Resist. Resist! One doesn’t have to look far to see that word in today’s context. It’s on banners, lawn signs, and perhaps most notably, with a hashtag in front of the word on Twitter or Instagram. In many ways, we are living in a time of cultural resistance.
And that’s probably why the presence of the word in today’s reading took me so off guard, as does the entire upending nature of today’s text. “Do not resist an evildoer.” Now surely there are many things we as Christians must resist, no? Jesus’ own temptation story tells us we are to resist evil and pride, for example. One might even argue that the whole Sermon on the Mount is about resistance in some way, as it calls us to resist the temptation to live small-minded lives focused solely on the here and now, and instead living into the promises of God’s Kingdom which was ushered in with Jesus.
Immediately before today’s text Jesus gives us examples of what to resist in daily life, repeatedly using the phrase, “You’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” There’s resistance even in that phrase, isn’t there? In the Beatitudes of chapter 5 Jesus reminds us to resist worldly views of success and instead seek to be merciful, poor in spirit, and pure in heart. We’re also told to resist harboring resentment and anger toward others, lest we commit murder. We’re told to resist putting our faith in anything other than God. And, no doubt among the most difficult from Jesus’ diatribe – we’re told to resist our own selves when presented with an opportunity to bring about rightful vengeance toward another.
Life presents us with many challenges, and in those challenges we’re given choices. Challenges and choices – those are our confirmation students themes for this week. And it’s not an overstatement to suggest that little challenges us more than a call to truly love one’s enemies. Few choices are harder to make than to pray for those who persecute you. And yet, if we long to be transformed in Christian faith we are called to do just that, as Christ did, who to completion loved the whole world, including his fiercest enemies.
The law of the Talion, that is “an eye for an eye,” was in effect in Jesus’ day, just as it is today. I saw this in action recently on the back of a truck. “I don’t get mad,” the bumper sticker said, “I get even.” In Jesus’ day, however, there were strict legal limits on getting even; one could avenge someone, but only to a point. There were monetary guidelines in place for certain crimes, for example. Yet, even with laws in place to protect the perpetrator from unjust sentencing the point still stood – recompense for wrongdoing mattered. There needed to be payment for wrongdoing. So in context Jesus’ response – do not resist an evil does, was tantamount to renouncing one’s own right to retaliation, which in some cases meant forgoing a financial benefit of some kind and bring social humiliation upon oneself.
Jesus takes this general principle and applies it in a where-faith-meets-life kind of way. If someone’s suing you, give them more than what they ask for. If a conscripted soldier asks you to carry his armor a mile (as they had every right to in the Roman provinces), carry it twice as far as asked. Give. Lend money where and when needed. Practice ridiculous generosity. In other words, upend or turn completely on it’s head the normative cultural response.
Now none of this was sensible in first-century Palestine, nor is it sensible today. Except, maybe, it is.
This reading, an eye for an eye and the love your enemies readings, are often discussed in some universal way, as if this is some pie-in-the-sky philosophy Jesus was promoting, but surely not requiring. I mean who can actually take the last verse seriously, right? “Be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect?” And when we whiz through these passages, understanding them to be intentions rather than commands, we miss opportunities for transformation.
Take, for example, Jesus’ teaching, “turn the other cheek.” Does this passage suggest that we should be passive in the face of intimidation and violence? Does it mean we just look the other way? I don’t think so. This passage is a central one to those who advocate for Christian pacifism. But even if you yourself don’t identify as a pacifist – as one against the use of violence or war – note that pacifism isn’t passive. Jesus doesn’t promote victimization here. And why would he? We see throughout this ministry a preference for victims, a preference for the marginalized. So what’s going on here?
Think with me for a moment. Who would have been slapping someone on the face in first-century Palestine? Would a child have slapped an adult? Would a wife have slapped her husband? Whould a slave have slapped her master? No on all three accounts, right? Whomever did the slapping touted the power. It was the parent who could slap. The husband could slap. The master could slap. And thanks be to God that such customs are no longer socially permissible! We’ve come a long way! But in Jesus’ time this was normative. And so what’s the take-away here? The text suggests the upending of power. When a child, a woman or a slave was insulted in that way, with a slap, they were to stand up and offer the other cheek because in doing so they exhibited power. It was a way of communicating confidence in one’s identity in Christ in the face of fear, or as great leaders of nonresistance movements have called it – soul power.
To circle back to our confirmation theme – we all have choices. Our choice isn’t to determine what challenges we will face. But it IS to decide how we will respond to such challenges. It’s as if in this Sermon Jesus is saying, tether yourself to my love and from there create your own set of rules; resist the prevalent, broken system of “I’m going to get mine.” Take the initiative and change the rules, the expectations, the outcome by getting control over the only thing you actually can control – yourself.
You and I will always encounter “enemies” of some sort. And if you’re saying to yourself, “I don’t have any enemies” then you’re not being as honest as you could be. Go back to this text and sit with it. Who has wrongfully accused you? Who has taken money from you in some unjust way? Who has asked you to carry a load you were never meant to carry? Who has hurt you? And look close to home, because as biblical scholar Richard Rohr helpfully puts it, enemies are typically those who threaten us in some way because they carry our own faults in a different form.
Jesus calls us to respond to the challenge of these relationships by choosing a radical, upending kind of love. We’re encouraged to learn to love our enemies by praying for them. What does praying for one’s enemies look like? Presumably it must mean more than entreating God to change them to our ways. It involves a serious attempt to see them as God sees them. We are drawn to the line parents meet daily, “I don’t like what you’re doing, AND I love you.” Seeing our enemies in this way is the first step toward acting in these radical ways.
It doesn’t mean we “kill others with kindness,” assuming that kindness will win someone over. Certainly this can be a by-product of loving one’s enemies, but that isn’t the thrust of this passage. We have no promises that enemies will be anything but enemies in the end. We are asked to love our enemies as Christ did on the Cross with nothing promised or hoped for in return, hanging on to the one promise that is ours to claim – that we will be transformed in the process.
In what remains of our Lenten journey may God prompt us to seek such transformation and give us many challenging opportunities to make such choices. Amen.