“Turn the Other Cheek” Pilgrim Church UCC, February 19, 2017, (Matthew 5:38-48) Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

These last four Sundays have all focused on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  Though this is what drives me a little crazy about the lectionary sometimes.  Because of how scripture gets broken up Sunday to Sunday, it could easily get lost that the Sermon on the Mount comprises chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s Gospel!  So remember that the Sermon on the Mount isn’t just the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”[1]  Or even calling us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount also covers the verses you heard last Sunday (when Mike kindly preached the sermon I had written).  Those verses that seem a little disturbing: “if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”[2]  Today concludes our exploration of the Sermon on the Mount with Jesus teaching his followers about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and loving your enemies.  Though all these ethical teachings are part of just one moment in Jesus’ ministry—when crowds gathered to be with him and Jesus went up the mountain and taught remarkable ethics that have lasted the test of time.

Alright now that we clarified that, let’s get into the last ten verses of the Sermon on the Mount.  These verses are less harsh, but honestly not that much easier to understand than last Sunday.  Don’t Jesus’ words seem incredibly impractical or potentially even dangerous?  “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 . . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[3]  Imagine hearing these verses if you’re in an abusive relationship.  Imagine hearing these verses if a parent has anger issues and often becomes violent.  Imagine hearing these verses if you find yourself in any situation of extreme bullying.

As a Criminal Prosecutor, my sister has to prosecute difficult cases.  Some are domestic violence incidents that are just horrific.  Many statistics relate that 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.[4]  When my sister went to a domestic violence training with fellow prosecutors and police officers, the role of the Church actually came up.  Maureen heard in the training that many Christian clergy will counsel domestic violence victims to stay in abusive relationships.  Victims will hear their religious leaders say things like: “it’s just your cross to bear.”  “You are to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  “Divorce is a sin.”  “Remember Jesus said, ‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’”[5]

Maureen called me afterwards (and not knowing anything that she had heard at this training) she first asked if someone came to me in my role as a minister and said that they were in an abusive relationship what would I advise the victim to do?  Not hesitating, I said that I would advise them to leave and ask if there were ways to help—go with them to talk to the police, find a shelter for victims of domestic violence, go with them to court—whatever.  Then she shared more about what she heard Christian clergy too often advise domestic violence victims to do at her training: “bear your cross,” “divorce is a sin,” and “turn the other cheek.”  And my sister rightfully mused that this is why some people come to hate the Church, hate religion, even hate God.

We must be vigilant in contemplating the implications of Christian teachings.  Otherwise serious harm has been and continues to be perpetrated by certain leaders of the Church in the name of God.  Telling a domestic violence victim to stay in an abusive relationship because Jesus said to turn the other cheek is the last thing Jesus would ever want of his beloved children.  It goes against the Greatest Commandment that Jesus taught: love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself.  It’s spiritually wounding and theologically lazy to not engage with what Jesus meant when he taught to turn the other cheek if anyone strikes you.  We spend time every week looking at our Christian faith and asking important questions because what we believe and what we’re taught in church has consequences.  Getting to the heart of Jesus’ message really matters—love of self matters in addition to love of neighbor and love of God.

So what was Jesus truly saying when he told his followers in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek if somebody strikes you?  Well at that time people did think that an eye for an eye was the right way to go when it came to matters of justice.  That teaching was actually an improvement on what other civilizations believed at that time in history.  To oversimplify this for a second, for some civilizations if someone stole your cow they would advocate stealing ten cows or even that person’s home to get back at them.  Whereas in the book of Exodus we can read, “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”[6]  Justice was seen as measure for measure or lex talionis—a principle of fair treatment for assailants.  (The law of retaliation.)  It wasn’t always literal—sometimes compensation was acceptable in this legal code.  The person who stole your cow is caught so then will be asked to compensate you the amount your cow was worth. Exodus advocates one cow for one cow in this example.  Justice is about measure for measure.  So anyway, that’s the way it always had been.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is trying to forge a new ethical path within Judaism.  His listeners had always been taught that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was the way you sought justice.  But Jesus advocates the return of good for evil.  Matthew Myer Boulton (President of Christian Theological Seminary) explains that this stance is rooted in profound resistance.  Jesus is advocating that his followers don’t play their opponents’ adversarial game.  The heart of this teaching is “noncooperation with harm in all its forms.”[7]  It’s about nonadversarial defiance.  Mahatma Gandhi admired the Sermon on the Mount and especially valued these ten verses we’re exploring today.  In fact, Gandhi once wrote that this section of the Sermon on the Mount influenced his nonviolent strategy against the British colonial occupation of India.  Gandhi taught that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.  Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by Gandhi when he began the Civil Rights Movement.  We can see that Jesus’ teachings of nonviolence were not about weakness or about victims allowing themselves to remain in cycles of abuse.  Jesus’ teachings show the awful nature of violence.

At the conclusion of worship, I often say my favorite charge to the congregation and that includes the line: “render to no one evil for evil.”  That’s what Jesus taught and how he lived.  Not because he wanted his followers to be victims and stay in abusive relationships.  But because Jesus wondered if you respond to violence with more violence then how will that pattern of violence ultimately end?  If someone treats you badly and you seek revenge, what will that end up doing to you spiritually?  Jesus is teaching don’t fight fire with fire.  Fight fire with holy water—put out that fire of hatred and violence.  Sometimes you do that by not engaging with violent behavior.  You don’t stoop to their level if you can help it.  Again Myer Boulton reminds us, “The centerpiece of this teaching is noncooperation with harm in all its forms.  While this does entail loving and praying for perpetrators, by that very token, it also entails whenever possible discontinuing arrangements that allow or enable perpetrators to wreak havoc.”[8]  Violence harms the victim of violence.  And violence ultimately harms the perpetrator of that violence.  That’s why it is a Christian response to walk away from abusive relationships should it ever come to that because in so doing you’re loving yourself and you’re also loving your neighbor.

On a hopeful note to see this in action, we can turn to Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables which I have used in sermons before because it’s just so goodWhen Jean Valjean goes to the Bishop’s home in utter desperation having just been released from prison and not being able to find any work as an ex-con, Valjean makes off with silver in the middle of the night.  He steals.  But when he is taken back to the Bishop’s home by the police, the Bishop places two silver candlesticks in Valjean’s hands.  The Bishop sings in the musical, “But my friend you left so early, surely something slipped your mind, you forgot I gave these also.  Would you leave the best behind?”  It’s not just that the Bishop saves Valjean from returning to prison, he gives him the most valuable silver pieces in the house.  It’s one of those moments of not just giving your coat but your cloak also.  Of going the second mile.  Of not rendering evil for evil.  Of turning the other cheek.

Valjean sings a soliloquy afterwards and wonders, “My life he claims for God above, can such things be?  For I had come to hate this world, this world that always hated me.  Take an eye for an eye!  Turn your heart into stone!  This is all I have lived for!  This is all I have known!”  Valjean had lived his life with the ethical code of an eye for an eye.  Yet through God’s grace and the Bishop’s compassion, his life changes.  This story shows the heart of Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount.  Not allowing oneself to be abused.  But rising above evil acts that we may experience.  Don’t cooperate with harm in any form.  Put out fire with holy water.  If we live by focusing on an eye for an eye—we may find that life feels pretty empty.  In seeking revenge we end up hurting ourselves.  Instead, we can embody what Jesus taught—render to no one evil for evil.  May it be so with us.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 5: 5 and 8, NRSV.
[2] Matthew 5:30.
[3] Matthew 5:38-39 and 44.
[4] The National Domestic Violence Hotline, Get the Facts & Figures, http://www.thehotline.org/resources/statistics/
[5] Matthew 5:39.
[6] Exodus 21:23-25.
[7] Matthew Myer Boulton, Homiletical Perspective of Matthew 5:38-48 in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1, 385.
[8] Myer Boulton, Homiletical Perspective of Matthew 5:38-48 in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, 385.