Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ready To Get Rid Of That Coat?

  MATTHEW 5:38-48
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Is this how the winter has felt to you? Are you ready to give it up? Are you ready to shed the heavy, bulky coats and hats and boots and walk around in warmer weather without feeling weighed down? Want to break out and feel the warm sun on your arms? Yes? Me, too.

This sermon of Jesus is encouraging us to get rid of our coats, to shrug off things like selfishness, anger and resentment. He's telling how we can break free of the things that weigh us down and hold us back. Jesus describes ways that we can live as God’s redeemed people. Ways of living that preserve the dignity of all of us who are made in God's image. Jesus reveals some of the most powerful tools in God's kingdom-- generosity, love and forgiveness--and calls upon us to use them in our everyday lives.

This part of Matthew's gospel is a continuation of the Sermon on the Mount—a sermon given to a group of ordinary people who have gathered to hear the teachings of Jesus. These people are oppressed, not by winter weather, but by a political system that is not of their own making. The Romans have come in and taken control. These are people who long for justice.  Many of the people who are drawn to Jesus are going through hard times. They are trapped.

Jesus gives them a sermon that is odd to our ears. Jesus doesn’t charm them with promises of prosperity or an easy life. He doesn’t tell them they are going to get through this difficult time and have everything they want when it’s over. In fact, at first reading, it would appear to us that he says the opposite. The evil, the pain and the poverty may not end miraculously tomorrow. But what he is telling us is this:

We should persevere in goodness. The evil will be exposed and overcome.

Jesus is saying it’s not about rising up, but rising above. It’s not about rising up and defeating Romans or whoever happens to be oppressing us. It’s about rising above them. Rising above their tactics, their power plays and their sin. Rising above their slaps and forced labor. Rising above the powers and institutions that keep them down.

Following these teaching of Jesus gives us a way to keep our dignity and righteousness when those around us have lost theirs. It’s about trying to keep the moral high ground when the people around us spend time in the muck. 

Jesus begins this section of the sermon with the eye for an eye mentality and moves us to a way of thinking that is completely different. He starts with the idea that righteousness is based on equality and justice requires punishment. If I blind one of your eyes in a fight, you or your family can do the same to me. The offense and the punishment are equal. This is retributive justice.

Jesus starts with retributive justice, but that’s not where he ends. That's not what he's about.

He ends by telling us to love our friends AND our enemies. He says that God sends the sun and the rain to the good and the bad. Jesus takes this idea of equity in punishment and changes it redemption. Overcome the evil with love.  This is redemptive justice.

Retributive justice and redemptive justice look very different in the world. How do we live as the redeemed people that we are? How can we practice redemptive justice—Jesus’ justice? Like a good advice columnist, Jesus gives a few tips to live our best redeemed lives:

Do not resist an evil doer
Turn the other cheek
Give up your coat
Give to those who ask of you
Pray for those who persecute you
And the #1 way to live your best redeemed life: LOVE YOUR ENEMEY

Usually we let these teachings go in one ear and out the other. OR, we ignore them. We must think that if Jesus met our enemies and the people who persecute US, he’d be telling us to take a stand. But he doesn’t.

While it may seem that turning the other cheek and giving up our coats and cloaks are a way of passively opting out and letting evil win, they are not. With this list, Jesus is giving us the most powerful tools of God—generosity, love and forgiveness.  He’s giving us the tools of God as a way of honoring the image of God in which we are all made—the good and the bad, the evil and the righteous. When we choose the tools of generosity, love and forgiveness we are participating in the kingdom of God that is at hand. We overcome the powers of this world. We shed our heavy coats.

Jesus' whole life shows us where the true power lies. He’s showing that generosity, love and forgiveness are at the heart of eternity. They will always outlast and overcome evil. Jesus is showing us that when we are in difficult circumstances we have a choice, we can choose retribution or redemption. We can use the same evil ways and tactics as our oppressors or choose his way. We can wrestle that heavy coat of sin from our enemies, place it upon our own shoulders and declare victory, or we can let them keep it and experience God’s true freedom.

In several of Jesus’ examples, he’s telling his listeners to reject the coat of sin, stand fast in their goodness and expose the evil for what it really is. Understanding what Jesus is doing in this passage means understanding a little bit about his times. Jesus says:

If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also

It was common in Jesus’ time to give an inferior a back across the right cheek. It was part of the institutionalized inequality.[1]  It was culturally acceptable to do this to a slave or underling. However, there isn’t a culturally acceptable way to easily hit a person on their left cheek. The hitter would have to use his left hand—which was unclean and unacceptable. The hitter could also use his right open hand or fist, but that was unacceptable as well because it would be treating a slave like a peer instead of an underling. It’s complicated, I know. 

Turning the other cheek isn’t an invitation to be a doormat and take another hit. It’s literally a way of holding your head up and facing your adversary and showing him or her that they can't humiliate me. It is a way of standing up to evil.

The coat and cloak issue is similarly complex.

While many of us think of giving the coat off of our back as a way of giving to someone in need, this teaching was a little different for Jesus’ original audience. It may even have been funny or risqué. The people listening to Jesus were likely poor and in debt. Old Testament rules allowed for the debt collector to take the cloak as collateral. When Jesus says to give your coat and your cloak, he’s basically saying strip. In Jesus’ time nakedness was shameful not just to the person who was naked but to all the people who see him naked. Imagine standing in bankruptcy court and taking the clothes off your back and handing them to the debt collector and saying, “Here, you can have it all. I have nothing left.” It’d be shocking. And awkward. 

These teachings of Jesus encourage us to stay strong—to not become evil to defeat evil—to practice the redemption that Jesus brought to us. When we do this, we expose evil for what it really is— selfish, angry and resentful.

I was not alive for the civil rights protests, but I just recently watched the movie The Butler. In that movie, we can clearly see the evil of prejudice and racism exposed. How we are to handle injustice is the central theme of the movie in the same way that it is at the core of this teaching of Jesus. The evil was defeated not because the African Americans rose up against it, but because they and their supporters rose above it.  

The lunch counter scene was illustrative because while the racists were spitting and hitting and hurling insults trying to preserve the imbalance of power, the protesters maintained their dignity. In their lust for power, the racists lost their dignity. The protesters did not to resist the evildoer. Instead the evildoers showed the world what they was really in their hearts.

What I liked about the movie is that it showed that the turning of the cheek, the not returning evil for evil didn’t come easily for those involved. It’s not for the weak or the faint of heart. They had to practice their non-violent protest.  There is a scene that shows the black and white protesters hitting and insulting each other in order to learn that behavior. They had to resist the urge to fight back, just as Jesus did when he was ridiculed, spit upon and beaten.

Practicing redemptive justice and exposing evil is not a job for the weak, but for the strong. It’s for those whose hearts are strong enough in Christ not just to love those who love them, but to love their enemies. I’m not talking about sentimental love, I’m talking about the love that respects and validates the other person. Love that looks for the image of God in each human being.

This strength is the basis for our Christian hope, that as individuals, as a community, as a nation and as a world, we will take on these tools of Christ. We will follow Christ and walk through this world as generous people, loving people and forgiving people. We will act like the redeemed people that we are.

God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

In Christ, we are called to shower our love to others in the same way. We are called to live into our redemption. To live as Christ lived.

When we do, it can feel a little like those first really warm days of spring. We can get rid of that bulky coat and rejoice with the sun on our bare arms.  We can shed the burdens of selfishness, anger and resentment and live into the generosity and dignity of Christ. We can see the image of God, not just in ourselves, but in those around us. We can take off that coat and finally bask in the redemption that Christ was dying to show us. When we do this, that is the moment when we truly begin to live.

[1] Explanations of the turn the other cheek and the coat and cloak are taken from Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way by Walter Wink (Augsburg Fortress, 2003).

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