Matthew 5: 38-48 The Third Choice August 14, 2016
Sometimes when we read Scripture, the meaning is obvious, but other times, the meaning of Scripture only seems obvious. We need to keep in mind that Bible is not only from another culture, but the Bible also comes from an entirely different time - two to three thousand years ago. If husbands and wives living in the same house at the same time can misunderstand each other, then we might misunderstand the Bible at times - unless we understand the situation in which it was written.
The meaning of Bible passage today is one of those that seems obvious, but there may be more to what Jesus has to say. I hope to reveal some of what may not be obvious.
Someone once said, “When given only two choices, always choose the third.” That is one of the things we appreciate about Jesus. He has a way of finding choices which never occurred to us. We may be sure there are only two options; Jesus finds a third.
But, today, the third choice Jesus gives may not set well at first. When Jesus tells us to turn our cheek, to give away our coat and walk an extra mile, what we may hear is Jesus telling us we ought to let people take advantage of us. Allow the bully to have his way. It sounds like an invitation to be a victim. It may even sound like cowardly, but since cowardice is never associated with Jesus, something tells us we have misunderstood him.
You see what Jesus is actually doing is suggesting how people can express their defiance in a way that demands respect. Most of the time when we are confronted with someone who wants to take advantage of us, we feel have two choices: we either fight or flee; we either strike back at them – fight, or we cow tow to them and let them have what they want. Two choices, it seems. But, Jesus offers a third choice. I know you don’t see it yet, but I hope you will.
The idea for this sermon comes from an article by Walter Wink, titled, “Jesus’ Third Way: Nonviolent Engagement.” I am going to share his insights in my words.
The Right Cheek
The first question Wink asks is, “Why the right cheek?” Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” If we are right-handed, as most people are now as they were then, and we hit someone, we would hit them on the left cheek. So, in the case of a fight, we would strike the left cheek. With this in mind, why or even how would we hit someone on the right cheek? Probably the only way to hit someone on the right cheek would mean back-handing them and the only reason we’d back-hand someone is if we were insulting them or if they were a slave. Equals are hit with fists. Slaves are hit with the back of the hand.
More than likely Jesus was speaking to people who had been back-handed many times. They had been back-handed by their masters, or by landowners or by Roman soldiers and there was nothing they could do about it. So, why would Jesus suggest to people, who already had been abused by the system to offer their other cheek?
According to Wink, offering the right cheek it is like saying, “Try again. Your first blow didn’t take away my dignity. Just because you are bigger or stronger or wealthier, you cannot demean me.” Offer the other cheek, Jesus says. Say to them: “You can hit me, but you are going to have to hit me as an equal.”
I heard about a time when Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Black South African Bishop, was walking by a construction site on a temporary walkway. The walk only had room for one person. A white man appeared at the other end of the walkway. When he saw Tutu the man said, “I don’t give way to gorillas.” At which Tutu stepped aside and made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, “Ah yes, but I do.”
Ghandi taught that “The first principle of nonviolent action is non-cooperation with everything humiliating.” Jesus says, if people of power are going to hit us, they are going to have to hit us as equals. We will not accept humiliation.
Take My Cloak As Well
In the second example, Jesus says, “If any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well.” See, in those days’ people basically wore two garments: on outside coat and an inside cloak. Basically, Jesus is saying give them everything and walk away naked.
Think about this, who gets sued for their coat? The only people sued for a coat, of course, were the poor. In Jesus’ days the poor were often so far in debt that all they had left were the clothes on their back. Landowners would charge outrageous interest to make sure the poor would always owe them. Every now and then, the landowner would push for everything owed just to let the poor know who was boss.
Jesus says give him your coat, then give him everything else too. Make him see how low he has sank. As if the poor man says, “It’s yours and here is my underwear too. Take everything. Here I am naked before you.”
Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, but more so for the person seeing it than the person naked. This is why Ham was shunned. After the flood, Noah gets drunk and ends up naked. When his son, Ham, sees him naked, Ham is the one shammed. The book of Leviticus says that anyone who sees a person naked, should be shunned. The shame is on the landowner who wasn’t satisfied with high interest; he also tries to humiliate the poor man. But, according to Proverbs, those who oppress the poor insult God himself. Now, HE is the one being humiliated by his greed and the shame of having a person naked before him AND he has insulted God to boot. Jesus says show the naked truth of their greed and reveal injustice for what it is.
Walk The Extra Mile
In the third example, Jesus says, “If anyone who forces you to go one mile, go with him another mile.” In those days, it was not unusual for Roman soldiers to grab people and make them carry their stuff, but according to Roman law, they could only enlist a person for one mile at a time. If the soldier broke the law, the Roman soldier could be given harsh punishment.
I am sure there were soldiers who got away with having peasant carry their stuff too far. But other times, if a soldier was caught breaking the law, he might get whipped by his superior for being lazy. So, for a peasant to say to a Roman soldier, “Let me carry your bag past the legal limit,” was like saying, “Here, let me see if I can get you in trouble. If you are going to abuse me, let’s make the abuse real obvious, and hopefully draw the attention of your superiors.”
Can you imagine the scene with the soldier begging the peasant, “No, no, please give me my pack. My sergeant is right there!” I’m sure the people who heard Jesus, heard his humor. I have this image which of a Roman soldier insisting that the peasant give him his pack back and the peasant saying, “No, no let me carry it another mile!” The soldier saying, “But my camp is here. I don’t want you carry it any farther.” “But, I insist,” says the peasant. “It’s a joy for me to carry your stuff. Let me carry it for another 100 miles all the way out of Judea.” And the soldier saying, “No, give me my stuff. I don’t want to walk another 100 miles.”
None of these ideas Jesus gives us are meant to be used as strcit rules. Jesus is not encouraging people to take more abuse; he is suggestin we stand up against the abuse. Jesus is not calling us to lie down and take abuse politely, but rather stand up with dignity and say “This is wrong. We will not be humiliated and if we are to be humiliated, you will be humiliated with us - as equals.” As Booker T. Washington once said, “No one can hold a man down, without staying down with him.”
I heard about when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in major league baseball, When Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers pressed Jackie Robinson to be the first Black player in the major leagues, he told him that for the first three years he had to agree to take whatever abuse was heaped his way without a word. Robinson said, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, who was a devout Methodist, “I’m looking for a ball player with guts enough not to fight back.”
Jesus’ third choice is for those who want don’t want to just capitulate and it is for those who want to rise above fighting. Jesus is saying there is a third choice. The third choice claims all humans have dignity. May he help us to choose.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY. FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN.
Prayer in Response to Gun Tragedies
God of mercy, whose presence sustains us in every circumstance, in the midst of unfolding violence and the aftermath of terror and loss, we seek the grounding power of your love and compassion.
“A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH”
The Presbyterian Church was an unexpected offspring of a religious movement called “The Reformation.” Two of the leading Reformers of the time, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), had no intention of forming a new church, at least not initially. Their desire was to reform the present day Catholic Church, to purge the Church of corruptions and set it more in line with the traditions and theology of Scripture and of the early church. The Reformers became known as “Protestants” because their requests for change sounded more and more like protests.
The Presbyterian Church is one of several churches that can trace their origins to the Reformation. Presbyterians get their name from the Greek word “presbuteros” which means “elder.” The term refers to the system, in apostolic times, of choosing leaders from among the wisest members of the church. A prominent doctrine of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” Reformed churches designed themselves in ways that gave more power to the congregation. The Presbyterians established a representative system where elders, presbyters and commissioners were elected.
The French organized the first congregation in 1555 and the French Huguenots were one of the first Presbyterians to reach America, followed closely by the English, Dutch, German, Irish and Scottish. In 1706 the first American presbytery was formed in Philadelphia and soon after the Synod of Philadelphia in 1716. 1789 marked the First General Assembly in Philadelphia.
The Church grew and diversified as it headed westward. By 1800 there were 20,000 members. In another thirty-seven years, there were 220,000. With the growth in numbers came an increase of conflict, separation and sometimes reunion. “Old School” and “New School” divisions plagued Presbyterians for years. The most infamous of issues was slavery. The Civil War severely divided the Church.
The next 120 years saw movements toward reunification. In 1958 the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) and the United Presbyterian Church of North America merged to form the Presbyterian Church in the United States of American (UPCUSA). In 1983 the two largest Presbyterian Churches united at the Atlanta General Assembly (G.A.): the southern-based Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the northern-based (UPCUSA). In 1985 the G.A. approved a seal for the new Church. There are some powerful images in the symbol which reveal what is important to us as Presbyterians. Today there are about 2,000,000 members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), the largest of the mainline Presbyterian denominations.
“Unexpected” may seem like a good way to describe the beginnings of the Presbyterian Church. But for Presbyterians it has always been the “providence of God.”
Together in Christ,
The Penniless Princess: "A Lesson in Self Worth"
6:30 p.m. - Fellowship Hall
Pizza, Popcorn, Drinks
All are welcome!!