February 23, 2014

7th Sunday after the Epiphany

Jesus preached a radical message of non-violence to his world that was perhaps even more steeped in violence than ours. I don’t imagine they liked it any more than we do. Even 2,000 years later, we can’t quite believe he meant what he said.

Because we, as a culture, and often even as a church, have bought into the myth that violence can be "cured" with more violence.

But Jesus is pretty clear. "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."

Before we look at what I think Jesus means when he says this, let me say what he isn’t saying. If you, or someone you love, is in an abusive relationship, he is NOT saying that you should just take the abuse.

What he is saying is that when you encounter violence, you are NOT to respond with violence. The word translated as "resist", as in "do not resist an evil doer" should conjure up images of armed resistance, not submission. The Scholars Version translates it this way: "Don’t react violently against the one who is evil." So Jesus is NOT telling us to continue to put up with violence. He is not telling us to submit to it. He is telling us to resist violence, but not with more violence.

So, even though Hebrew culture was violent and was living under a violent Roman occupation, Jesus tells his followers that things need to be different, and it has to start with them. The wisdom of "an eye for an eye" soon leaves the entire world at least half blind. Jesus wants us to understand, still, 2,000 years later, that if we don’t want the whole world to be blind, we need to change how we treat each other.

One of the reasons I think this entire passage is so difficult for us is because we see people as either being "with" us or "against" us. We have friends and we have enemies. Even if you never use the word "enemy", there are people we like and people we don’t like and we are certain that those distinctions justify all sorts of behavior.

But Jesus didn’t see the world with those distinctions.

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.

We are all God’s children on whom the sun rises and the rain falls. All of us. No exceptions.

And while Jesus is most certainly concerned about justice for the weak, the poor, the marginalized, he is also most certainly concerned about justice for the powerful, the rich, and the mighty.

Because here is the truth woven throughout the Sermon on the Mount: there is no justice for one of us unless there is justice for all of us.

So, let’s take an eye for an eye scenario.

If you steal my cow, my family will take one of your cows.

If you kill my sister, my family will kill your sister.

If you bomb my village, my village will bomb your village.

We can recognize a sort of justice in that quid pro quo system. But Jesus wants us to understand that the underlying problems that lead someone to kill, steal, or destroy will not be fixed or redeemed with an eye for an eye. "Jesus is not advocating nonviolence merely as a technique for outwitting the enemy, but as a just means of opposing the enemy in a way that holds open the possibility of the enemy also becoming just." It isn’t about one side winning or one side losing. Both sides must realize there is only one side, that we are all children of God. An eye for an eye doesn’t allow for that.

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.

Loving our enemies and praying for our persecutors.

What does that look like?

Dr Izzeldin Abulaish is a Palestinian doctor who was raised in a refugee camp in Gaza. He overcame the considerable obstacles in his life to go to school, to become a doctor. And then he returned home and lived in Gaza and worked in an Israeli hospital. He worked to heal and care for the people who caused his people to end up in a refugee camp. The rest of the world would have told him that Israelis are his enemies, that he should work against them and should most definitely not be healing them. But he chose to resist the violence he had seen and experienced with love, healing, and friendship.

But how can we respond to the violence and injustice that we encounter in a way that will help the world live into God’s vision for a peaceful world? It certainly takes imagination, creativity, and love, because we can look around and see that the world hasn’t been transformed yet.

At the very least, we have to start seeing the people around us as our brothers and sisters. With no exception. For God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Jesus’ instructions to us don’t preclude our ability to be in conflict. We aren’t to just let the bullies get their way. In many ways, his instructions call us to bring conflict into the light, where it can be seen for what it is. But our conflict needs to be non-violent. It means we have to be in conversation with the people with whom we disagree. So that we can truly hear what it is they believe. It means we can’t demonize the "other" but we have to see them as family who have something to teach us. Even if they don’t want to listen to us. We have to listen to them.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies and we hope that they will be transformed, but we also pray for them in hopes that we will be transformed.