Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
There is a link to the children’s Valentine program at the bottom of this post!
I got in just a couple of fights with my college roommate, and the biggest one of them was my fault. He and I lived together for four years, and we enjoyed almost every minute of it. I am an only child, so I didn’t have brothers or anything, but this guy I shared a room with for four years was the closest I ever had.
Of course, we had other friends, too. We liked to play stupid pranks on each other – stealing little stuff from each other and seeing how long it took people to notice, mostly. Dumb stuff like that. So one time, I was out of my room, and some guys decided to play a prank on me. They asked into the room, and my roommate said “yes.” He helped them log onto my computer, and they messed with a bunch of my files, changed the desktop background – simple stuff, really, and nothing to get too upset about.
Thing was, I was having a rotten day when this happened. I came back to the room, and my computer was all messed up. I was mad. I seethed for a while, until my roommate got home, and asked him about it. He’s a sweet guy, so he was honest – told me that some of the other guys had wanted to mess with me, so he helped them out.
On that day, I was mad, and I wanted to take it out on someone. Since the people who had actually done it weren’t there, they only person I could blame was my roommate. I mean, sure, it was a violation of trust… but only just barely. So I confronted him over by the window, and a punched him a couple of times in the arm. No big deal. And hey – as boys do, after punching him, I felt a whole lot better. I’m sure the good feeling would have faded, because I would’ve realized that I punched someone for no reason. But it felt great in the moment.
So anyway, feeling better, I walked away – just turned around to leave the room, feeling better. We were even, far as I was concerned. The only problem with that thinking was this: in my mind we were even, but far from it in his mind. In his mind, we were anything but even. He hadn’t really done anything wrong – just let some of our friends into the room and pointed to my computer. And for nothing, he had gotten punched.
So, as I walked out the door, he waited until I was juuuuust about out of the room, he reached down by his bed where he kept his baseball glove. One of the many things we enjoyed doing together was playing catch – in nice weather, we’d do it every day. So he reached into his glove, pulled out the baseball, and whipped it as hard as he could, right in the middle of my back. Never mind that it could’ve hit my head, or that our TV or computers could’ve been hit. Never mind that I hit him in the arm from close distance, and he retaliated by whipping a baseball at me when I was defenseless. Never mind that he’s a personal trainer who bench presses 300 pounds and could seriously have injured me. He just did what he thought made us even.
And that’s when I made the first really good decision of the day. I said nothing, and I just turned and walked away. Grabbed my keys, and out the door I went.
On that note, we continue today in the Sermon on the Mount. If you’ve been in church the last few weeks, we’re now on the fourth and final section of those famous words that Jesus preached early in his ministry. Jesus took an opportunity, when the disciples had just been gathered, to lay out the most important things – to explain what principles his ministry would be based on, what God is doing in the world, what the Kingdom of God looks like, how we can live that reality today. This sermon is really Jesus’ statement on what it means to be one of his followers, and it is therefore one of the most important parts of the entire Bible. Today is our fourth and final week of examining this great sermon.
Jesus begins this section of the Sermon on the Mount by talking about the phrase, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This was a common law in the world of the Old Testament. It’s found in the Bible, and it’s also found in the Code of Hammurabi, which some scholars date as the oldest know written code of law. The whole idea of this law is that it’s about fairness. Some people think it’s about revenge; it’s not. It’s about saying, “If you take out my eye, I can’t kill you – all I can take is your eye.” It’s about proportion.
The problem with me and my roommate that day in college was that we each viewed something as “even” when it wasn’t at all. Instead of getting even, each one of us was escalating the conflict. Had I chosen to retaliate after he threw a baseball at me, I would’ve attacked much harder than the baseball throw. I would’ve hit him in the face, no doubt. I would’ve been out for blood. But see, that’s not fair. He didn’t go for blood. But we, as human beings, have a lot of trouble with the idea of a proportional response. Our instinct is not to “get even;” our instinct is to “get ahead.”
In this sermon, though, Jesus offers us another response – something that takes more discipline, more mercy, and more grace than a proportional response. What Jesus offers is a generous response. It has the added bonus of helping out the person who’s harmed, as we’ll see.
There’s a lovely little book called Jesus and Nonviolence, by a theologian named Walter Wink. In it, he discusses how interesting this little passage is. For example, he points out that the passage says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Specifically, it mentions the right cheek. Why? Well, Wink argues that, always, people would slap one another with their right hands – it was shameful to use your left hand for anything (as your left hand was also your toilet paper, if you get my drift). So people would always slap right-handed. Now, the only way to slap someone on the right cheek with your right hand is to backhand them.
Backhanding someone was then, as now, a sign of disrespect – a sign that the backhander is superior to the backhanded. When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, yes it means being slapped again – but it also means being slapped as an equal. For someone to hit you on the left cheek, they have to look you in the eye, consider your humanity, and then do it. They have to recognize you as an equal, not as an inferior.
Similarly, Jesus says that, if someone sues you for your coat, you should give them your cloak. That leaves you naked. And in Jesus’ time, seeing someone else naked was shameful, not just for the naked person, but for the person seeing them. This forces the person to give you back some item of clothing. Likewise again, all subjects of Rome were required to carry the pack of a Roman soldier if requested, but you only had to go one mile. Jesus says to offer to take the pack a second. While that would be hard work, it’s also illegal, and forces the Roman soldiers, an occupying force that operated oppressively and with legal impunity, to beg for their pack in order to not break the law. In other words, it put the carrier in a position of power over those who were actually in power.
This kind of radical resistance was key in Jesus’ time. There weren’t many battles that could be won by a peasant like Jesus (or his friends). But there were these ways to speak truth to power. Fighting back, then, Jesus tells us, is not always the best way to get someone to recognize that we are worthwhile human beings. Perhaps there are these other forms of resistance. They’re harder, but they also force our oppressors to see us in a new light, which can perhaps lead to progress.
And that leads us to the latter part of our reading for today. Jesus says some things which are necessary truths that we need to hear and keep in mind, whether we’re in Jesus’ day or even today.
“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.” In other words, we are tempted to hate those who oppose us. But Jesus reminds us that God sends rain on them, too. God loves all the children of the earth, whether they’re friends with you or enemies. So maybe the way we solve conflict isn’t by escalating violence, escalating hate, and escalating anger. Maybe the way we solve our problems is be remembering that we are children of God, and offering grace and love to those to whom we’re not inclined to offer grace and love, whether that’s a neighbor or family member who annoys us, or if it’s a different ethnic group from across the world. No matter who a person is, they are loved by God, and we best serve Christ by outdoing one another in love, not in hate.
So that’s where I finish my personal story. My roommate and I got into this fight. I hurt him, and he hurt me, and that’s when I walked away. We knew one another’s schedules forward and backward (we did live together, after all), so we avoided one another for two days. I came in after he went to bed at night; he got up and left as early in the morning as possible – all so we didn’t have to talk. Two days we did that. And, since it was my fault, I wrote him an e-mail. I apologized, took the blame (it was my fault, after all, for letting something dumb escalate into a real fight). I asked for forgiveness. I chose to end the cycle of violence and anger there, because the truth is, I loved my roommate, and I didn’t want to be at odds with someone I loved.
He forgave me. Of course he forgave me. We hugged; things went back to normal. We played catch. And this time, no one got a baseball square in the back.
We have the power to make decisions to end cycles of destruction and violence, and to increase love. That’s within our power. Whether or not we choose to do so is our choice. Jesus has made it clear what we’re supposed to do. Let us have the courage to take that call on our lives, and live as we ought. Let’s give voice to those who don’t have voices themselves. Let’s be willing to stand up to things that seem unfair or cruel in the world. Let’s live in a way that honors what Jesus taught us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. Amen.