOUR CLOAK HAD TO BE RETURNED TO YOU BY SUNDOWN, YOUR ACCUSER WOULD BE HUMILIATED BY HAVING TO RETURN IT TO YOU.

ROMAN LAW EXPRESSLY PROVIDED THAT ANYONE COULD BE DRAFTED TO CARRY A SOLDIER’S GEAR FOR ONE THOUSAND PASES TO GIVE THE TROOPER A REST ON THE MARCH. THIS IS WHY SYMON OF CYRENE HAD TO CARRY THE CROSS OF JESUS. THIS WAS ALSO A GREAT INCONVENIENCE FOR A PEASANT TO BE PULLED OUT OF HIS FIELD. GOING THE EXTRA MILE MEANT THAT THE SOLDIER WOULD BE PUT IN THE POSITION OF VIOLATING ROMAN LAW, AND WOULD HAVE TO BEG YOU GIVE HIM BACK HIS GEAR.

ALL OF THESE DESCRIPTIONS OF PASSIVE RESISTANCE PUTS THE EVILDOER IN THE HUMILIATING POSITION OF HIGHLIGHTING THEIR WRONGDOING. IN TERMS OF DOING GOOD, HOWEVER, THE DISCIPLES OF THE CHRIST ARE TO BE ACTIVE INDEED. “GIVE TO ANYONE WHO BEGS OF YOU, AND DO NOT REFUSE ANYONE WHO WANTS TO BORROW FROM YOU.” SO ALSO, ARE THE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS TO BE MORE ACTIVE IN LOVE THAN THOSE IN THE WORLD AROUND THEM.

THE ADMONITION TO LOVE OUR ENEMIES, AND TO PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE US IS PERHAPS THE MOST COUNTER INTUITIVE OF ALL. TO DO SO IS TO DO AS THE HEAVENLY FATHER DOES, TO LOVE ALL AS HE LOVES ALL. TO LOVE AND PRAY FOR EVEN OUR ENEMIES BREAKS US OUT OF THE CHAINS OF FAMILY AND TRIBE, AND FREES US TO BE THE INSTRUMENTS OF GOD’S LOVE IN THIS WORLD. THUS JESUS TELLS US TO “BE PERFECT, THEREFORE, AS YOUR HEAVENLY FATHER IS PERFECT.”

THE WORD WHICH WE TRANSLATE AS “PERFECT” IMPLIES A MORAL PURITY, WHICH IS NOT AT ALL WHAT JESUS IS SAYING. THE WORD IN THE GREEK IS TELOS, WHICH CAN BE TRANSLATED AS “PERFECT,” BUT IT REALLY MEANS “COMPLETE, END, GOAL.” THE TELOS OF A FRUIT TREE IS TO GROW TO MATURITY AND BEAR FRUIT. TELOS IS THE CONSUMMATION TOWARDS WHICH ALL THINGS STRIVE. A MUCH BETTER TRANSLATION OF WHAT JESUS WAS SAYING IS, IF YOU DO AS I HAVE SAID, “YOU, THEREFORE, WILL BE CONSUMMATED, MATURE, ONES, AS YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN IS CONSUMMATION HIMSELF.” THIS COMPLETELY SUMMARIZES THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT TO THIS POINT: ACT IN THE LIGHT OF THE KINGDOM, ACHIEVE YOUR FULL MATURITY, REFLECT GOD’S CONSUMMATION OF THE UNIVERSE IN YOUR DAILY LIFE.

WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT HAVING WRITTEN THE LAW OF GOD ON OUR HEARTS, AND IN RELIANCE ON THE GUIDANCE OF THE SPIRIT IN ALL THINGS, WE CAN LIVE AS THE SALT OF THE EARTH AND THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, IN CONTRAST TO THE WORLD AROUND US. WE CAN, BY THE GRACE OF GOD, DARE TO BE DIFFERENT; WE CAN DARE TO BE THE CHILDREN OF THE HEAVENLY FATHER. AMEN

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