The Hardest Commandment

The Hardest Commandment February 19, 2017

Matthew 5:38-48

Dec26-Jan8_2017_Guns.nocrop.w710.h2147483647 - croppedThis week the senior staff spent a day and a half in intensive staff development.  This is notable, because we rarely have occasion to spend this much time all together in one place, and honestly most of us came into the experience pretty sure it would be a waste of time and definitely sure we had other, more important things to do.

What we didn’t know was that only a few hours in, we would receive information that would explain…everything.  We’d all done pre-work, you see, had taken personality profile tests that identified our individual personality types and gave some insight into why each of us tends to behave the way we do.  We were assured that “no personality type is better than any other,” but few (if any) of us believe that.  Rather, I heard all of us—myself included—using our new-found designations to both explain and excuse our behavior.

In our better moments, we were able to transcend that tendency and use the lists and designations to understand each other in new ways.  When we did that, it seemed like all of a sudden so many things started to make sense….  I don’t know about you, but I love information that clearly explains a situation or relationship, that lays out clear best practices so I know exactly what I have to do to, in this case, work effectively with my co-workers.

If you’ve been following along in worship the last few weeks you will know that we’ve been working our way through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel, 2 chapters of collected teachings of Jesus.  A lot of Christians like to read this part of Jesus’ words as information that clearly explains a situation or relationship, that lays out clear best practices so I know exactly what I have to do to, in this case, behave like a Christian in the world.  It would be oh-so-lovely to distill these two chapters into a list of dos and don’ts, and many Christians have.

But today on our final week of investigating the Sermon on the Mount, it might be helpful to remind each other that Jesus was not building a clear rubric for understanding and living the Christian life, a list of expectations we either follow or we don’t.  No, what he was doing was painting a picture of the Kingdom of God, the kind of relationship God wants with us and the hopes God holds out for human community.  This work is not easily plotted on a chart, and it’s certainly not cut and dried.  These brush-strokes illustrating the hopes God has for our world are messy and difficult, hard to pin down and impossible to get right 100% of the time.

And today, on our final day of looking at the sermon, we confront the hardest commandment of all: if someone hits you, let them hit you again; if someone steals your coat, give them your regular clothes, too; go the extra mile; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; be perfect, as God in heaven is perfect.

Well, thanks a lot, Jesus.  That to-do list just got ripped up and thrown in the recycling bin.  Not only is what Jesus is asking difficult, if not impossible…it doesn’t even make any sense.  For someone who spent all of his time talking about love conquering evil and the reign of justice and peace infiltrating our world, Jesus sounds here like he wants us all to give up, to sit still while injustice in the world drowns out any possibility for peace, to reach some standard that nobody, ever, can meet. Maybe that’s why this part of the sermon is last—it’s the hardest commandment of all.  (And with all due respect, I know it’s not just me struggling with this, so can I get an amen here?)

Per usual, a cursory reading of Jesus’ words can lead us right to where we’ve landed, and honest grappling with this passage is going to require us to look a little deeper at what he actually meant.  Jesus begins almost conversationally in verse 38, when he brings up a standard of behavior everyone in the crowd had heard: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”  If someone perpetrates violence against you, you have the right to do the same right back—fair is fair.  Shane Claiborne, in a recent article entitled “Jesus is for Losers,” says it this way: “A shock-and-awe bombing leads to a shock-and-awe beheading.  A Pearl Harbor leads to a Hiroshima.  A murder leads to an execution.  A rude look leads to a cold shoulder.”[1]  Right?

But then Jesus explains that his way is a different way, a way of returning good for evil.  Well, this will make you sit up and take notice.  Is Jesus telling us that acquiescence or victimization, that letting an abuser continue his abuse and hoping for justice or at least a little peace in the afterlife is the Christian way to live?  Hearing Jesus’ words this way “is impractical, masochistic, and even suicidal,” one scholar says.[2]

So which is it, Jesus?

Recall that Jesus was the last thing from a shrinking violet, and he certainly didn’t entertain abuse and injustice.  Here’s what Jesus meant when he asked his disciples not to return violence for violence: instead of hitting back, remind your enemy of your humanity.

In so doing, you will remind him of his.

Consider: Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  In Jesus’ day, use of the left hand was only for unclean tasks; you’d only use your right hand in polite company.  If you want to hit someone, you used your right hand.  And if you wanted to hit someone to degrade them, you’d use a backhand blow.  Walter Wink says “The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade.  It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior.  Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews.  The whole point of the blow was to force someone out of line back into place.” So—stay with me here—if someone hit you like that on the right cheek and you turned your left cheek awaiting another hit, the person hitting you would be forced to use a fist, not a backhanded slap.  But only equals fought with fists.  By turning the cheek you were saying to your oppressor: I am a person, too.  I am the same as you.

The next two instructions are similar.  “If someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak as well.”  Many people in Jesus’ day were deeply impoverished by an unjust system in which land was stolen and heavy taxes levied.  In many instances, people were left with only the clothes on their backs.  You could sue someone for their coat, but leaving someone naked was shameful.  So if someone sued you for your coat and you took off your cloak—your regular clothes—and walked out of the courthouse naked, everyone would know the deep wrong-doing and injustice of the perpetrator.  And you would be saying, “You may not diminish my humanity.”

And in Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers were allowed to conscript people to carry their things when they were traveling, but only for one mile at a time.  Soldiers moving heavy packs and equipment depended on the forced labor of civilians, but if soldiers violated the one mile rule, they would be punished.  When a civilian got to the end of a mile of forced labor, looked up at the solider whose pack he carried and said, “I will keep carrying your pack for another mile,” he confronted the soldier with his independence, his unwillingness to be coerced, and the injustice of the system.  He said, “I am a person, and your behavior is inhumane.”

What Jesus was suggesting to the crowd that day was completely counter-intuitive—it was the hardest commandment of all.  But in taking Jesus’ radical suggestion, those who suffered terrible injustice were using their humanity to change the paradigms in which they lived.  It was radical resistance!

And this behavior, this insistence that our shared humanity is recognized and honored, is the powerful first step toward learning to love our enemies.  Because Jesus knew as well as we do that hating our enemies only corrodes our own hearts; it’s loving them with the radical resistance of justice that can finally change everything.

I recently read a powerful article in New York Magazine that began with this sentence, “On his recent trip to New York, Todd Underwood did not pack a gun.  This was unusual, the first time in five years that he went anywhere, even to church, without one.”  Todd, who is founder and owner of United Gun Group, a “social marketplace for the firearms community,” recently allowed George Zimmerman to sell the gun Zimmerman used to kill Trayvon Martin on the United Gun Group portal.

Also traveling to New York that day was Carolyn Taft, a self-employed artist and mother of four.  Two days before Valentine’s Day several years before Carolyn had taken her youngest daughter Kirsten to the mall to buy Valentine cards for her friends.  An armed man opened fire in the mall that day, killing Carolyn’s daughter Kirsten right in front of her, and shooting Carolyn so many times that she now lives with debilitating pain.

Todd and Carolyn were on their way to New York to participate in an experiment sponsored by the magazine and a group called Narrative 4, in which people from both sides of the gun debate would meet each other and engage each others’ stories.  Before the end of their time together, Todd and Carolyn would be paired up first to hear each other’s story: why Todd is a vehement proponent of liberal gun laws and feels strongly that gun control advocates are “completely irrational,” and make uneducated, emotional decisions about guns, and why Carolyn will not stop working until we have strict gun laws that prevent people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them altogether.

That first day of hearing each other’s story was tough; participants in the group went back to their hotels completely spent.  But the next day was even harder.  Pairs of participants had to tell the whole group their personal story—but tell it as if they were their partner.  Carolyn got up in front of the group and introduced herself as Todd.  She talked about having an abusive father, who regularly beat him as a child.  Once when he was a teenager his father punched him in the face, with a closed fist, she described as if she was Todd.  He decided in that moment that he would never be bullied or abused again, and guns keep him safe.  Carolyn cried as she imagined and described what it felt like to be a child abused by a parent like that.

Then Todd got up and told Carolyn’s story as if he was Carolyn.  Several times during the telling of the story Todd broke down in tears, unable to speak.  “I complained to my daughter about her messy room at times.  I would give anything to be able to have that messy room again.  My name is Carolyn,” he finished.

The article continues: “Nothing else that happened that weekend begins to compare to those 13 minutes, when Carolyn Tuft and Todd Underwood took possession of one another’s stories…. They became each other. And in that moment, the videographers were crying. The organizers, who have seen versions of this a hundred times before, were crying. No one in the room that day will ever forget what they saw. In that moment, the commonality of experience, the universality of human vulnerability, had been so obvious — and so breathtaking. Everyone in the room was separated not by a deep canyon but by a thin line.”[3]

It would be so wonderful to stand here and tell you that that experiment in empathy changed everything for Todd and Carolyn and all the others, but the results of that powerful experience of acknowledging each other’s humanity were much messier than that.  With emotions raw and hearts exhausted, several participants in the exercise broke down in tears, fought with each other in front of the group, or descended into silence, and some even left in anger.

This loving your enemies—this seeing the humanity, the God, in one another is so messy.  It’s so very hard.  But…while Todd has not changed his opinions about guns, he now knows what it feels like to be the victim of a mass shooting.  And…Carolyn said she and Todd forged a friendship that remains.  “I wanted him to feel what it was like to be me. I wanted him to feel my heart. And he did.”

Love your enemies.

It’s the hardest commandment.  There’s nothing neat, clean, or easy about it at all.  We know we will fail—not a question.  And maybe that’s why it’s so hard for us to even try.

So when Jesus finishes this part of the Sermon on the Mount with the words, “Be perfect, as God in heaven is perfect,” it almost seems like too much.  Even if we gather the courage we need to declare our own humanity in the face of injustice and even if we recognize the humanity of others as we strive for empathy, there’s nothing perfect about the process of loving our enemies.  At best, it’s a two-steps-forward-one-step-back endeavor.  Certainly, definitely not perfect.

Well, once again, a closer look helps us understand this hard idea.  The Greek word translated “perfect” here is telos, which actually means something like: goal, or end, or purpose.”  So this translation is a much better way to say it: “You’re Kingdom subjects.  Now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity.”  In other words, keep trying, even when it’s messy.


Remember, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus didn’t give us a personality type or a checklist or any other rubric for living the Christian life.  Instead, Jesus told us over and over about the Kingdom of God—about a hope and possibility and promise to which we could direct our lives.  These are hard commandments, and today’s was maybe the hardest of all.  But we’re kingdom subjects, Jesus reminds us.  So we will keep standing up to injustice.  We will keep trying to see our enemies as the humans they are.  And we will keep trying to live out our God-created identities, because our striving toward God’s dreams for us is the very best hope we have.

This is the Sermon on the Mount.  You’ve been warned.  You’ve been given an explanation.  Now, persist.  Amen.




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