Nobody who lived through the 1970s and ‘80s can forget the spate of popular novels published in those days that specialized in revenge. I’m not sure what it was about that era that made us all so fascinated with getting even, but revenge was certainly the central theme of a lot of bestsellers from that period. I’m thinking about novels like Sidney Sheldon’s, The Other Side of Midnight—a breathless erotic page-turner centered on the lives of two women (one a Frenchwoman, the other an American) who are both loved by and betrayed by and whose fates are ultimately entwined with a sleazy British guy. Though I won’t admit to having read the novel, I do remember the miniseries as a six-hour orgy of passion, jealousy, envy, and deeply satisfying revenge.
The literature of getting even has long been a staple of Western culture—Shakespeare’s Hamlet providing perhaps the most famous high class example. When Jesus says, in today’s Gospel, "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'” he is quoting the law handed to Moses in the Book of Exodus [21.24]. We should remember, though, that at the time of the giving of the law to the Israelites, “an eye for an eye” was a big step forward. Previously, the retributive practice had been, “You take my eye or my tooth and I wipe out your family.” So Exodus 21 at least has the virtue of establishing moral parity: in revenge for an offense, you are entitled to take exactly as much as you lost, but no more.
Today’s Gospel, though, turns Moses’s law on its head. I’m not sure what Sidney Sheldon would have done with this:
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. . . . [Matthew 5.38-41]
Turn the other cheek. Give them your cloak as well. Go an extra mile. Here we have Jesus telling us not only not to resist evil but to give the evildoer even more than was asked for. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have been the first to have said, “The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” meaning that communities need to balance both liberties and safety. Is the Gospel a suicide pact? Are we supposed to lie down and let people walk all over us? Or is there something else going on here?
We have all seen so many pictures of Jesus surrounded by lambs and little children that we have forgotten that just as there is another side to midnight so is there another side to Jesus. Jesus is usually polite, but he is deeply disrespectful of bullies and aggressors. But he doesn’t attack them directly. He goes at them, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, “slant”. The other side of Jesus we hear from this morning is his subversive side.
Many commentators have noted how the remedies Jesus suggests to the three offenses we just heard about—slapping on the cheek, suing for a coat, forcing someone to carry a burden for a mile—these remedies are actually more subversive and less submissive than they might otherwise appear. First, there is the slap: a superior could slap an inferior with the back of the hand. By turning the cheek, you force the slapper to hit you again with the open hand, thus unwittingly making him treat you as his equal.
Then there is the coat. If I take all your garments--your coat and your cloak--from you, you will be naked, and in this culture nakedness is a humiliation for you but even more for me as the one who caused it. Because Near Eastern hospitality demands that I not make anyone shame himself, taking all of somebody’s clothing from them makes me the cause of their nakedness and therefore primarily responsible for their shame. The final shame attaches to me and not to you.
And then there’s the extra mile. Roman soldiers could force anyone to go one mile—no more—with them in order to carry their equipment. By going a second mile of my own volition, I am again making the hated Roman occupier treat me as his equal. You can compel my obedience but not my gift. So “going the extra mile” is one of the ways Jesus says, in John Dominic Crossan’s words, “In your face, Caesar!”
Thus these three seemingly “gentle” teachings of Jesus are, in fact, extremely subversive. They undercut the express power relationships of social status and political/military force. They turn the recipient of the offense from victim not only to equal but to victor. And the best part of it is, you’ve gotten your so-called “revenge” without the offender even realizing or understanding it.
What Jesus offers us this morning is what we might call moral Judo: taking the aggressive impulses of one’s adversary and deflecting them from oneself by turning them back on the offender. He gives us a way to hold our heads up without inflicting either additional carnage or self-destruction. There is a similar moment in Paul’s writings: speaking to natural the desire of persecuted Christians to wreak vengeance on those who oppress them, Paul says: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12.19) A New Testament professor of mine used to paraphrase it this way: “Don’t waste your time using the popgun of your own small time revenge. God will get them big time with the nuclear blast of divine retribution.” Not, when we think of it the most charitable sentiment in the Bible, but one that easily aligns with the subversive nature of what Jesus is up to in today’s Gospel. The bullies will not prevail. And when they do finally see the futility of their enterprise, it will be much too late.
So far we can understand Jesus’ teaching today as advice to keep our cool and make the aggressor humiliate and defeat himself. That at least is common sense. But there is no common sense that will explain what comes next:
"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." [Matthew 5.43-48]
O.K. I get the first part: I can turn aggression back on itself and get even without the other guy even knowing it. But love my enemies? Pray for those who persecute me? Be perfect as God is perfect? I know that Jesus prayed for those who crucified him, but he was Jesus. I’m just an average person making my way through life, trying to do the right thing and failing as often as I succeed. How can I love those who hate me? How can I presume to be perfect?
I have been a Christian all my adult life, and I’m not sure I know how to answer these questions. It’s one thing to get subtle payback from an unwitting dupe. It’s another thing actually to think about loving someone who wishes you ill. I don’t know that I’ve ever, really, been able to achieve that. But I do know the people I admire—Jesus, yes, but also Gandhi and Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela—these people were ones who strove actually to live these teachings out. I know that the Constitution and the Gospel are not a suicide pacts and that we live in a world with real evil in it, where every so often you have to take on the forces that would dehumanize and degrade human beings. But I also know that Jesus calls us to a higher righteousness, and that even when we’ve had our subversive fun with an oppressor there comes a time when we have to treat that person as a human being made in God’s image and beloved of God just as much as we are.
If we love those who love us, what is so great about that? Even the tax collectors, the Gentiles, even mob bosses and drug lords and terrorists love their families and friends. What really tells the tale about our character is the depth and breadth and generosity of spirit we show to those who are not part of our immediate circle or household. And I don’t mean mere difference here—I mean, and I think Jesus does, those whose worldview and values and priorities are absolutely opposite from yours and mine. I know, as I hear Jesus talking in this morning’s Gospel, that he wants you and me to strive for something deeper and more generous than our day-to-day self-justifying morality. God is perfect and loves everybody; God makes the sun and rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. Jesus knows that we may not be capable of divine love and forgiveness and compassion yet, but he wants us to try.
There are two pieces of Good News in today’s Gospel. The first, the subversive part, is a validation of you and your dignity. You are unique, precious, and loved. Insist on your own dignity. Do not let yourself be diminished by anyone. You stand for your dignity most strongly when you make your adversary treat you as an equal. You do not need to submit to anyone’s subjugation. You are worthy and dignified in your own right. Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give your cloak away in order to assert your own seriousness and agency as a person made in God’s image and loved by God not only as you might be but as you actually are.
And then there is a second, more surprising piece of Good News in today’s Gospel. Because you take yourself seriously, because you have agency and dignity and worth, you no longer need to define your value relative to somebody else’s. When I am really secure in who I am, when I am really alive to the grace and love and forgiveness and blessing offered me by God in Christ, I can afford to be generous even with those who think they wish me ill. That does not mean excusing evil or making peace with oppression. But it does mean that we now can afford to be morally generous. And what the witness of Jesus and Gandhi and King and Mandela teaches us is that it is the morally generous who ultimately prevail. That’s not a truth you’ll learn from a revenge novel. But it is a truth we learn from the life and witness of Jesus and those in every generation who have internalized his example.
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are all a long way from perfection. But we are a people who have permission to try for it. And what finally empowers us to try for perfection is that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, a community of faith gathered around the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, a people who know themselves ultimately to be loved and accepted and blessed. No one of us on our own is perfect, but taken together we just might be. (That’s what I think Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians [3.10-23] this morning.) For that possibility, and the ways it enlivens our lives and makes them not only livable but beautiful, let us gather around God’s table to give thanks. Amen.