This is a working draft of my sermon for tomorrow. I use Walter Wink's scholarship for much of the biblical analysis.
Every once and a while I am struck with the absurdity of the task of preaching. We are to take these ancient texts from a time centuries removed from us, in a language few have dared to master, in cultures that none of us can claim to really fully understand and to somehow grapple meaning for our lives based on these relatively obscure references.
It’s not that I don’t think that the practice is valid, far from it. But I do wonder if sometimes we water down individual sections of text so far that it fits with whatever anecdotal story your preacher has gleaned from their life, or more likely from some lovely story they have read in an email forward.
I am feeling this because of so many circumstances that have occurred in the past week, the protests in Egypt and the Middle East, an encounter with a biblical professor, and an interaction in a coffee shop with a foreigner. The world that we live in is getting smaller and smaller and yet our understanding of each other and each other’s cultures are not keeping up with our shrinking world. And if we who have all of this technology to assist us as we encounter each other don’t understand our neighbors who exist in real time, how do we have a chance of understanding what our biblical ancestors were really meaning, especially, if we don’t take the time to learn and understand what is going on in the text? And yet these are the texts that we call formative for us.
The Biblical professor that I mentioned earlier was David Lose. He told a story about being in his car one day listening to Christmas music. The song, We Wish You a Merry Christmas came on and he started listening to the words of the second verse. So he starts singing it to us, “so bring us some figgy pudding, so bring us some figgy pudding…” And you know what he said next, he said, “I realized at that moment that I had no idea what figgy pudding was and I really didn’t care. But I did know that I just liked that song because it made me feel good.”
What does it look like when the state of affairs in our congregations looks more like singing a song that we know makes us feel good but we have no idea what it means? What in the world is figgy pudding anyway? Perhaps it means that if our own cultural norms and values are the only lens through which we see our little snippets of text then how could we ever understand the outcome of our strange little equations. Our moral deliberations on the Kingdom of God deteriorate into arguments that sound like, “the Bible says it, so I believe it.” But really most of us are sitting in the pews asking the churchy equivalent of, “what in the world is figgy pudding?”
And the only thought that comes to mind when hearing that statement is, “Really? If we were really Kingdom dwellers wouldn’t we all be called to live much different lives than we have deigned to live?” Ah but Kingdom dwellers we are even if it is a split kingdom where we who are sinner and saint at once reside. But I am getting ahead of myself in our story for today. For a recap I will read pieces of the translated text from the Message,
In that last sentence you will notice that the wording has changed. In the NRSV is says to be perfect like your father in heaven is perfect. This is not a watered down version of that text, it is actually much closer to the cultural understanding of perfection from that first century world. It actually means to show no partiality.
In fact there are quite a few cultural nuances that are going on in this text that one would not meet at first glance. If one were to read this text without knowing some of those nuances the idea of the Christian doormat would be reinforced. These are not texts on becoming subject to your persecutors, rather they are texts about standing up and resisting evil non-violently.
"Whoever strikes you to the right cheek, turn to him the other." In first century culture people did not initiate contact with their left hand. The left hand was considered unclean and therefore the right hand would be the hand of choice with which to strike. But if one thinks about the physics of this event it doesn't quite match up. If you took your right hand and tried to lay a punch on someone's right cheek it wouldn't work. If you were being struck on your right cheek you would be being hit with the back of the hand. A sort of backhanded slap. The only way to strike another person on their right cheek is by back-handing the person, which is an insult, an expression of dominance. In the first century, the people most likely to be back-handed were slaves, women, children, and people considered somehow "lesser" than their Roman overlords.
Jesus does not counsel passivity in the face of insult it is just the opposite. If someone backhands you on the right cheek, lift your head back up, turn your cheek and expose the left one as well. You have dignity as a human being and you shouldn't let someone else take that away from you. Don't hang your head and accept servility. Stand there with head held high. That way, you are defining your own self and not letting someone else define you as "lesser." This is how to resist evil non-violently.
"To the one wanting to sue you and taking your tunic, release to him your coat also." The coat, or outer garment, was sometimes used by the extremely poor as collateral for a loan (Dt 24: 10-13). If the coat was used for collateral, it had to be returned to the person by nightfall so they could sleep in it. The next morning, however, the person's creditors could come and get it again so the situation that Jesus has described is one in which a destitute peasant is getting pestered to the point of being sued for their underwear. Remember that Jesus is still preaching his sermon on the mount reminding many of these people who are poor and perhaps destitute. Being poor would have been the lived experience of many in his audience.
If you're getting sued for your underwear, give up the dang coat. So go ahead and walk around naked if you have to.
However being naked was shameful in the first century world. Not only would the person exposed be considered shamed but also the person who witnessed the nakedness was shamed as well. So giving your "coat also" is confrontational. This exposure is meant to expose a corrupt system. I imagine the man standing in front of his oppressor saying, "You can't take my coat; I give it freely."
This is not exactly what you would expect if you read this text through our own lenses. For if we did that we would probably all be praying for the ability to be perfect Christian doormats being satisfied with the places that we have been put in our lives.
This is the stuff of a Man who would have us know that it is not any person that defines who we are allowed to be in life. God gives the gift of life and we are subject to no oppressor. “Perhaps this is what Martin Luther understood, as Gutenberg did not, that the mass-produced book, by placing the Word of God on every kitchen table, makes each Christian his or her own theologian—one might even say his own priest, or, better, from Luther's point of view, his own pope.” Postman
This is the stuff of a man who would speak out against an oppressive reality and tell us that he had a dream that one day the color of our skin will not define the content of our character. This is the stuff of a generation of young people who would cry out in the streets of Cairo for reform of a repressive government in the face of job scarcity and skyrocketing food prices. This is also the stuff of our neighbors to the east who have jobs that look just like our own and families that move and breathe just as ours do. As the people of Wisconsin wade through the complexities of labor unions and fiscal imbalances may they stand up in the spirit in which Christ embodies.
As Christ suggests, our wellbeing is wrapped up in the wellbeing of others. To oppress another is to suppress that which God has made, we are suppressing our God made selves. Sometimes standing up to your oppressors IS loving your enemies.
In the next verses the Message translation says,