Feb 16, 2020

“Turning The Other Cheek” - Matthew 5:38-48

“Turning The Other Cheek” - Matthew 5:38-48

            A man named Richard Weaver earned his living as a miner.  He was a Christian, and he wanted to share the good news with his fellow miners.  But a co-worker began to hate him and what he stood for.  One day he let Weaver have it with both barrels.  “I’m sick and tired of your constant preaching.  Why, I’ve a good mind to smack you in the face!”  

“Go ahead, if it will make you feel better,” replied Weaver.  And just like that, the man struck him a stinging blow.  But Weaver did not retaliate.  Just like he was taught, he turned the other cheek.  And sure enough, the man struck him again.  Then cursing under his breath, the man stomped off.  Next morning, both of them were back at work.  And there, Weaver again proclaimed the gospel.  But this time something truly amazing happened.  That man asked to hear more about this Jesus. 

            Our Gospel reading for today is about this same Jesus.  And it’s about this very same teaching.  It’s about how Jesus describes what life in God’s world is like.  A place where people turn the other cheek instead of resorting to violence.  A place where people lovingly give to those in need.  A place where people are willing to give the shirts off their backs and to walk the extra mile.  A place where people show love to their enemies and pray for those who give them a rough time.

            And the one sharing these startling words is not just anyone.  He’s The One.  The one who knows first hand what he’s talking about.  Yes, he’s a teacher.  A rabbi.  But he’s much more than that.  He’s the One sent straight from God.  He’s the One who actually practices what he preaches every day of his life.  He’s the One who spends his entire ministry showing and telling what God and God’s kingdom look like.  He’s the very one Mr. Weaver was talking about.  He’s Jesus.  The One our faith teaches is the very Son of God.  So, we’d better pay attention.  

            Let us pray.  Dear God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

            Listen to how Jesus begins this teaching.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”  In saying that, he recites one of the oldest laws on record.  It’s known as, “the lex talionis.”  It basically boils down to “tit for tat.”  It appears in the earliest known code of laws, the Code of Hammurabi.  It’s named after a king who reigned in Babylon more than four thousand years ago.  The principle of the law is quite clear and very simple.  If a man has inflicted an injury on any person, an equivalent injury shall be inflicted upon him.

            This law became part of the ethic of the Older Testament.  It is mentioned three times.  In Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19.  Now at first glance, this law seems to be a bloodthirsty one.  In fact, at first hearing it sounds savage and brutal.  But before we leap to criticize it, we probably should take a closer look.

            You see, the original aim of this law was not to condone vengeance.  On the contrary, it was meant to limit it.  That’s because in this law is found the very seeds of mercy.  It dictates that only the one who committed the injury was to be punished.  And it limited the damage to be inflicted on that guilty party.  Prior to this, one tribe might wipe out an entire other tribe because of the actions of one person.  So that makes this one gigantic step in the direction of justice and mercy.

            And on top of that, it was a law meant to guide judges in determining appropriate punishments and penalties.  It didn’t give any Tom, Dick, or Harry the right to get revenge whenever he felt like it.  And furthermore, by Jesus’ day this harsh law was hardly ever carried out as written.  Instead of ordering the offending party’s eyeball to be jerked out, some form of monetary compensation was demanded.  In this way, the Older Testament sought to limit cruelty.  In this way, it tried to show mercy in its justice.

            In our Gospel lesson for today, we find Jesus referring to this ancient law.  And he has the nerve to take this law one gigantic step further.  His listeners must have been startled by his words.  “Put this eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth business on a shelf.  God wants a change.  A big change.  Yes, God expects more from you.  That’s because all of you are children of God.  Retaliation has no place in this new lifestyle to which you are being called.  You’re being called to be better than that.  You are called to love.  You are called be a people of love.”

            Yes, he dares to come right out and teach the opposite of what the world teaches and practices.  He teaches Do not retaliate.  Do not sink to the level of those who want to hurt you.  Don’t give in to hatred and violence.  That’s the way the old, evil world operates.  Such behavior gets you nowhere.  No, the only thing that can cast out hatred and violence is not revenge.  It’s love.  So, be the bigger person.  Ignore insults.  Show the world a better way.  The blessed way of God’s love. 

            Jesus then offers a specific and startling example.  “Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.  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.”

That’s right, God wants us to show mercy and love even when we’re punched smack in the face.  Even when sued.  Even when mistreated.  And what Jesus is teaching is so very different from the ways of our world.  It’s radical.  A radical teaching.  Only Jesus sent from God could get away with saying stuff like this.  The words shock.  Let’s be honest, they’re still shocking to us.  And we’ve heard and read them many times.  They must have knocked Jesus’ first listeners for a loop.

            But Jesus is just getting started.  Instead of lowering the bar, he raises 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.  After all, you’re God’s children.  And that’s exactly the way God Acts.  God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good.  And God sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  It’s easy to love your neighbors.  Anybody can do that.  I expect more from you.  I expect you to act like children of God.  To imitate and reflect God.”

            Don’t you see?  God watches over everyone.  God loves everyone.  God’s mercy is for everyone.  That includes both the good and the evil.  That includes both the righteous and the unrighteous.  The same sun that shines on the good, shines on the evil.  The same rain that falls on the righteous, falls on the unrighteous.

            Jesus is saying this.  “Anyone can love someone who loves them.  For crying out loud, just look at the tax collectors.  Even they can do that.  Anyone can greet brothers and sisters.  For Pete’s sake, just look at the Gentiles.  Even they can do that.  If you truly want to be rewarded, you need to be willing to walk the extra mile.  To love those who hate you.  To love even those who mean you harm.”

            Wow!  Jesus sure seems to expect a lot from his followers.  He seems to expect a lot from you and me.  But did you notice something?  Jesus doesn’t ask anything from us that he is not willing to do himself.     

            For us and our world, Jesus doesn’t retaliate.  For us and our world, Jesus turns the other cheek.  For us and our world, Jesus goes the extra mile while carrying a cross on his back.  For us and our world, Jesus generously gives all that he has.  Yes, Jesus gives his very life.  For us and our world, Jesus loves his enemies.  For us and our world, Jesus loves and even prays for those who persecute him.  While in agony and hanging from the cross, he dares to say,  “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”  And for us and our world, Jesus turns his back on no one.  Remember.  Even to the criminal who hangs beside him he says,  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

            But this begs the question.  Is such radical stuff really possible in our world?  Well, something powerful was uncovered from the horrors of Ravensbruck concentration camp.  A camp built in 1939 for women.  Over 90,000 women and children perished there.  There, they were murdered by the Nazis.  There, Corrie Ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place was imprisoned.  And there, this prayer was discovered in the clothing that one of those children left behind.

            “Lord, remember not only the people of good will, but also those of ill will.  Do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us.  Instead, remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering.  Our fellowship.  Our loyalty to one another.  Our humility.  Our courage.  Our generosity.  The greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble.  When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”  Wow!  Just wow!  I guess it really is true that with God all things are possible.

            Turning the other cheek.  Giving to those in need.  Walking the extra mile.  Loving enemies.  Praying for those who persecute.  That is not the way of the world.  But it’s God’s way.  It’s the way of God’s world.  That’s exactly what Jesus is trying to tell us.  Trying to tell us about the way our loving God wants this world to be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.