Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Extra Mile



Matthew 5:38-48
February 19, 2017
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We continue this week with a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We heard last week the first part of a series of teachings in which Jesus begins by referring to a familiar truth from scripture, and then adds an interpretation which deepens the truth of that belief. Matthew’s gospel, you’ll recall, puts special emphasis on connecting the work of Jesus to the work of Moses. So, again, Jesus quotes Mosaic law and the customs of the times, then expands them in new ways. Let’s listen as Jesus fulfills the law with his teachings in Matthew 5:38-48.

[Jesus said] ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and 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. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘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, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?
And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.


Mark Twain once famously said, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” I think many Christians reading the Sermon on the Mount might have that same trouble. These words are not that hard to understand, but they don’t make much sense to the modern ear. We resist the notion that these teachings may actually mean what they say.

Back in the late ‘80s, Virginia Stem Owens, a professor at Texas A&M University, assigned this scripture reading to the students in her literature class. She wrote about their reactions in an article titled “God and Man at Texas A&M.” She was expecting some kind of pious, Sunday school essays. The students’ reactions surprised her. Some of the students were angry, others dismissive.

One said, “The things asked in this sermon are absurd. To look at a woman is adultery?
That is the most extreme, stupid, un-human statement that I have ever heard.”
Owens said, “There is something exquisitely innocent about not realizing you shouldn’t call Jesus stupid. This was not exactly intellectual agnosticism talking here, usually the perceived foe of the faith. It was just down-home hedonism.”[1]

Other students were simply dismissive of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5-7. Their reactions were disheartening. One said: “This essay now cannot be taken the same way it was written. It can be used as a guideline for good manners.”
“Good manners!” Owens wrote. “Was this all that remained of the old-fashioned piety I had expected? The Sermon on the Mount reduced to suggestions by Emily Post?”[2]

It seems to me that many Christians have the same kinds of reactions. These words of Jesus are challenging. They might make us angry – how can Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek? We may wish to simply dismiss them in favor of teachings we like better. Certainly, we have objections – someone this week called them “yeahbuts.” We are not alone in this. The forty fifth president of the United States of America told an interviewer that he really liked the Bible verse, “An eye for an eye.”

He didn’t realize, I imagine that that verse in Deuteronomy 19:21 is a part of the law given by Moses, requiring proportional punishment and compensation. The verse says, “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” Proportional punishment, an eye for an eye, was intended to replace the kind of scorched earth retribution, that was often all out of proportion to the crime.

The president discussed that verse, “an eye for an eye,” and his take on it was probably like a lot of people. He said, “If you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. And they laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs; …And we have to be firm and have to be very strong.”[3]

That’s what a lot of people feel, but that’s not what Jesus said.

And sometimes we’d just rather not listen to Jesus!
Why do we need to give to beggars, forgive our debtors,
love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?

Jesus, in this sermon, is addressing the context of the first century. The Jewish people lived under occupation. Their own laws forbade them to mistreat others, but those laws also set out in detail how wrongdoing was to be dealt with. You could take a person’s cloak as loan collateral, but you had to give it back at sundown, so that they could be warm enough to sleep. You could be forced by a Roman soldier to carry his burdens, but only for one mile. Now Jesus is tinkering around with these rules, reinterpreting them in an altogether new way.

But this teaching is not just for the olden days. It’s for us, too. If we’re not a little bit unsettled, we aren’t paying attention. Or, we’re like that student who simply dismisses these teachings as a “guideline for good manners.” And if we feel threatened, or angry, those good manners go out the window. We want to return blow for blow, insult for insult, hate for hate. That latter reaction may be the more common, and the more dangerous. No, not dangerous in terms of physical harm, or damnation. But it is dangerous to our souls, wounding to our spirits. To respond to violence with violence, hatred with hatred, is to participate in the sinful systems that crucified Jesus, and that continue to wreak destruction on our world today. To succumb to that system injures our souls, and builds up a kind of spiritual scar tissue that eventually hardens our hearts.

So we have these teachings – you’ve heard it said, but Jesus says…

Setting aside our yeahbuts, I think it’s worthwhile to consider how we can actually follow these directives. It’s important for us as we consider these teachings of Jesus, to be aware that there are some circumstances in which turning the other cheek is neither possible nor advisable. In cases of domestic violence, and in cases of child abuse, for example, to advise following these teachings is not only dangerous but cruel. For persons in those situations, the struggle is how to escape not only the violence, but also the soul-killing sense of complete powerlessness. What they need from Christians is first, a place of safety, and second, a strong voice of advocacy.

Then, perhaps later, having encountered the love of God through the loving care of people, they may come to the knowledge that God holds the ultimate power and that power is not violence and abuse, but love, mercy, and peace.

How we enact these commands of Jesus on behalf of those who are vulnerable is every bit as important as how we enact them for ourselves. Yesterday I had the privilege of listening to an interview on WBEZ with Nicole’s maternal grandmother, Jean Mishima, as she remembered and reflected on her internment with other Japanese Americans during World War II.[4] At the age of 6, Jean was taken as a child with her family to an internment camp in Gila, Arizona. By an executive order, signed by the president of the United States, all Japanese Americans in the Western United States were rounded up and placed in camps.

They stayed for two years.
They had committed no crime.
They had done nothing wrong.
They were of Japanese descent.
They lost everything – homes, possessions, jobs, farms, community -
simply because they were Japanese.

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of that executive order,
and the Day of Remembrance of that shameful event
that affected more than 120,000 Japanese Americans.

As I listened to Jean’s story, I wondered, “Did Christians protest this horrible executive order?” I found that some did. But it appeared that not many Christians were willing to stand up for their vulnerable brothers and sisters. Fred Korematsu, a Presbyterian elder and longtime activist for civil rights, challenged the executive order and became a fugitive. In 2004, the year before he died, Elder Korematsu said, “No one should ever be locked away simply because they share the same race, ethnicity, or religion as a spy or terrorist. If that principle was not learned from the internment of Japanese Americans, then these are very dangerous times for our democracy.”[5]

Elder Korematsu is right. And Jesus’ teachings are more important now than ever. We can turn the other cheek, and love our enemies, and when the vulnerable are threatened, we can use our power to speak and act on their behalf. We go the extra mile, because we can. Because Jesus told us to.

That became abundantly clear to me when I posted this scripture from Matthew on my Facebook page, asking friends who are non-Christian to comment with observations about when they have seen Christians who seem to follow Jesus’ teachings – or not.

One of them commented: “There is something so quintessentially Jesus about ignoring the protests of those like-minded in order to protect or respect the integrity of those different from you. While it isn't exactly offering the cloak to the coat thief, it is certainly a willingness to take a few punches to protect the innocent.”[6]

Another friend, who is Jewish, commented: “Since you asked for non-Christian perspectives — I've definitely seen some Christians sincerely commit to not resisting evil. And — I wish they'd stop taking that stance. Because when people don't resist evil, evildoers keep hurting people. I think that love and resistance are compatible. The approach my tradition teaches is that we have an absolute obligation to respect someone's humanity. And that we also have an obligation to resist evil and protect innocent people.”[7]

So we are called to protect the innocent and vulnerable, to resist evil and violence, but not to participate in them. How does that work?

Jesus tells us, using four examples. If someone takes your coat, transform their violent act by giving them the shirt off your back. Giving to everyone who begs, expecting nothing in return, alleviates suffering and glorifies God, rather than the giver. Loaning without a demand for repayment turns your loan into a gift, given graciously. Both recognize and protect the dignity of the recipient. Going the extra mile takes back the power and choice from the one who would oppress you.

One commentary says, “These four examples stimulate the imagination for disciples to create similar dignity-asserting and "loving," but not avenging, responses in other instances of humiliation. God's indiscriminate goodness, not mercy, is the basis for the action.”[8]

So we have a choice. This choice is set before us in many different circumstances, and many, many times in our lives. The choice is whether we will choose nonviolent resistance or revenge. The choice is whether we will choose to persist in giving voice to the voiceless, speaking truth to power, standing firm in love,or whether we will cede our choice to anger and violence, joining with the oppressor and turning our backs on the oppressed. The choice is whether we will resist having our spirits co-opted by evil,so that we may persist in pursuing what is good.

The choice involves not only our personal well-being, but the well-being of our entire community – that of family and friends, neighbors, and yes, even our enemies. This is simple – Gandhi taught it, Martin Luther King, Jr. taught it – but it is not easy. Not easy at all.

The simple act of praying for those who persecute us can be an excruciating exercise at the beginning. But we know that, while they may not change the persecutor, those prayers change us. Giving to those who beg may not improve their lives, but it will eventually transform those who give. Going the extra mile for one who is only entitled to the first mile may not create compassion in the other, but it can preserve our dignity and our choice, the choice for mercy. Standing up for the downtrodden uses our power and privilege on behalf of those who may not have power or privilege.

Our decisions to follow this teaching will not make our lives easier. Though we may alleviate suffering for others, we may also have to face some pain ourselves. But we do it – we turn the other cheek; give our cloak as well; go the second mile. Give to everyone who begs; do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow. We love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We do it because we follow Jesus, and following him requires us to go the extra mile. 

We do it because Jesus said we should.

Amen.


[1] Owens, Virginia Stem. “God and Man at Texas A&M” posted at http://andynaselli.com/why-people-hate-the-sermon-on-the-mount, accessed 02/17/2017
[2] ibid
[3] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/donald-trump-favorite-bible-verse-eye-eye/story?id=38416270 Accessed 021717
[4] https://www.wbez.org/shows/worldview/day-of-remembrance-marks-75-years-since-japanese-internment/986bc226-9f5e-418b-8e26-48f8d5e648a0
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Korematsu accessed 02/18/17
[6] Alison Miller, online conversation, February 17, 2017
[7] Ruti Regan, online conversation, February 17, 2017
[8] Carter, Warren. “Love Your Enemies” Word & World, Volume 28f Number 1 Winter 2008

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