2/19/17: Choose Love, Matthew 5:38-48, Rev. Julie Whidden Long preaching
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Matthew 5:38-48
Rev. Julie Whidden Long
I hope that each of you received a card or a call from someone who loves you this past Tuesday on Valentine’s Day -- maybe even a box of chocolates, a bouquet of flowers, or a nice dinner out. And even if you didn’t - if you and your loved ones are not into that sort of thing - at least be grateful that you did not receive a “Vinegar Valentine.” I didn’t know that this was such a thing until I read an article about them last week, but it seems that these alternative cards were a part of the Valentine-swapping tradition in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Vinegar Valentines carried sarcastic and obnoxious messages with a vicious sting; they were swapped by estranged couples or sent to those who had somehow annoyed the sender.
One snarky Valentine, picturing a cartoon woman with a rather goofy-looking expression, said, “Never Despair, on Valentine’s Day. I dare say you’ve had your moments, dreaming of a man. But I simply can’t see you getting one, with such a funny pan!” Another read: ‘You’ve had your day my dear, remember your age if you can, people can see without looking,
you’remuttondressedaslamb.’ Toaddinjurytoinsult,priortotheintroductionoftheBlackPenny Stamp in 1840, the recipients even had to pay the cost of the postage!
I haven’t seen any Vinegar Valentines in the card aisle at the Hallmark store, but this year the website Buzzfeed offered their Top Ten list of Anti-Valentines for people you hate:
“Are you a banker? Because you need leave me a loan.”
“Where have you been all of my life? And can you go back there please?”
And my personal favorite: “Happy unimaginative, consumerism-oriented, and entirely arbitrary, manipulative, and shallow interpretation of romance day. With that being said, don’t forget my gift.”
Vinegar Valentine cards – creative, perhaps even honest, but not exactly what Jesus meant by “loving our enemies.”
A couple of weeks ago, our first and second grade Sunday School class studied the same scripture lesson that we are exploring in worship today – Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount about loving our enemies. Their teacher invited them to think about someone they know who is hard to love. Then, they were asked to make a Valentine card for that person. A pesky little brother was mentioned (but shall remain nameless now), and a classmate that never shares the swing on the playground. As the children’s minister, I’m happy to report that none of the kids made Vinegar Valentines. But I did observe that it was easier for them to name that offending person than it was to come up with the words to say to them on the Valentine. And I imagine it was much harder still to actually hand-deliver those Valentines.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These may very well be the hardest words in Holy Scripture. Some people are our enemies for a reason, after all. They offend us. They have hurt us. They disgust us. They act in evil ways. There are good reasons we don’t like them. It’s one thing to not antagonize, to just ignore them or keep a safe distance. Maybe even been nice to them - you know, kill them with kindness. But love them? How are we to love them?
ForJesus,loveisnotaboutwarm,fuzzyfeelings.Loveisaboutaction. Jesusgaveus some specific and concrete examples of what this looks like, of how we are to respond to people who have wronged us.
The Torah, the Jewish law that his audience knew so well, already had laws in place that made sure God’s people treated their national and personal enemies with fairness and justice. But Jesus took these rules and interpreted them in an even more generous way.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds harsh to our ears, but it actually limits retaliation. You could not take two eyes if only one was taken from you. It was a balanced response. But Jesus challenged his followers to renounce their right to retaliation all together: “But I say, “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.”
Jesus is not asking his followers to be pushovers here; this is not an “anything goes” kind ofethic. There’smoregoingonherethatneedsalittleunpacking.
SomeofyouwillbesadtoknowthatJesus’sculturedidnotappreciatelefties. Theleft hand was reserved for unclean, less savory tasks. I’ll let you use your imagination. But the right hand was the one generally used for everything else - writing a letter, opening a door, extending a handshake, or yes, even a punch. So if you were struck on the right cheek, presumably by the other’s right hand, you had just been backhanded. This slap was more of an insult than a fistfight. It was an act intended to put someone in his or her place.
So when Jesus tells the one struck to turn the other cheek, he empowers him. In the words of theologian Walter Wink, the person turning the other cheek was saying, “Try again. Your first blow didn’t work the way you wanted it to. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not change that; you cannot demean me.” i
In the second example, Jesus portrays a court case in which a man is being sued and literally loses his shirt. Picture a long nightshirt that functioned like a main garment. The victim was commanded to not only give it willingly but to also give the cloak, the toga-like outer garment that could not have legally been taken away. This leaves the victim nude in the courtroom. Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and the shame fell not on the naked one, but on the person seeing the nakedness. “You want my robe? Here, take everything. Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?” So there stands the creditor, beet-red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand, and your underwear in the other. Onceagain,thevictimhasturnedthetablesandhasrefusedtobehumiliated,allwhile protesting a system that would have allowed such a thing to happen.ii
The third picture Jesus paints for us reflects the Roman practice by which soldiers and government officials could compel citizens of their occupied country to carry their equipment a certain distance. Soldiers were often guilty of abusing this privilege, and as you could imagine this caused great resentment. Rather than resisting the evil government or plotting to get even, the disciple is commanded to do more than the law requires, to go the second mile. Imagine what might be going through that soldier’s head: “What are you up to? Are you insulting my strength? Trying to get me disciplined for making you go farther than you should? Are you planning to file a complaint?” By going the second mile, the disciple could claim his own inner freedom from the rule of another over him.iii
What is Jesus up to here? Is this some kind of political strategy, or a tool for changing the enemy’s behavior?
What Jesus is doing here is showing his disciples a new way. Jesus’ command for us to loveourenemiesandrefrainfromretaliationisacalltobeadifferentsortofpeople. Youdo not have to fight back tit-for-tat. You do not have to lie down and take it. You can respond in a waythatisdifferentaltogether. Itisawayoflovingthatholdsupjusticewithoutviolence,and that preserves one’s dignity in a spirit of humility.
These examples give a picture of God’s will for the human community. They are meant to shock the imagination into seeing a new way of living in God’s intention. The old ways of retaliation and self-protection just will not do it. Jesus is calling for a different way.
Amy Jill Levine, a New Testament scholar from Vanderbilt, visited Macon for Mercer’s annual Harry Vaughan Smith Christianity lectures a few years ago. She was teaching on Jesus’ parables, on which she is an expert, and someone asked her, “Of all of Jesus’ teachings, is there anything he said that was unique?” She answered, “‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ I don’t know of anyone else from antiquity to have given this instruction.”’iv
This is our unique calling as Jesus’ disciples: to love our enemies. This is how we stand outintheworld. Inhumansocietyeverywhere,itisnormaltoreturnloveforloveandhatefor hate. If we do no more than this, we fade into the background. We cannot serve the world as salt and light.v
Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon wrote a book together entitled “Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony.” They say that the church, called out by God, embodiesasocialalternative. “Christianity,”theysay,“isaninvitationtobepartofanalien people who make a difference because they see something that cannot otherwise be seen withoutChrist.”vi TheSermonontheMountshowsus“howreallyodditistobeapeople called by God.” It invites us to a way “that strikes hard against what the world already knows, whattheworlddefinesasgoodbehavior.” IfwetakeseriouslythesewordsofJesus,ifwetruly live and believe them, we will be different. The world becomes for us “an odd place where what makes sense to everybody else is revealed to be opposed to what God is doing among us.”vii
Being resident aliens in the world – this is our true identity as God’s people. Turning the other cheek, returning hatred with love, going above and beyond what others ask us to do is no way to get ahead in this world. But we will have to be okay with that. Because to be God’s people is to claim that our true citizenship is not of this place, and our loyalty is to God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of the world. Our cultural norms are not of the dominant culture but of Christ’s alternative culture. Our identity and our dignity come from God, and we will live as if no one else can take that away. We trust that while evil is serious, it is not ultimate, and we stake our lives on the hope that God will ultimately make all things new. Knowing these things, we are free to be who God created us to be. We are free to love differently.
This week, Brad Braxton delivered this year’s Harry Vaughan Smith Christianity lectures at Mercer. In his third lecture on Wednesday morning, he talked about how we take our theology to the streets, how we put into practice the radical love that Jesus calls us to. Braxton pastors a very diverse church in Baltimore that is committed to working in the community for social justice and racial reconciliation. He, like many of us, is deeply concerned about the spirit of public conversation in this country - political, social, and otherwise. Each side has set the other up as the enemy. There is a lack of trust, a lack of respect, a lack of kindness.
Braxton and his congregation want to continue to engage what’s going on in the public square,butinadifferent,lovingkindofway. Herecommendsthreepracticalrulesforthis “lovingyourenemies”kindofwork. First,hesays,weneedto“demonstrateintellectual charity.” By that he means that we have to think hard about how to love. Loving your enemies is a love that you have to will, that you have to shift into gear. It does not come naturally. You have to make yourself show indiscriminate kindness to people no matter how they treat you. Loving your enemy does not just mean refraining from hurting your enemy. It means actually willing your neighbor’s good and working for it.
Second,wehavetoshowcompassion. Askyourself,“Whydoesthispersonholdthis perspective?” Listen; hear their story; try to put yourself in their shoes; be compassionate. When we take the time to listen and hear someone’s story, we often find that there is more to understand than we initially imagined.
And third, practice hospitality. Remember the principle of “Namaste.” “Namaste” means“thesacredinmegreetsthesacredinyou.” Wearecalledtoloveourenemiesbecause Godlovesourenemies. Lovingourenemiesbeginswithrealizingthatthey,too,carrythe image of God. And yes, Christ died for them.
Howwillyouloveyourenemy? Jesusmadeafewconcretesuggestions:walkasecond mile, turn the other cheek. It’s too bad he didn’t give us about 15 or 20 more examples, since this kind of response doesn’t come naturally to us. For the rest he leaves it up to our imagination. We are left to discover in each situation what loving our personal or national enemies will require of us. We have to ask, “What is the most creative, transformative, loving response to this problem?” What is absolutely clear from the examples Jesus gives is that our Christian response will be abnormal; it will set us apart as aliens in our land.
SometimesJesus’swayoflovejustdoesn’tmakesense. Butashisdisciples,wemust choose love. Even when love doesn’t make sense, choose love. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Choose love. Amen.
i Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence, p. 16.
iiWink, p. 19-20.
iii Wink, 24-5.
iv Also referenced in Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, p. 86. v Interpretation Commentary, Matthew, p. 61.
vi Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, p. 18-24. vii Resident Aliens, p. 74.