words of my mouth

Seventh Sunday After Epiphany

Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18   Matthew 5:38-48


In some ways, in our society today standards haven’t changed much since ancient times. Our response to beggars is almost invariably the same as that of Jesus’ day. Normally a beggar is easy to spot, standing on a street corner, or slumped against a building near Park Street Station or Downtown Crossing. We see them as we approach, and avert our gaze, or even, in some cases, cross the street to avoid them. Rarely do we reach into our pocket or purse to see how much we can give, and if we do give, it is minimal. Why do we act this way?

Well, we keep our distance because the beggar could be drunk or on drugs, might be hostile or violent. They always look dirty and we reason they might be carrying germs we’d prefer to avoid. They lead lives we can only imagine, and certainly not in a positive light, and – bottom line – they aren’t like us.

While some of our fears may be justified, the one thing that is never true is the assumption they aren’t like us. On a long ago piece which aired on “60 Minutes” a camera crew, disguised as beggars, spent a day with a real beggar in Grand Central Station in NYC. If the viewer came away with nothing else, it was the sincere conviction that those who beg have minds and feelings; they are broken, fallen, and very human, but at their core they are, in fact, just like us.

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said … But I say to you …”

Matthew is in an interesting position. We heard his infancy narratives earlier this season in which he went to great lengths to prove Jesus had a legitimate claim to be the Messiah, the King who would come to uphold the Law. But there is something else Matthew wants us to understand, and that is that Jesus has authority, an authority granted only to God, to interpret, expand, and fulfill the law itself. Two weeks ago, Jesus said Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. In today’s Gospel, which is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, He continues to explain what He means.

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.

It’s not an inviting prospect. For one thing, being slapped in the face hurts, and, depending on the force of the blow, can leave a nasty bruise, or even break a facial bone. However, it’s unlikely Jesus is speaking of a really damaging blow, but more of one that is demeaning to the individual being struck. Our reaction to such a blow is pretty well ingrained in us. In movies such as “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, we watch the nuns teach the boy being bullied how to fight back. The Sister Superior gives the lad boxing lessons. When we are slapped, we slap back. It’s the American way.

To turn the other cheek, as Jesus tells us, isn’t what we’ve been raised to believe is the correct response to violence against us. No one wants to be a doormat or to be considered a coward. We stand up for ourselves. That’s the kind of people we are – if - our allegiance is to things of this world. If our allegiance is to Jesus, we are called to do something different. But why? Why does Jesus give us this instruction?

What we sometimes miss in today’s Gospel is that turning the other cheek is merely an example of what we are being told to do. The actual admonition is, “Do not resist an evildoer.” The reason is simple, because in resisting an evildoer, one becomes an evildoer. If you are slapped in the face, for example, you a guiltless, until you slap back. Then you are as guilty as the one who slapped you. Because we’re human, it’s perfectly natural to feel anger, but it is not acceptable in the eyes of God to act on it. Nietzsche wrote that you must be careful, for when you look into the abyss you must remember the abyss looks back into you.

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.

The coat Jesus refers to is the tunic or shirt worn by a Jewish man of Jesus’ time. It is demeaning to have someone sue you for your coat, but to offer one’s cloak has a double significance. Not only is it an act of humility, a cloak could also be a symbol of authority, as when Elisha picked up Elijah’s cloak and assumed the authority of a prophet. To surrender your cloak was to surrender to the authority of the one who was suing you, be that person Jew or Roman.

It’s probable that in today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking of the Romans, who loved to exert their authority over the Jews. But in Jesus’ estimation Roman authority was an empty and worthless thing. It was worldly authority only, and counted for naught in the eyes of God. Better to acquiesce to Roman authority than to displease God.

Later in Matthew Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Or to put it another way, “Give to Caesar that worthless stuff that is his, and give to God all that is worthwhile.” And that’s what Jesus is stressing in today’s Gospel, that we need to understand what holds true worth, not in the eyes of the world, but in the sight of God.

Being forced to walk the extra mile is definitely the sort of thing a Roman soldier might inflict on a Jew, and it would kindle the hatred and anger of the individual being forced to comply. These feelings anger, hatred, and feelings like them, are ones Jesus wants us to combat within ourselves, because giving in to them only causes us to become allies with the evil one.

 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

When we do not give to beggars, for any of the reasons I mentioned earlier, or any other reasons we may fabricate, when we refuse a loan to someone who asks, we are setting ourselves up as judge, as if we are somehow better than they. The world tells us that we are the “haves” and they are the “have-nots”, that we are indeed, better, richer, smarter, more powerful, the ones in authority in such situations. Jesus tells us we are none of these things. We are all equal in the eyes of God and must treat each other accordingly and with love.

We hear these lessons again and again, but it is difficult to absorb their message and live it in our daily lives. Every single thing Jesus has told us today goes against every single thing we have been taught is sensible. Yet, this is our faith! It isn’t reasonable or sensible by worldly standards. To be acceptable to the Father, we must put away the logic of the world, and heed what Jesus has told us.

As we struggle to do our Lord’s will, it doesn’t hurt to remember there will be times when we are the needy person or when we are someone else’s enemy. We would want from others the love and the compassion that, when the shoe is on the other foot, we often find hard to offer.

Our life as Jesus’ followers is not meant to be a passive life, but very active and intentional. But our actions must reflect Jesus’ teachings. This means seeing God in each other and, as God does, setting no bounds on loving. If we stay inside the boundaries set by the world, the boundaries inside which we feel comfortable, then wars, racism, ageism, sexism, and prejudice of all kinds will continue. The poor will remain hungry and uncared for, as will all those Jesus has called us to love.

Paul sums it up well today in his letter to the church at Corinth. He writes, Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? … Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. 

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, we pray that You may fortify us with the grace of Your Holy Spirit, and give Your peace to our souls, that we may be free from all needless anxiety and worry. Help us to desire always that which is pleasing and acceptable to You, so that your will may be ours. Do not permit us to attribute to ourselves the good that You perform in us and through us, but rather, refer all honour to You. Help us to love one another remembering that we are all equal in Your sight, and renounce sincerely all vainglory which comes from the world, aspiring to that true and lasting glory that comes only from You. We ask for Your love and mercy’s sake, Amen


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