Sermon Feb 19 2023 Matthew 5:38-48 But I Say To You Rev. Betsy Hogan
It’s part of the teaching of every major religious tradition, from Judaism to Christianity to Buddhism to Islam, and it’s as clear as any teaching could be. The “Golden Rule”. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
So simple, so straight-forward, that even a child can understand it. How would you feel if someone did that to you? If the answer is "not very good" then don't do it to them. Whatever they’re getting up to. It’s as simple as that. And beautifully clear.
It’s remarkable, isn’t it, just how very NOT simple something so simple can be.
The teachings that are gathered into this passage from Matthew’s sermon on the mount that we heard this morning are all centred around one major question: How should we deal with people who hurt us. How should we deal with people who are trespassing against us, how should we deal with people who are violent with us, how should we deal with people who take things from us, how should we deal with people who hurt us.
And even though Jesus includes the Golden Rule that he would have heard all through his childhood as part of biblical teaching, he goes a lot further than that. And what he says is quite surprising. Even shocking, in a way. And if we find it surprising or shocking, then the people who were there that day listening to him when he first preached that sermon would have been even more surprised and shocked.
Because although “do unto others” was a part of their tradition too, an even more deeply entrenched part of their tradition was the notion of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” If someone does you harm, according to the eye for an eye rule that they all would have learned as children, then you have a right to revenge in equal measure. I poke out your eye, you get to poke out mine. I hit you and break your tooth, you get to hit me and break my tooth. I burn down your house, you get to burn down my house. Revenge in equal measure.
And really, it was the “equal” part of it that was crucial at the time to the eye for an eye rule. It was all about fairness, re-establishing balance. It was basically a rule meant to stop the escalating of violence that would happen when, say, you’d poke my eye, so then I’d steal your cow, so then you’d burn down my house, so then I’d kill your father. And on and on. The eye for an eye rule was actually meant to end that cycle of violence: revenge was okay if it was fair, in equal measure. It restored balance. And once revenge had been taken, everyone was back on equal footing.
So that’s what those first followers of Jesus were used to hearing when it came to wondering how to deal with people who had hurt them. Do unto others, and an eye for an eye. Essentially, treat people the way you want to be treated, and if someone hurts you, you can hurt them back in equal measure, because then everything’s even, and everyone can start fresh.
Only problem is, as the old saying goes, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” It may, strictly speaking, be fair. But to use the Apostle Paul’s test for right behaviour, does it build up? Does it make things better? Or does it tear down.
Jesus obviously thought it tore down. Its fairness aside, an eye for an eye – revenge in equal measure – doesn’t make anything better. It may pay back, it may restore balance, but it doesn’t make anything better. It doesn’t make a person’s life better, it doesn’t make a relationship better, it doesn’t make the world better. It may be briefly satisfying, if someone drives by and soaks you with slush, to imagine driving by HIM and soaking HIM with slush – but in the end, how is that better? Now everyone’s just covered in slush.
And that’s why Jesus offers his new teaching. About as different from an eye for an eye as it could be. And it’s a real shock, we have to assume, to his first listeners. It’s hard enough for us to understand and we’ve had it around for 2000 years. But we can understand it. We can even follow it. We just have to think about it as kind of being a two layer process.
Listen to the teachings again. Jesus says: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” Essentially he’s saying, Here are all the different ways people can hurt you: They can work against you, they can think ill of you, they can speak ill of you, they can victimize you, they can harm you physically or emotionally, and they can steal from you. Now here’s how to respond. Two kind of layers sort of blended together.
The first layer of how to respond as Jesus teaches is the “no more eye for an eye” layer. No more revenge, even equivalent revenge, no more paybacks, no more “I’m gonna give him what he deserves.” This is the part of following Jesus’ teaching here that leads us to say things like “I am not going to lower myself to your level. I am not going to behave the way you’re behaving. You want to be rude to me, fine. I am not going to be rude to you. You want to talk about me behind my back, fine. That’s up to you. But I’m not going to talk about you behind your back. You want to treat me badly, fine. You are responsible for your behaviour. But I’m responsible for mine, and I am not going to treat you badly in return.” And finally, and in some ways most importantly, “You want to hit me, you want to be violent toward me, that’s your business. But I am not hitting back. I am not going to enter into any of this. No more eye for an eye, no more paybacks.”
It’s the first layer of learning how to respond to people who hurt us the way Jesus teaches us to. And it’s pretty great. It’s pretty empowering to decide to take charge of what we’re not going to get into with other people, regardless of how they are with us. There’s a reason why Michelle Obama taught her daughters “When they go low, we go high”. Because it made them stronger in the face of a whole lot of ugliness. And it can also be a big help just in the day-to-day with the people around us. It’s hard, for example, to have a lot of bickering when one person just won’t bicker. Just won’t participate in that.
On the other hand, surely Jesus doesn’t really want us to just disengage ourselves from the mean old world. It’s one thing to say “no more eye for an eye, I’m not going to enter into this cycle of hurting.” It’s quite another to bow out altogether. To go back to the Apostle Paul and his test for right behaviour, that doesn’t build up either. It may not tear down, but it doesn’t build up. It doesn’t make things better. And that’s why there’s a second layer in Jesus’ teaching about how to deal with people who hurt us. A second layer that intertwines with the first.
If the first layer is a decision not to participate in a cycle of meanness or nastiness, a decision not to “descend to that level” if you will, then the second is when instead of saying (ears plugged) “Blah blah blah, if I pretend you’re not here maybe you’ll go away”, instead we do decide to actively respond. But instead of with payback, with love, with kindness, with generosity of spirit. On purpose.
When the second layer is added to the first, if someone’s rude to us we don’t just decide not to be rude back. Instead we on purpose decide to be unbelievably polite and friendly toward them. And if someone treats us badly, we don’t just think “well, I’m not going to do the same to you”. Instead we make a point on purpose of treating them kindly, asking how they’re doing, considering their welfare, Jesus even suggests we pray for them.
And he even goes so far as to say that if someone steals something from us, not only should we decide not to try to get back at them for it, but in fact we should suggest to them that if they like the coat, well why not try the shirt too? These are active decisions to respond to ‘bad’ not just with nothing, but with good. And they’re empowering too because they arise out of a strong sense of knowing not just what we don’t want to get into with people, but also what we do want to be like with the people around us. And not letting how they are change that. (As an aside, doing this can also be kind of fun. Just because of the shock value. No one who steals your coat expects to be offered your shirt too. Just try it and enjoy the look on the thief’s face.)
But really, fun aside, doing this is empowering. And the empowerment lies in feeling that strong sense that you are a child of God and so this is how you’re going to live. This is how you’re going to be with people. And that isn’t going change, no matter what they’re doing. Your behaviour comes from knowing yourself to be a child of God.
Which leads to one last unbelievably important point. And that is, that in the midst of all this if what we are lifting up and finding strength in is a profound sense of what it means for us to live as children of God, then we need to remember too that God does not want God’s children to be hurt. Somebody hits you, “turn the other cheek” means you don’t hit back, you don’t descend to that level. “Turn the other cheek” means you actively challenge their need to use violence, you show up their need for control with your willingness to be vulnerable. But “turn the other cheek” does not mean, it never means, that you stay there and take it. Over and over again. And if you find that the phrase “turn the other cheek” is popping up in your mind with alarming regularity then it’s time to turn your whole self around and walk out the door. Because the point of all this teaching is that you are a child of God -- and God does not want God’s children to be hurt. That was not the intention here, in this passage.
Instead, the intention here was to offer us a new way of dealing with people who hurt us. A new way that left behind the cycle of “an eye for an eye” in which harm was repayed with equivalent harm, and suggested instead that we actively respond to harm with kind words and loving action. Both because they’re a solid reminder of our connection to God and how God wants us to be, and because they build up the people around us, they serve as a good example. Instead of just theoretically restoring balance, they actually make things measurably better.
It’s not easy to follow these teachings – certainly they stand as one of the reasons why we should rejoice in God’s understanding when we stumble – it’s not easy but it is possible. With some commitment it’s possible. And even more importantly it’s possible with a lot of prayers. Prayers for strength and especially prayers for patience.
Because we don’t do this alone. Which is actually important for us to remember. Not just for our own confidence, but also because when our starting place is the notion that we’re not going to “descend” to someone else’s level, it can be a pretty slippery slope to self-righteousness. But if we consider someone else to be flawed, well, so are we. And as Jesus himself points out at the end of this teaching, if WE are God’s children, well, so are they. The rain falls and the sun shines on all of us, in equal measure.
I want to end this morning with a poem of Elder Rita Joe:
If words touch me unkindly
The deeds I fling to the winds
Though my heart lies uncaring briefly
The spirit rises in anger
So I trim myself to the storm
Until it melts away
Then I put my best foot forward
Breeding me the woman of stone
And brush away the vacant trivia.
The touching has not yet
Blemished my heart completely. ~ Elder Rita Joe.
Thanks be to God, who guides us in this way of gentleness and strength. Amen