A Provocation: The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany: February 19, 2017: Matthew 5:38-48

Matthew 5:38-48
5:38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

5:39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;

5:40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well;

5:41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

5:42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’

5:44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

5:45 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.

5:46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?

5:47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

A Question or Two:

  • Under what circumstances is it safe or wise not to resist?
  • Seriously?
  • If this passage is not about “earning salvation” (and it is NOT), what is the point of being perfect?

Some Longer Reflections:

Last week Jesus began this examination of Torah.  He notes that “it was said to those of ancient times…,” and then goes on to state basic commandments.  Those commandments were, indeed, given to people of ancient times, but the word used implies more than just that the commandments are old.  The word is ἀρχαίοις, and it surely refers to the “archaic ones.”  But any stem in Greek that has “arch” in it should also reminder you of architecture, of construction that is governed by principles that govern both structure and design.  So the statement should also be translated as, “You have heard that it was said in the structuring principles of the universe….”  Jesus is not just making a statement about the past.  He is saying that the principles of Torah are the building code of the universe, then and now.

But what, exactly, are those principles?

Interpreters are quick to note that “an eye for an eye” originated as a limitation on prior inter-clan violence.  Injuries inflicted on a clan were met with ferocious retaliation.  This is how clan honor is defended.  “Always take revenge,” that is the way primitives asserted themselves.   In place of revenge, Torah introduced balanced response.

But Jesus’ point is that this “organ for organ” balance is not itself an eternal law.  What is eternal is the principle revealed here: reciprocal violence is only more violence.  This is the point of the design principle: Torah is aimed at lowering the level of violence.

As a first step.

Torah’s real aim is not simply to restrict violence, but to create mutuality as the principle that governs society.

Notice, though, that this statement of the aim of Torah does not suppose that the world is made of ice cream, nor does it imagine that mutuality will have to wait until gentleness is the order of the day.  Persecution is the provocation for prayer as enemies are the stimulus for love.  And physical assault is the motivation for refusing to strike back.  This needs to be heard carefully, and considered.  Too long victims have been required to be nice little quiet women so that victimizers could keep their jobs and social standing.  If that is what Jesus had in mind, he was wrong.

The scene also provides an active strategy.

“If anyone sues you to take your underwear (a χιτῶν is not a coat),” says Jesus, “give him your outerwear (ἱμάτιον), as well.”

Imagine the courtroom. On the one side, there is the one who said “See you in court,” the one who is perhaps suing for underwear so as not to break the injunction laid out in the prophet, Amos, not to take the cloak of a poor man in pledge and leave him to shiver in the cold.  The plaintiff, clearly used to being “smart, very smart” and using the court system, sues instead for underwear.  The picture is already ridiculous.  What in the world is he going to do with used BVDs?  Don’t ask.

At this point, the target of this legal maneuver has some choices.  He could go all Amos on his opponent.  He could charge him with breaking God’s law, with attacking the powerless, and with sinning against compassion.  That would all be true.  And appropriate.  And, if current political wrangles are any indication, it would get him called a snowflake who is getting all sensitive and sanctimonious.  While, as I have said before, I rather like being called a snowflake, appealing to compassion is ultimately not very effective with people who are that full of themselves.  The victim still loses, and the attacker still laughs at the victim.  That was the point of suing for his shorts in the first place: humiliation.

So Jesus advises giving him your outer clothes, as well.  That leaves you naked in court.

There are probably lots of things going on here, but I think the key is a recognition of the ridiculous.  Face it: the human body is beautiful, clothed or otherwise, but you also have to admit that we are pretty funny-looking, all furry and floppy with odd wrinkles in the strangest places.  Jesus’ advice amounts to this: If someone with high-priced attorneys is so ridiculous as to sue you for your shorts, you should go full theatre-of-the-absurd on him.  Out-ridiculous him.  Take off your coat.  Hand him your shorts.  You will look ridiculous.  So will he.

Sometimes you just have to send in the clowns.

In recent years, the KKK has had company at its rallies.  Clowns.  They came to help.

When the ever-so-earnest Klansmen chanted “White Power,” the clowns helped them by chanting with them, ever-so-earnestly as well, “White Flower.”  And then they passed out carnations and big floppy daisies.  “No, no, no,” said a clown, eager to help, “it’s ‘White Flour!'”  And soon the whole silly bunch was poofed with blotches of flour thrown by the happy handful.  This apparently displeased one of the clowns (whose baking was perhaps interrupted by the poofing) and the chant changed to “Wife Power” as she chased the offending poofers with her rolling pin.

(There is a children’s book written about one such clown event.  You can find it described at https://www.whiteflourbook.com/)

Sometimes the best resistance relies on the ridiculous.

Sometimes careful misunderstanding offers the most piercing insight.

I saw my grandmother do this.  This was many years ago.  We were visiting her home, the home my grandfather had built for them, the home they almost lost in the Depression.  Also visiting were some relatives from California.  Southern California.  Orange County. One of the relatives, her youngest sister, was married to a man with stereotypically harsh views of undocumented immigrants, though he did not call them that.  He called them “wetbacks.”  I was young.  I had not heard the term before.  He went on (they always do).  He talked about how they multiplied like animals.  “One tiny apartment, ten people, maybe more,” he declaimed, “and not even all from the same family.  They just swarm all over each other.”

My grandmother, perhaps the gentlest and strongest woman ever to live, made a sympathetic noise, a sort of cooing that I remembered from times I had skinned my knee or been scared by a bogeyman.  “Oh, it’s just so awful,” she cooed, agreeing, “It’s just so bad that people live like that.”  She took her sister’s hand sympathetically.  “It was so hard when we lived in that little apartment in Sharon,” she said, “with Mama and Papa there were eleven of us.  And only Papa could speak a little English.  And the landlord didn’t understand Swedish at all.  And remember when the Johannsson’s house burned down and they had to stay with us until they could find a place?  It’s just awful that people have to live that way.”

I have no idea if my grandmother misunderstood her brother-in-law, or if she understood him perfectly.  She never let on.  I do know that my mother laughed and smiled.  And I know that the angry Californian was done ranting for the day.  And I remember my grandmother’s soft smile when it was over.  “That’s no way to live, honey,” she said to me, though I did not know if she meant living as immigrants eleven to an apartment, or if she was actually talking about living consumed by anger and resentment.  I think her soft smile might have been a clue.  It was perfect.

I sometimes think that Jesus looks like my grandmother.




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