14 June 2009

Clever as Serpents, Gentle as Doves

The following post is a reprise from last year. The Gospel for tomorrow is the same reading and since I have not been posting much I hope you will forgive me for putting this up again. I would like to rework it from the perspective of a new title, "Clever (or Sly as) Serpents, gentle as Doves" for I think that this is the kind of ethic we see from Jesus again and again: he traps those trying to trap him in their own reality and then offers them something new and better, all without aggression or hostility. For those thinking that Christianity offers us a kind of bloodless piety incapable of dealing with the world, a piety which makes doormats of disciples, this passage from Matthew is an eye-opener.

Throughout the past few days we have been listening to the sermon on the mount in bite-sized pieces. Today's Gospel (Matt 5:38-42) may be a bit more difficult to swallow than most. Our immediate reaction may be one of inner protest, a complaint that Jesus' demands are unrealistic, that they will lead to increased rather than decreased violence, that to act as he requires is destructive of self-esteem, human dignity, and even good social order! Throughout the sermon on the mount Jesus has laid before us the requirements of living as a light to the world and witnessing to the astoundingly patient and generous love of God. But today we are especially asked to witness to the dignity and inner freedom that results when we are loved with God's "everlasting" and unconditional love.

Jesus gives us three examples of what he means. Each one makes a shrewd kind of sense within the culture of his day. Each one involves a non violent response to some kind of oppression or injustice and each one involves a letting go of a "worldly dignity" (self-worth or dignity measured in terms of the world) while claiming a deeper identity and self-worth in Christ. Finally, each example is therefore marked by the peculiar freedom of the Christian, the freedom to act as the daughters and sons of God we are called to be despite the limitations and constraints placed upon us by life.

In the first example, Jesus tells us that if we are struck on the right cheek, we should turn the other cheek to our oppressor. Now in Jesus' day, to be struck on the right cheek implied a backhanded slap which indicated an unequal social situation and was understood to be an insult. A master might strike a slave in this way, or a child might be struck thusly, and in some cases even a woman might be. To turn the other cheek meant the person who had been insulted or demeaned (and who might indeed occupy an inferior social position) assumes the position of an equal and requires the oppressor to recognize this either by striking her again with the front of his hand or desisting entirely. In either case, the equality of persons is affirmed and the person struck witnesses to an inner freedom which goes beyond anything the world knows.

The second example is drawn from the law court. Jesus admonishes us that if someone wishes to sue us for our tunic, we should give them our cloak as well. Implied here is an image of someone powerful and possibly rich suing someone who is less powerful and poor for the shirt off their back. (Luke uses the term "robbery" when referring to this particular saying of Jesus.) What is envisioned is the powerful person reducing the poor one to a state of nakedness, but what is also the case in Jesus' image is that the one shamed in such an act would be the powerful person, not the one deprived of their clothing. The act of handing over one's cloak as well serves to reveal the venality of the one suing even while it witnesses to a greater inner freedom and deeper dignity than the world knows. To live from and of the love of God allows a kind of detachment from the more usual honor/shame categories which characterized Jesus' world, even while our actions unmask these categories as less than authentically human.

The third example Jesus gives involves the demand that if we are pressed into service and asked to go a mile, we should go the extra mile as well. This example was drawn directly from the culture of the day. Jews were often pressed into service by Roman soldiers to carry equipment and the like. The law allowed a citizen to be impressed into service for one mile, but no more than this. The practice caused all kinds of resentment and the development of zealotism with the threat of armed rebellion was a dominant reality as well. For a person to voluntarily go the extra mile demonstrated a capacity to resist evil (oppression) without violence even while he assumed the position of Roman peer. (Remember that if the soldier's superior's were to hear a citizen went the second mile during impressed service, the soldier was open to discipline. In this sense, the one who voluntarily goes the second mile could be said to gain a superior position to the soldier!) In any case, once again, the Christian is asked to witness to a greater personal freedom and more profound dignity than the world marked or knew.

As we have been hearing in so many of the readings since Easter, the challenge before us is to live lives of genuine holiness, not merely lives of simple respectability. If Jesus' examples shock us and ask us to imagine God's will for us as more demanding, more counter-cultural than we might often do otherwise, well and good! The key to understanding how truly reasonable these demands are is to recall they are not rooted in some abstract code of behavior or ethics. Instead we must recognize that Jesus has lived them out himself: he has turned the other cheek, given his cloak as well as his tunic, and gone the extra mile in ways, and to a degree which cause today's examples to pale in comparison. Likewise, by revealing (that is, by making known and making real among us) the God who loves us with an everlasting love, he empowers us to live our lives similarly. How ever it is we work out the application of these examples from Jesus' world in our own, we are being asked to witness to a love which goes beyond anything the world has ever known apart from Christ, and to demonstrate this with a freedom and sense of personal dignity which is deeper than anything the world can give OR take from us.

[Pictures are those of the prominence where it is believed the sermon on the mount was given, the church built on this site, and a view from the "mount" looking over the plain of Genesseret.]