A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va. February 23, 2014
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
“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; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 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” (NRSV).
For the last several weeks we have been opening the gift of Christmas “one truth at a time,” and we have learned that it wasn’t only a beautiful baby boy we found under the tree, but the Savior of the World, but the King of Kings, the Beloved Son, the Lamb of God, the Proclaimer of the Kingdom, the Prophet like Moses, the Fulfiller of the Law, the Creator of Community. Today we will learn that Jesus is also the Teacher of Wisdom, but before we get that far, let’s talk about what wisdom means.
When I was in seminary I would hear people talking about the “wisdom literature” in the Bible, and I thought, “Oh, right…like Proverbs.” I enjoyed the Book of Proverbs when I was a boy. I would read through it and look for the good ones and sometimes try to memorize them. I liked the one that said, “A cheerful greeting shouted too early in the morning can sound like a curse.” Or the one that said, “Better a dry crust of bread with a friend than a banquet with an enemy.” Or my favorite, “Like a fine gold ring in a pig’s snout, so is a beautiful woman lacking discretion.” I never got a chance to use that one. I always wanted to. I kept hoping that I would be there when the opportunity presented itself, when the perfect thing would be to turn to someone and say with a sigh: “Like a fine gold ring in a pig’s snout, so is a beautiful woman lacking discretion.” It never happened—at least, it hasn’t happened yet. But in seminary I learned that the point of the Proverbs was not to sound wise, but to be wise. They were there to help you make good decisions, so you could live a successful life.
And that’s what we all want, isn’t it?
At the same time I was reading the Book of Proverbs I was reading the Childhood of Famous Americans series, those little orange hardbound biographies of people like P. T. Barnum: Circus Boy; Annie Oakley: Little Sure Shot; and Tom Edison: Boy Inventor. I was fascinated by their stories, and wanted to know what these famous people had done to become famous. In their own way, biographies serve as a kind of wisdom literature. They tell us the stories of successful people and give us a chance to look closely at what they did and how they did it. It shouldn’t surprise us that much of the wisdom literature in the Bible is attached to the legacy of Solomon, the wisest and wealthiest man who ever lived in ancient Israel. Many of the Proverbs, the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Proverbs, and of course the Song of Solomon are thought to be his. And then there’s Job, who—although he suffered—was pronounced by God himself to be a “blameless and upright man.” If you want to know how to live a good, successful life you could look to these.
Or you could look to Jesus.
In today’s Gospel lesson he reminds his hearers: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” And that’s true: they had heard it said. It was said by wise people like Job and Solomon, and it was said so frequently that everyone had heard it. It’s not a bad proverb as far as it goes. It teaches two important principles. One is the principle of limited retaliation, which means that if I poke out one of your eyes, you can poke out one of mine, but not both. And the other is the principle of retributive justice, which means that if you poke out someone’s eye you can expect to get your own eye poked out. As I said, it’s a good proverb as far as it goes. It keeps things fair. But Jesus says, “No, a proverb like that will lead to a world where everybody is blind and toothless. I want to teach you another way, and here it is: when someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
No matter how many times I hear this, it doesn’t sound like wisdom; it sounds like foolishness. Turn the other cheek? Really? Doesn’t that mean you get slapped twice instead of once? Doesn’t it allow someone else to take advantage of you? Well, maybe not. I’ve never put much emphasis on it before, but when Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek,” he is talking about a particular kind of blow. New Testament scholar Walter Wink says you almost have to act this out to get the point, but when you do you discover that you can only be struck on the right cheek by a roundhouse punch with the left hand, or a backhanded slap with the right.[i] But in that time and place people didn’t use the left hand to strike with. It was reserved for “unseemly” purposes. So if someone struck you on the right cheek they were striking with the right hand, giving a backhanded blow, and that was an insult. It was the way a superior hit an inferior. Among equals, apparently, people would use their fists.
So, when someone strikes you on the right cheek, Jesus says—when they deliver the ultimate insult of a backhanded slap—just turn the other cheek; that way they will only have two options: one is to hit you with the fist, thereby treating you like an equal, and the other is not to hit you at all, thereby looking foolish. If this is about power—about one person demonstrating superior power over another—then the balance of power begins to shift as soon as you turn the other cheek. It’s a very tempting interpretation. But if I know Jesus he is not interested in getting even or making others look foolish. My guess is that when he says, “Turn the other cheek,” he is asking us to open ourselves to the worst insult anyone could give: the backhanded slap with the left hand. Because here is the truth: if you humble yourself, no one can humiliate you.
And what about that coat? “If someone sues you for your coat give your cloak as well,” Jesus says. In his comments on this passage Marcus Borg writes, “Under civil law, a coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, the coat often also served as a blanket at night. In that world, the only other garment typically worn by a peasant was an inner garment, a cloak.”[ii] So if they take your coat, Jesus says, give them your cloak as well, or, as Walter Wink puts it, “strip naked.” That’ll show ‘em! But maybe that’s not what Jesus is saying. Maybe he’s not telling us to shock and embarrass those who would take from us, but simply to give them what they ask for, because this is the truth: no one can take from you what you freely give away.
And as for that extra mile, “Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile.”[iii] So, if they ask you to do that, Jesus says, if they force you to carry it one mile go ahead and carry it two. Again, the balance of power shifts: you can’t force me to do something I volunteer to do any more than you can take something I give you. “So, give to everyone who begs from you,” Jesus says, “and do not refuse the one who wants to borrow from you.”
A funny story about that: I used to know a couple who begged from me. I would see them every Tuesday morning at a local restaurant, where I had a regular breakfast meeting. They would ask me to buy them a cup of coffee and, reluctantly, I would. But I came to resent it after a while. Why should I buy their coffee? Why didn’t they buy their own coffee? Who did they think I was, Mr. Coffee? I would see them coming on Tuesday morning and grit my teeth. “Here we go again,” I would think, and wait to see how they made their approach. But one Tuesday I must have been studying this passage, because before they came in I said to the girl at the counter, “You know the couple that comes in here on Tuesday mornings, the ones I always buy coffee for? Well, I want to go ahead and buy their coffee this morning, but then I’m going to leave before they come, and when they do maybe you could take their coffee over to them and tell them it’s on the house. What do you think?” She thought that was a wonderful idea. So, I paid and left and on my way to my car here they came. “Listen, Jim,” they said, “would you mind buying us a cup of coffee?” And I was so disappointed. My surprise had been ruined. But do you see how it turned the whole thing around to take the initiative; to give to them before they could beg from me?
I think this is what Jesus is saying in this whole passage: nobody can humiliate you if you humble yourself first, and nobody can take something from you if you give it to them first, and nobody can force you to do something if you volunteer to do it first. Because listen to what he says next:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 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”
That last line needs some explanation. When Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he uses a word that can mean perfect in the way we usually think of it, but can also mean “finished,” or “complete,” and that’s the meaning I’d like to focus on:
I sometimes imagine that everyone in the world is holding a cup, and that some of those cups are empty while other cups are full. The people with empty cups are always going around begging from others: “Could you put something in my cup? Anything? Anything at all?” While the ones whose cups are full are busy pouring what they have into the empty cups of others. And that’s where God is. His cup is full and running over. It’s so full there’s enough for everybody. He has no lack of anything; he is complete, finished, perfect. And so he makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good; he sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. He doesn’t have to save it up or ration it out. And Jesus calls on us to do the same. Why? Because we have held our cups under the waterfall of God’s love and grace. We’ve got plenty. We don’t have to save it up or ration it out. We can share it with our enemies as well as our friends.
And this is just what Jesus did, isn’t it? He showed his followers how to live the good life. He held his cup under the waterfall of God’s grace and love until it was full and running over, and then he shared it with everyone around him, friend or foe. He didn’t even stop to find out which was which. And it made some people furious; that kind of completeness always will. So, they struck him on the right cheek and he turned the other. They sued him for his coat and he gave them his cloak as well. They forced him to go one mile and he went two. They tried to take his life but he gave it. There is wisdom in this, but it’s not the kind of wisdom we’re used to. It’s not the wisdom of those who never have enough, who are always trying to figure out how to get more. It’s the wisdom of one who is finished, complete, perfect, one who has all he needs and more, one who has plenty to give away. He invites us to live that kind of life, and if we could we might just discover that it really is…
The good life, the successful life, the best life there is.
[i] Marcus Borg credits Walter Wink with this observation in an article called “The True Meaning of Turn the Other Cheek” (http://dharmagates.org/other_cheek.html).
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.