Readings for February 19, 2017 + Epiphany 7A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
"Sermon on the Mount's Third Way," by Pastor Kinsey
2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy…
17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;
18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
That’s a tall order! Can we be holy as the Lord our God is holy? That’s a high standard! Who can possibly avoid, in the secret of one’s heart, not having hated for someone, at some time, or born a grudge against someone they live or work or even worship with?
And this “high standard” of the First Reading is well paired with the Gospel, where Jesus continues his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with equally hard sayings: 38“You have heard that it was said,” says Jesus “‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not [passively] resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
One of the only ways to sleep at night is to assume that these sayings are meant metaphorically, otherwise – well – how could we possibly be expected to do them? For instance, to go a second mile, means – metaphorically – to be generous, to go beyond what is required or expected, beyond the call of duty. It shows good character!
Well, Walter Wink began to look deeper into this passage for us, not too long ago, writing in 1998 about what’s behind this obscure requirement. There was a law on the Roman books, he says, that a soldier could command a civilian to carry his pack – which were 60-85lbs. – but for only one mile, just like Simon of Cyrene was pulled off the streets to carry Jesus’ cross (Mk 15:21). So, in case of war or some urgent matter, the soldier could lawfully interrupt a Jews’ working day. The 1 mile clause was meant to make it doable, except that, the normal peasant work day was filled, dawn to dusk, with earning enough to feed his family, and so, it would take a significant chunk of time away.
Jesus says, do not resist an evildoer, that is, do not respond to evil, with evil. But on the other hand, don’t be passive and do nothing. There is a 3rd Way, the way of the Spirit and the Kingdom of heaven. In this case, if you’re forced to carry a soldier’s pack one mile, go also a second mile, and see what happens then! Jesus advocates non-violent resistance, says Wink, to resist evil in a creative and unexpected way!
“Imagine, then,” as Walter Wink says, “the soldier's surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume [carrying] his pack, and the civilian says, ‘Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.’
Why would he want to do that? What is he up to? Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop'. Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire's strength? [or] Being kind? [Or] Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will this civilian file a complaint? Create trouble?
From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off balance by depriving him of the predictability of his victim's response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today.
Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus' hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.” (pages 98-111 of The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium, Walter Wink, 1998.)
This 3rd Way does not create violence, but challenges the ways of oppression and evil – with a sense of humor!
Richard Rohr has said that you can break the Sermon on the Mount down into 16 triads – that’s the structure of Jesus’ sayings. And each triad follows a pattern: first, the “Traditional challenge [found in] a religious culture”; then stating what “the problem is:” and thirdly, what is “The Way of Transformation.”
Becoming disciples of Jesus, and learning the way of transformation, or what Walter Wink called, the 3rd Way, is what Jesus called, here in Matthew’s gospel, being a part of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus said: 43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
It was about a year and a half ago now when the 21 year old Dylan Roof walked into the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, where a dozen members were about to begin their hour of bible study one summer evening. They welcomed him as they would anyone who wanted to join them to study the Word of God. Of course, they had no knowledge of the gun in his backpack, and before the hour was up, nine of them were dead. Apparently, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who graduated from a Lutheran seminary, was a state representative, and was leading the Bible Study, had almost convinced Dylan to lay down his weapon, before the young man instead decided to act on the White Nationalist beliefs he had steeped himself in, sparing one victim with the express purpose to relay his motive: “I hate black people.” In all, Roof fired 77 shots killing 9, fine, innocent church members and citizens of Charleston.
When Roof was arraigned in court, the surviving family members were given opportunity to speak for their loved ones, and most all, amidst tears and grief, expressed prayers for his forgiveness, despite their devastating loss. Some of the survivors expressed the horror of not being able to sleep, or even to close their eyes to pray anymore. But most allowed that by their faith, they hoped God would forgive him, and one even offered to visit him in jail, to try and change his heart.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
I don’t know if I could be that magnanimous, though it’s hard to even equate apples to apples, when you’re talking about Mother Emanuel Church and the oppression and persecution that were common place for those who founded, and continue to offer their prayers, in this historic African-American church. But I am inspired in my own faith by the level of what true Disciples are – and what the cost of discipleship is.
It’s easy to love those who love us, Jesus noted. And, to greet only your bothers and sisters. Everybody can pretty much do that!
But what I’m asking you to do, says Jesus, is to be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Or as Leviticus says in our First Reading, you must be holy as the Lord your God is holy.
This is a high calling. It seems to be asking a lot. But not too much, Jesus seems to be saying, because, there is this 3rd Way – not participating in the ways that lead to death, or demonizing others, or participating in persecution, but walking the way of forgiveness, and loving, even your enemies, which is also more than remaining passive in the face of evil too. It’s an aiming for the kingdom of heaven, a road of discipleship, if but one step at a time, and the changing of hearts and minds, one at a time, which is the only way to get from where we are today, to where God is calling us.
“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” as Moses was told to tell his congregation. And, “Be perfect,” said Jesus, “as your motherly Father in heaven is perfect.” When we are transformed to see that there is a 3rd Way, the way of forgiveness and active non-violent resistance, we begin to understand this high calling is a road we cannot avoid, a road we would regret to pass up.
We cannot be perfect of our own volition, but with the help and grace of God that has been given to us, as Paul says, we trust that the journey is rich and blessed.