Sermon

Matthew 5:38-48

Jesus Trusts Us

By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

The great twentieth century theologian Karl Barth
once advised his young colleagues
“to take your Bible and take your newspaper,
and read both.
But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

This advice is timely in a special way now,
given events in the Middle East
and the gospel we just heard
where Jesus urges us to love our enemies.

Egyptians who participated in their recent revolution
deserve credit for courageous action
in the interest of freeing their homeland.

At the same time,
the Egyptian revolution was inspired
to a significant extent
by examples of nonviolence
that came from elsewhere.

Here’s one example.
Shortly after the Montgomery Bus Boycott concluded
in the late 1950s,
the Fellowship of Reconciliation
published a comic book entitled
“Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.”
Recently this comic book
was translated into Arabic
by Dalia Ziada,
a key leader in the Egyptian blogging community.
She distributed copies
in several Middle Eastern countries.

Here’s another example.
Several years ago
the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict,
which trains democracy activists,
slipped into Cairo to conduct a workshop.
Among the papers they distributed
was one entitled “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.”
It was the work of Gene Sharp,
a Boston resident
regarded as the father
of the study of nonviolent action.
His list of methods runs from hunger strikes
to protest disrobing
to disclosing identities of secret agents.

Yes, brave and patriotic Egyptians
learned from the experience of others
in order to set their country free.

Teaching about nonviolent action
travels the other way as well:
from the Middle East to us.
Consider today’s gospel,
where Jesus advises
turning the other cheek,
giving up your cloak,
and going the second mile.
He says not to resist
an evildoer.
But just what is going on here?
Doesn’t all this sound
like surrender to bullies?

Here we are helped tremendously
by the work of Walter Wink,
a contemporary Bible scholar.
He makes a credible case
that Jesus rejects violent resistance
and advocates resistance of another kind instead.

As Wink says,
“Jesus is indicating
do not resist evil on its own terms.
Don’t let your opponent dictate
the terms of your opposition. . . .
Don’t become what you oppose.”

Walter Wink then looks at
the three examples Jesus gives
of not returning evil for evil.
In each case,
he shows that
Jesus takes away the initiative
from the oppressors
and gives it back to his people.
Jesus shows his people
that through tactics of nonviolence
they can overcome their oppressors
and experience a new way of life.

The first example is “turn the other cheek.”
This requires a bit of explanation.

• Jesus says,
“if anyone hits you on the right cheek,
turn to him the other also” (v. 39).
In the society where Jesus lived,
the left hand would not be used in this way;
its use was limited to tasks considered unclean.

So assuming a right-handed assault,
a blow to the right cheek
requires using the back of the hand;
if a fist was used,
the nose would obstruct it.
Now backhanding someone
was not meant to injure,
but to put the other person
in his or her presumed place.
But if the assaulted person turns the other cheek,
that means turning the head to the right.
This prevents a second backhanded blow,
because now the nose is an obstruction.

Furthermore, as Wink says,
backhanding someone twice
is like telling the same joke twice:
if it doesn’t work the first time,
then it has failed.

Thus turning the other cheek
amounts to an act of defiance
that confounds the assailant.

• The second example concerns the creditor
who sues you for your collateral on a loan.
If you are poor,
that collateral is clothing on your back.
Then give up the collateral,
along with whatever else you have on.
Go naked!
In Jewish society,
nakedness was a source of shame
not only for the person who was naked,
but for anyone who saw that nakedness.
If a debtor surrendered all clothing,
word would travel fast,
and the creditor would be condemned
by the court of public opinion
for forcing someone to go around
without adequate covering.

• The final example is my favorite.
A soldier with the Roman occupational forces
could force a civilian
to carry his heavy pack for a mile,
but no further,
or else the soldier was in violation
of the strictly enforced military code.
Imagine then the solder’s consternation
if after the required distance,
the civilian began carrying the pack
past the mile marker
still further down the road!

So in today’s gospel,
Jesus announces a strategy,
love your enemies,
which is a permanent feature of his teaching.

He also offers tactics
appropriate to his own time and place
for realizing this strategy.

The tactics for loving an enemy
must change from time to time.
Some apply to occupied Judaea
in the time of Jesus.
Others apply to the United States
during the Civil Rights Movement.
Still other tactics apply to the Middle East
in our own time. 1

Thus tactics change
while strategies abide.

In a recent essay,
Dan Hotchkiss from the Alban Institute
recognizes a distinction between
managers and leaders.

“Managers use their authority by making decisions;
leaders exceed their authority
by making others ponder troubling questions.
Managers calm people by resolving ambiguity;
leaders often frustrate people
by refusing to decide quickly
what can only be solved slowly.”

On this basis,
Jesus speaks as a leader
in today’s gospel
by making us ponder troubling questions.
One question concerns
how we are to love our enemies.
He identifies ways to do so
in his time and place.
He then leaves it up to us
to determine
how to do so in our circumstances.

Jesus does not resolve ambiguity;
he increases it.
He demands that we love enemies
(of all people),
yet he does not tell us
how to do so in every case.

Jesus is a leader, not a manager.
He promotes strategies,
and often they are strange
to the point of scandal,
such as love for enemies.
He does not provide
a complete set of tactics,
though he may name a few.
He leaves it to us
to ponder troubling questions together.
Thus he shows
that he trusts us.

1.  The last hundred years have been a particularly fruitful time for nonviolent action.  An excellent historical overview is the book and television series entitled A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict by Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall  which recounts experiences in numerous countries.

Copyright 2011 Charles Hoffacker.  Used by permission.