Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48
A stressed-out man was tailgating a safe-driving woman on a busy road. As they were going along, the light ahead of them turned yellow. The woman did the right thing and applied the brakes, stopping at the crosswalk, even though she probably could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection. The tai lgating man hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration as he missed his chance to get through the intersection and save himself a couple precious minutes. As he was still in mid-rant and contemplating getting out to confront the woman, he heard a tap on his window and looked up into the face of a police officer who was not amused. The officer ordered him to exit his car with his hands up. He took the driver to the police station where he was searched, finger printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours in the cell, the driver was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with the man’s personal effects. The officer said, "I'm very sorry for this mistake, sir. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the woman in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at her. I noticed the COEXIST bumper sticker on your trunk and naturally, I assumed the car was stolen."
I’m sure you’ve all seen a COEXIST bumper sticker. I saw a couple in the parking lot this morning! If you can’t picture it, the sticker is blue with symbols of various world religions, identities, and philosophies spelling out the word COEXIST. The bumper stickers became very popular in the early 2000s, partially in response to the growing tensions between Islam and Christianity in the wake of 9/11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The concept behind the sticker is admirable; the suggestion that people of all kinds of faith (and no faith at all) should try to tolerate each other and live together is good! Granted it’s a lot easier to slap a COEXIST bumper sticker on your car from the safety of suburban America than it is to go about the dirty work of peacemaking with people who seem to have irreconcilable differences after thousands of years of resentment and bitterness and hurt.
Mainly though, COEXIST just strikes me as a little unambitious. Is “coexisting” the best we can do? Would we settle for coexistence in our marriages, partnerships, or friendships? What happens when a group or a country chooses not to coexist and decides to do violence to the other? Do we keep trying to coexist then or is that where we draw the line? Is simple coexistence really God’s dream for the world, or is there something deeper we should be creating together? “How about we not kill each other” seems like a really low bar; and yet, frequently we can’t even seem to do that! The alternative vision Jesus casts in the Sermon on the Mount demands that we not only meet the low bar set by cultural clichés like COEXIST, but that we go further and embody a higher righteousness. Jesus’s ministry-defining sermon demands that we be countercultural in our radical love and truthfulness, that we go beyond coexistence and tolerance to full-hearted and fearless love of everyone, especially our enemies, for this is what the God we worship—and seek to imitate—is like.
As has been the case with each passage we have explored the past few weeks, Jesus is not beating around the bush in our text for today. He continues his radical reading of the Law for his followers by saying “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you do not resist an evildoer...” Traditionally, these “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” sayings from the Sermon on the Mount have been called the “antitheses,” which is a ten-cent word for opposites. On first glance, Jesus does seem to be contradicting received wisdom from the Torah and overturning its traditional interpretation—but this is a mischaracterization. As Jesus himself made clear just a few verses earlier when he said “I have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them,” he is not contradicting but deepening the Law. Jesus isn’t overturning the Law but helping his followers understand its fundamental nature, helping them to see its heart and its intent. When “an eye for an eye,” or what is called the “law of retaliation” was established as recorded in the book of Exodus, its purpose was to limit rampant retribution and violence not to sanction and institutionalize it. Jesus takes this teaching to its natural conclusion; if God’s Law as revealed to the ancients is seeking to limit violence, what God actually desires for human relationships is the elimination of violence altogether.
The translation “Do not resist an evildoer” has unfortunately led to many misinterpretations of this teaching. Many a Christian has counseled passive acceptance of abuse and oppression by quoting Jesus’s words here (you just have to turn the other cheek). But the word used for “resist” is not a blanket term for all kinds of resistance. The word translated as “resist” is actually a military term that means to stand against in battle, to take up arms against, or to respond violently. A clearer way for us to phrase this would be, “You have heard it said that violent retribution should remain proportional to the initial offense, but I say to do not retaliate violently to an evildoer.” And then comes an important little word that we often overlook: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.” Contrary to the misinterpretations of this passage, Jesus is saying, “Do not retaliate violently, BUT don’t remain passive either!” The only way to slap someone on the right cheek is to hit them left-handed, which was unheard of, or to backhand them, which was a sign of domination in Jesus’s culture. A back-handed slap was a way for people in power to dehumanize and humiliate the person they were slapping. Jews experienced this type of domination from Roman soldiers regularly; Jesus’s audience would have been full of people who had been backhanded by a Roman. Roman violence and oppression was so bad that many, including several of Jesus’s disciples, were ready to start a violent revolution to overthrow their oppressors. When Jesus tells the crowd to turn the left cheek to one’s attacker, he is saying “rather than respond violently or remain in passive submission, find the third way. Be creative and reclaim your dignity by putting your aggressor in an awkward position. If the aggressor chooses to strike you again on the left cheek, they will have to do so with an open right hand or fist and only equals fought this way. By forcing your aggressor to either hit you with his right fist or look foolish by walking away, you defy his attempt to dominate you, and reassert your humanity and equality. By turning the other cheek, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”
Jesus continues by providing several more examples of creative responses to situations where one person disadvantages or humiliates another. These are not rules to be legalistically followed, but illustrations meant to spark the imaginations of the hearers to begin seeing the possibility of opposing evil without becoming evil yourself. If a debt collector sues you for your coat, give him your cloak as well and walk out of the courtroom naked to expose his greed. If a Roman soldier forces you to carry his equipment one mile (as was allowed by Roman military law), don’t give it back to him until you have carried it two miles. Make him beg you to return his pack so that he isn’t in violation of a military ordinance. In all situations, respond with creative concern and generosity for the other person.
This section of the Sermon on the Mount reaches its pinnacle with Jesus’s next words:
“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.
All observant Jews knew that the Law required them to love God and neighbor. The problem is that this allowed you to create a loophole by labeling people as neighbor or enemy, and then excluding your enemies from those you were required to love. The fundamental shift Jesus makes in his ministry is to expand who counts as a neighbor to everyone—including enemies. Jesus not only makes this point here but throughout his public teaching and healing ministry. Think of the famous parable of the Good Samaritan: the lawyer asks Jesus “and who is my neighbor?” and Jesus responds by telling him a story about a Samaritan, a sworn enemy of the Jews, caring for a Jewish man dying on the roadside. If you want to follow Jesus, you no longer get to distinguish between your neighbor and your enemy. You do not get to decide who should receive your loving concern. You are to love and do good to all people created in God’s image—including your enemies—just as God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on all people without vetting them to see if they are worthy. God’s love is radically indiscriminate and offensively welcoming, whether we like it or not.
Citizens of the Kingdom that Jesus announces are marked by a higher righteousness and a deeper love than that of the world around them. Even sinners love those that love them back! Even ISIS greets their own brothers and sisters! Even the KKK loves their own family! What credit is it to you for loving the people that even ISIS and the KKK love? Those who claim the name of Jesus are called to a higher standard, to follow a narrower road, to love more than the people we should logically love—to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. This word perfect is better translated as whole or complete. We must be complete in our love by refusing to limit who we love. In this way we will show that we follow a loving God and are citizens of God’s kingdom. This doesn’t mean that we retreat into idealism and claim to have no enemies. It means the opposite: that we recognize any relationship marked by hostility, and express love within it.
Many have argued that Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are meant to be impossible, that the Sermon is designed to show us that we could never live up to God’s standards, that Jesus’s goal is to guilt us into realizing our need for God. While we certainly need the power of God to live as Jesus calls us to live, it is not impossible to follow these teachings. We have countless witnesses throughout history who have taken Jesus’s call to nonviolently love their enemies seriously. The people to whom we trace our lineage as Baptists are wonderful examples. There is Durk Willems, the 16th-century Dutch Anabaptist who was arrested for insisting on believer’s baptism. Willems escaped from prison, but as he was running away across a frozen lake the guard who was chasing him fell through the ice and began to drown. Rather than let his enemy die, Willems turned and rescued him, even though he knew that he would be returned to prison and executed. Then there is Roger Williams, the founder of the first Baptist church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. Williams wrote that all Christians attempting to live according to the gospel should abandon all weapons of the flesh as was envisioned by the prophets and taught by Jesus and Paul. Williams was a fierce advocate for Native American rights and protested against the violence directed at them by settlers and colonial governments. Then there are John Smyth and Thomas Helwys (of Sunday School curriculum fame). They wrote that Jesus called Christians to follow “his unarmed and unweaponed life, and his cross-bearing footsteps.”
Throughout their history, Baptists have often been a voice for peace, from Durk Willems, Roger Williams, John Smyth, and Thomas Helwys to more recent prophetic voices such as Martin Luther King, Jr. If there is one thing we learn from our Baptist heritage it is that taking the Sermon on the Mount—the constitution of God’s Kingdom—seriously, will get you into trouble with the kingdoms of this world. Taking seriously Jesus’s call to respond nonviolently and love your enemies will put you into direct conflict with deeply held beliefs of every nation state in the world. The questions each of us must ask ourselves are: When I must choose between my commitment to Christ and my loyalty to country or safety or money, which will I choose? If I’m asked to endorse the killing of my enemy, will I say with the songwriter Derek Webb “How can I kill the ones I’m supposed to love?” Do I really take Jesus seriously?
In his book A Farewell to Mars, evangelical pastor Brian Zahnd recounts his conversion from a pastor who supported war to Jesus’s gospel of peace. He begins the book with a story. It was January 16, 1991 and the U.S. was going to war. Zahnd recounts how he invited some friends over for pizza and a party as they watched CNN’s coverage of Operation Desert Storm with excitement and pride. Fifteen years later, Zahnd was praying and he heard God whisper to him “That was your worst sin.” It devastated him and he wept over his celebration of war and death. Over the course of that 15 years Zahnd had come to realize that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, preached about a new way to be human, an alternative arrangement of society called the kingdom of God—and in this peaceable kingdom swords are put away and enemies are loved. Zahnd wrote a poem about coming to this realization called “Out of the Corner of My Eye.” Here is an excerpt:
I think I caught a glimpse of truth out of the corner of my eye.
A ghost, a whisper, a suspicion, a subtle and subversive rumor.
So dangerous that every army would be commanded to march against it;
so beautiful that it would drive those who see it to madness
Every [human] empire is built upon a lie:
Self-promotion and Self-preservation,
Greed and Lust,
Industry and War,
the industry of war.
Long live the Empire!
Keep the Empire alive,
and to keep the Empire alive
many will be made to die,
because the Empire lives by the sword
and dies by the same.
Every [human] empire is built upon a lie.
From Aztec to Zulu,
Egyptian and Ottoman,
Persia and Babylon,
Greece and Rome,
Now I’m too close to home.
A kinder, gentler Babylon to be sure,
but a Babylon for sure.
Every [human] empire is built upon a lie.
So when Christ came he did not bring
another [human] empire built upon a lie
as the liar in the desert tempted.
Instead he brought the [Kingdom] of God,
The government of justice and mercy, grace and truth,
and the truth is
every [human] empire is built upon a lie,
though every empire says,
We have God on our side.
May we be salt and light,
a prophetic voice,
a Christian conscience.
May we preserve and illuminate,
cry aloud and convict,
but never forget
every [human] empire is built upon a lie.
I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
To believe this truth will set you free.
And you thought it was just Sunday school banality
or empty religious sentimentality, to pray
Thy [Kingdom] come
Thy Policy be done.
You had no idea it was dissident and subversive,
because every [human] empire is built upon a lie:
The lie that the empire has God on its side.
I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
And if you ask me my politics, I will say,
Jesus is Lord!
I glimpsed this truth out of the corner of my eye.
Jesus calls the church to respond to evil not as passive victims, but by asserting power in a way that is positive and counter-cultural. We do not return evil for evil and we do not fight fire with fire. Instead we take up weapons shaped by the suffering of the cross. As the author of Ephesians says we take up the armor of God because our struggle is not against flesh and blood human beings but against the powers and principalities, against the spiritual forces of evil that have enslaved them. The meaning of history is not determined by the sword, but by the cross; not by might combined with right, but by the power of the resurrection. We are not called to simply coexist, though to coexist would be a good start. We are called to follow our Lord and Savior, the Prince of Peace, who offers us a different way, a peaceable kingdom of wholeness and abundance. May we be citizens of that kingdom. May our politics say “Jesus is Lord!” May we seek the creativity of God’s Spirit as we respond to evil not with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy until God’s kingdom comes.