Giving the message is a privilege that I appreciate. I pray that something I say will be of spiritual benefit to this community that has so warmly and kindly welcomed Erin and me. I will give the message and then we will have the silence afterwards.
The theme for January is Peace. Working for peace often involves dealing with evil, violence and injustice. Let’s see what Matthew has to say.
Matthew 5: 38-41 NRSV
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 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.
Aye yi yi. Sorry, Matthew, but that just doesn’t make any sense.
Do not resist an evildoer? The people that hid Jews during WWII were resisting the evil Nazi regime. How could that have been wrong?
Turn the other cheek? The abused wife is supposed to submissively take blow after blow?
Give your cloak as well? A poor person unjustly evicted from their apartment should ask their greedy unscrupulous landlord if they would like their car.
Go also the second mile? The sex trafficked woman tells her pimp she will work an extra 6 hours a day?
Did Jesus not resist evil? Did he collaborate with evil? Was Jesus submissive to injustice? Did Jesus act in a manner consistent with Matthew 5:38-41? NO.
Matt 23: 15
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hellas yourselves.
Matt 23: 27
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.
Matt 12: 9-14
He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Jesus is doing direct active non-violent resistance and the Pharisees want to kill him because of it. It is as if Jesus says, “Peter, what day is it?” “It is the Sabbath Rabbi.” “Great. Time to go heal someone.”
Matt 21: 12
Then Jesus entered the templeand drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.
A good time to pause and think about why Jesus did that. Temple system according to John Kinney:
Vineyard owner Jacob from Damascus arrives at the temple and explains to a priest that he wants to make a sacrifice so that Yahweh will look favorably on him and grant him an abundant harvest. The priest asks Jacob “Do you want an average harvest or a really big harvest?” Jacob, “Big.” That will be 2 goats and two doves for a total cost of 225 shekels, temple coinage. Your Greek drachmas need to be converted to shekels. The money exchange department is on the 3rd floor, 2nd office on your right.” You know what is going to happen.
Noah from Tarsus arrives at the temple carrying an unblemished lamb to present for sacrifice to atone for losing his temper and breaking his neighbor’s arm. Priest, “Your lamb needs to be inspected to see if it is truly unblemished. Be back in a minute” Priest, “Sorry, Noah, but your lamb has a nick in its ear so it is not unblemished. But Noah, Buddy, Pal, always loved the name Noah, you are in luck. Just today a flock of brand new 0033 AD, pre-certified lambs arrived. Take a look at this little beauty. Notice the stylish lines. Go ahead and get a whiff of that new lamb smell. Feel the plush genuine wool upholstery. Tell you what I’m going to do. Trade in your lamb and I’ll give you a 10% discount. Have we got a deal?” Noah, “Ok, sure” Priest, “Great. Now can I interest you in the extended warranty package?” Noah, “What! You are going to slaughter the lamb. Why do I need a warranty?”
Priest, “Well right now there is a big back log at the altar of sacrifice and your lamb isn’t scheduled for 4 days. If your lamb dies between now and then the warranty provides a replacement lamb.” Noah, “You know what, give me back my lamb and my money. I am headed down to the Jordan.” Priest, “Why the Jordan?” Noah, “There is crazy dude there who I am beginning to think is not so crazy. He is called John the Baptist and he says that Yahweh’s mercy and love are as abundant and free flowing as the Jordan. Adios.”
The Priest goes to high priest and says, “Caiaphas, just this week I have lost 10 sales to that nut job, John the Baptist. We are in trouble.” Caiphas, “Not to worry. John’s days are numbered. It is just a matter of time. I am giving you a heads up that John is going to be getting a heads off, if you know what I mean.”
The image of god the religious authorities have created is petty, small, needy, vindictive, always needing to be placated. Religion was one big transaction. You had to pay for God’s mercy, favor and forgiveness. Jesus’ action was a head-on assault against the “religious system”. That was a very dangerous thing to do and surely the last straw.
A word about systems. Richard Rohr:
Whenever Jesus says “the world”, he is talking about systems. Systems are the way groups, cultures, institutions, and nations organize to protect themselves and maintain their power. This is the most hidden and denied level of evil. We cannot see it because we are all inside of it, and it is in our ego’s self-interest to protect the deception. Example: Banks too big to fail.
Over and over Jesus speaks truth to power and acts against injustice. George Fox, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. advised by Quaker Bayard Rustin, Solidarity in Poland, the velvet revolution in the Czechoslovakia, Desmond Tutu in South Africa, all based their non-violent active resistance on the teaching of Jesus to fight injustice and bring about peace.
So either Jesus didn’t say what Matthew records or he didn’t do what Matthew records or we are misinterpreting Matt 5: 38-41
Most of what follows I have taken from a brilliant little book, Jesus and Nonviolence, A Third Way by the theologian Walter Wink.
Let’s start with “resist not evil.”
Wink. The Greek word is antistenai, pronounced On Tea Stemy. Anti is easy; it means against. In the Greek stemy is used primarily for military encounters, specifically to the moment two armies collide, steel on steel, to potentially lethal disturbances or armed revolution. A proper translation would be, “Don’t strike back at evil in kind.” or “Do not retaliate against violence with violence.” or “Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.”
King James’ faithful scholars translated On Tea Stemy as “resist not” instead of “Do not react violently against the one who is evil. “ Why? King James would not want people concluding that they had any recourse against his or any other sovereign’s unjust policies. The translators were translating non-violent resistance into docility.
DUH! It’s King James’ bible! Of course he is involved in the process. Protestants! Always letting secular powers have their say. That would never happen in Catholicism. Oops. Sorry. My bad. The first 7 councils of the Roman Catholic Church, spanning the time from 325 to 787 were all convoked by guess who? Emperors. God help us.
It is important to think about who Jesus was speaking to. Wink says in every case Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits or impose forced labor, but their victims. His listeners are people who were beaten, sued and subjected to forced labor. People that had to stifle their inner outrage at the dehumanizing treatment meted out to them.
Next problem verse: “strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also”. In the time of Jesus the left hand was only used for unclean tasks. To even gesture with the left hand carried a penalty. So how do you strike someone on the right check if you can’t use your left hand?
[Demonstrate: “You idiot”. Slap. “Don’t get uppity with me”. Slap. “I told you to fill all the water jars”. Slap. “Know your place, woman”. Slap. “Stinking shephard”. Slap.]
The strike is a back-handed slap meant to humiliate, put you in your place. It was the way to admonish inferiors.
[Demonstrate] When you turn your check, the blow has to be more of a punch and you would only punch a peer, an equal. The message sent to the striker is, “I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am your equal. I will not be demeaned”. The response, far from suggesting passivity and cowardice, is an act of defiance. And yes, you could be flogged for your defiance. Matt 5: 10-11 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake”. Non-violent active resistance will cost you. Think of the march for civil rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Next: If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well. Jesus’ audience, the poor, are those with only two garments, an inner and outer. The situation that Jesus refers to would have been all too familiar. The poor debtor has sunk ever deeper into poverty, the debt cannot be repaid, he is hauled into court to have the only thing he has left, his outer garment, taken.
Jesus’s council to give over your inner garment as well means marching out of court stark naked. You have said in effect, “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you will take next?” Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and the shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness. The poor person does it to bring shame on the person bringing the suit.
Go also another mile? Roman soldiers carried 60-70 lb. packs and they could force subjected people to carry their packs. However, a soldier could not force a civilian to carry his pack more than 1 mile. To force the civilian to go farther would result in severe penalties for the soldier under Roman military law. Rome wanted to limit the anger of the occupied Jews but keep its army on the move.
But why walk the second mile? From a situation of servile impressment you have seized the initiative. Imagine the Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew, “Give me back my pack.”
Wink’s interpretation of Matt 5:38-41 is not iron-clad but it makes sense to me. Jesus calls us to a third way which is neither violent nor passive. Oppose evil without becoming evil. Quakers believe that nonviolent confrontation of evil and peaceful reconciliation are always superior to violent measures.
Here is the rub. I like passivity. It doesn’t ask anything of me. Things are going really well for me right now, thank you very much. I am immersed in and surrounded by systems that are evil, but I am also very comfortable. Why rock the boat?
But Jesus calls.
Between now and 2030 the government is going to spend $634 billion dollars to upgrade our nuclear arsenal. If all the missiles on 1 trident submarine were fired we would have 5 years of nuclear winter. This year’s defense budget is $768 billion. The botched drone strike during the evacuation of Afghanistan killed 10 civilians including 7 children. The taxes I willingly pay fund that. Am I not complicit?
The United States locks up more people at a higher rate than any country in the world. 4.1% of people currently on death row are likely to be innocent according to the National Academy of Sciences. Nobody I know.
One in nine Americans struggle with hunger. I stuffed myself over the holidays.
There are peace activists in prison right now because their Christian convictions compelled them to do civil disobedience. It was G K Chesterton who said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Am I doing enough? I struggle with that. It isn’t a guilt thing. It is more of a feeling that to become fully transformed, Christ is calling me to let go, step out, to change, to . . . I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe you sometimes wrestle with the same thing?