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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Homily

Epiphany 7, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 20, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18; 1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48

Love your enemies’

St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is most famous for articulating the five so-called “proofs” of God’s existence. It may surprise, then, to read the following words attributed to him: “God is not the answer; God is the question.” These words may be taken as flippant but are also an invitation to deep engagement. In relation to our Gospel, which continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, are we ourselves not questioned, even as the Sermon stirs up questions? What does it mean to turn the other cheek? Who are my enemies and how am I to love them? To what kind of perfection am I called? Today’s homily aims to honour these and other questions, their multifaceted and complex nature, while pointing to the One who lives them most faithfully.

Morality lessons that teach “turning the other cheek” as a good or Christian value typically emphasise nonviolence and non-confrontation. The most straightforward reading of the passage in Matthew (and Luke), however, suggests that the phrase has a more radical meaning: a command to respond to aggression by willingly exposing oneself to a further act of aggression rather than retaliating, retreating or ignoring it.

Since the passage calls for total nonresistance to the point of facilitating aggression against oneself, and since governments defend themselves by military force, it has led some to Christian anarchism, including the notable Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, author of The Kingdom of God Is Within You. We might understand some recent and current acts of nonresistance in the face of government and pro-government forces (in Cairo and Algiers) in a similar way. Is there a time and place for this nonresistance?

A literal (as opposed to straightforward) interpretation of the passage, in which the command refers specifically to a manual strike against the side of a person’s face, can be supported by reference to historical and cultural factors. At the time of Jesus, striking someone deemed to be of a lower class with the back of the hand was used to assert authority and dominance. If the persecuted person “turned the other cheek”, the striker was faced with a dilemma. The left hand was used for unclean purposes, so a backhand strike on the opposite cheek would not be performed. The alternatives would include a slap with the open hand, as a challenge, or to punch the person, but these were seen (we might be surprised to hear) as statements of equality. By turning the other cheek the persecuted was, in effect, asserting/demanding equality.

By handing over one’s coat in addition to one’s shirt, the debtor has essentially given the shirt off his or her back, a situation forbidden by Torah as stated in Deuteronomy 24:10-13: “When you make a loan of any sort to a neighbour, do not enter the neighbour’s premises to receive the collateral. Stay outside the house and let the person to whom you are making the loan bring the item given as collateral out to you. If the person is poor and gives you a garment as collateral, do not keep it past the end of the day – return a cloak by sunset so that the person may sleep in it. Then that person will thank you, and your good deed will be a righteous act before YHWH, your God.”

By giving the lender the coat as well as the shirt the debtor was reduced to nakedness. Public nudity was viewed as bringing shame on the viewer, not the naked person, as evidenced in Genesis 9:20-27: “Noah – the first tiller of the soil – planted a vineyard. Once, when he had made wine, he drank so much that he lay naked in his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and went out and told his brothers. So Shem and Japheth took a garment, put it on their shoulders, and walking backwards, covered their father’s naked body. Each kept his face averted so that they could not see their father’s nakedness.”

The succeeding verse from the Sermon can similarly be seen as a method for asserting equality and subverting unjust authority. The commonly invoked Roman law of Angaria allowed Roman authorities to demand that inhabitants of occupied territories carry messages and equipment a distance of one mile, but prohibited forcing an individual to go further than a mile, at the risk of suffering disciplinary actions. In this example, the nonviolent interpretation sees Jesus placing criticism on an unjust and hated Roman law. This kind of practice, while challenging a soldier to recognise another as a person, not an underling, may also have afforded early followers of Jesus a longer time to minister to the soldier!

In short, these are subversive and creative responses to aggression. I’m reminded of a boy whose sense of injustice/indignity got him into many street fights. One day he tries counting to ten and “turning the other cheek” and finds the action so funny he can’t help laughing. The laughter is contagious and hostilities are overcome. The point is to practice creative alternatives to vengeance and subservience – alternatives that foster equality and respect, in the Spirit of Torah, in the Spirit of Love. The point is to practice. It’s practice, we might add, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect. Is there a time and place for this creative and subversive practice?

There is a third school of thought in regard to our passage. Jesus was not changing the meaning of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but restoring it to its original context. Jesus starts his statement with (literally) “you have heard it said” which means that he was clarifying a misconception, as opposed to “it is written” which would be a reference to scripture. A common misconception may have been that people were using Exodus 21:24-25 (the guidelines for a magistrate to mete out proportionate punishment) as a justification for personal vengeance. In this context, the command to “turn the other cheek” would not be a command to allow someone to beat or rob a person, but a command to not take vengeance oneself. Is there a time and place for distinction between institutional and vigilante justice, between social and inter-personal justice?

One commentator, hearing the Sermon as offering psychological insight, delves deep to consider the issue of self-esteem. If self-esteem is threatened, he argues, mortality fears are enhanced, and this can be extremely frightening. Self-esteem can be damaged by words, such as insults, or by actions, such as demotions at work or confrontations with a bully. Such blows to self-esteem generate anger. The initial response is a desire for revenge, but if this doesn’t work, people try to repair damaged self-esteem by exerting dominance over other individuals, such as lower-status workplace employees, weaker members of the household or community, or nonhuman beings.

Domination over weaker individuals is an ongoing strategy for enhancing or maintaining self-esteem. For example, a trapping handbook for students relates: “While many youths develop interest in sports or good grades in school, some do not when they realize that they cannot excel … Any young person, regardless of social advantages, can excel and be an achiever by catching the big fish of the day, or making a nice shot, or catching a mink.”

Exerting dominance generates anger among the dominated, and leads to unjust social relationships. Therefore, if we are to have a just society, we will need to address this underlying anger, which means finding ways for people to gain self-esteem that don’t involve dominating other individuals (Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.).

Perhaps this is the deepest question stirred up for us by the Sermon. Can we, like Jesus, in a Spirit of Love, accept ourselves, believe ourselves to be so enriched by divine generosity that to act with generosity in turn is not impossible? Where do we turn in order to find acceptance and generosity? … Amen.