Cornered

 

This is my second year doing a summer series that involves reading some children’s books as supplemental readings to the scripture. Each sermon will contain a link to the book in question.

The Story of Ferdinand, by Leaf & Lawson

Matthew 5:38-48

 

Cornered

Last week, as we read There’s a Bear on My Chair, we found ourselves turning to the Golden Rule of Jesus, recorded in Luke 6:31: “As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (ESV).

Our story, scripture, and lesson this morning evolves naturally out of last weeks’ conversation.

Sometimes, after all, you can’t disengage, as the mouse last week should have done.

Sometimes the toxic peer pressure that Backbeard the Pirate felt becomes too much.

Sometimes the Bossy Cows of the world force you into a situation you would rather avoid.

And sometimes (like Ferdinand) you are drug—kicking and screaming—into something with which you want nothing to do.

Sometimes in life we feel cornered.

Cornered means we don’t see any options. Cornered means there is no apparent way out. Cornered means we are so completely defeated that we cannot even retreat anymore.

In our scripture text today, Jesus tells us what to do when we feel cornered.

Scripture Lesson

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching his followers how to interpret scripture. It’s really quite simple, he suggests, and you don’t need advanced degrees to do it correctly. All you have to do is focus on the heart of the matter—to see the forest instead of the trees.

In this illustration, Jesus provides a sample text from Deuteronomy 19:21. The same words and concept may be found in Exodus 12:24 and Leviticus 24:20, but my observation is that Jesus most often quotes from Deuteronomy when quoting the Law.

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is thought of today as a kind of vengeful, barbaric, retributive vision of justice. “You hurt me, so I’m going to hurt you equally badly”—that is what this seems to say to us. It is the justification for capital punishment. It is the reason families and businesses engage in feuds. And it is the antithesis of Jesus, who literally turns the other cheek when he is beaten and crucified despite being declared innocent by the court.

Examples and Wink

After quoting this teaching, Jesus explains it using a series of examples, which themselves have been subject to much misunderstanding or at least creative application.

It has been argued that “turning the other cheek” would force one’s assailant to hit you with an open hand or punch you, which (supposedly) was only done between equals (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers).

Similarly, “giving your cloak” places the one suing you in violation of the Law which forbids someone taking the literal shirt off your back (Deuteronomy 24:10-13), and it brings shame to them, as it is the one viewing nudity (rather than the naked one) who is shamed in the Hebrew world (ibid.).

Regarding Jesus’ third illustration, we have invoked the Roman law of Angaria, which allows Roman soldiers to demand anyone carry a load to the next mile post—but it prohibits them going any further. Thus, we reason that Jesus is inviting us to force them to break the law and thus to bring condemnation on their own head (ibid.).

Now I do not argue with the idea that this is the kind of subversive submission that Jesus lives out, but I’m not sure that what Jesus intends here is to incite his followers to lay manipulative traps that ensnare our opponents. And so I wonder: What if we have become so caught up in the details that we miss the point? What if we are missing the forest for the trees?

Context

So far in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has revisited verses on murder, lust, divorce, and oaths. In every single case, Jesus suggests that focusing on the details has made us miss the point.

Just because you haven’t literally killed someone with your bare hands doesn’t mean you’re not a murderer. You murder one another with the words you use, the names you call, and the anger you hold in your heart.

Just because you haven’t slept with another woman or man doesn’t mean you haven’t committed adultery. You commit adultery every time you sexually objectify another person and so pollute your heart and body.

Just because you followed the legal procedure of divorce doesn’t make it just—if your motivations are not right and if you destroy the possibility of a new life for the other person.

And so on.

Focusing on the details and getting legalistic about them is how we ended up where we are—and Jesus wants to take us somewhere new—or maybe somewhere old.

Lamech

Back in the early chapters of Genesis, there was much still being sorted out. There was no Bible of any sort, of course; no Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Israel as of yet; and even imagining a government might be pushing it. Onto this wild-west of sorts emerged a man named Lamech, the great-great-great-great grandson of Cain, or some such distant relation. Lamech knows the story of his ancestor Cain, and how God promises sevenfold vengeance on anyone who would harm Cain.

By his own admission in Genesis 4:23, Lamech retaliated with violence in great excess of that done to him. Someone merely “wounded” him, so Lamech (in retaliation) murdered the man. He also escalates the consequences of someone seeking revenge on him: “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24 ESV).

Violence—especially when framed as revenge—has a way of rapidly escalating.

Why is it that this teaching—”an eye for an eye”—comes to be central in the OT Law? It is not out of bloodthirsty revenge such as Lamech embodies, but out of a desire to curb the retaliatory violence we do to one another. No more, God says, will people be able to pursue such manifold revenge, killing dozens for the death of one or taking life for a mere “flesh wound.” God’s compassion drives God to institute limits on justice: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” God will not allow us to wantonly destroy God’s image in one another and dare to call it justice.

Back to Jesus

By the time Jesus enters the world stage, this limited vengeance has gotten out of hand as well. We humans have again lost sight of the fact that we are made in the image of God. Our anger and hatred has been allowed to fester until it explodes. The very law that was intended to help us return to God’s heart of compassion is being used to exploit and destroy. And so in our scripture lesson, Jesus redirects us back to God’s heart, back to the original intent of the instruction itself.

Do not pursue revenge, Jesus tells us. Period. Full stop. Even your enemies should be loved; even those persecuting you should be prayed for. The way Jesus’ followers distinguish themselves is by their impulse toward love in the very places that we would naturally turn toward revenge, violence, and hate—or so Jesus tells us in vv.46-48.

Deception

Oh, but we are so easily deceived.

We are lured toward selfishness and self-centeredness by an emphasis on our “rights.”

We are lured toward scapegoating our enemy by deceptions about “safety.”

We are lured toward hating one another by our desire to “win.”

And when the forces of Facebook, your gossip group, or the world at large swirl around you—the person who is not sufficiently rooted in Jesus Christ looses their mooring and is tossed about by the waves of the world. Cornered by peer pressure, violent rhetoric, scapegoating, and selfishness, we give in. Finding ourselves in bull rings of our own sort, we respond tit-for-tat to the poking and prodding, to the violence small and the violence large.

But this only demonstrates weakness rather than strength, and it is not the way of Jesus. Like Ferdinand, Jesus found himself drawn into a spectacle of violence, despite his non-violent way of living. While Ferdinand was stuck “with long sharp pins with ribbons” by the Banderilleros and the “long spears” of the Picadores; Jesus was spat upon, punched, beaten, crown of thorns forced onto his head, nailed to a cross, and hung up to die. Never has there been a more hopeless corner end up in. Never has the future looked more bleak.

But “never” is not the end of this story. It is out of the hopelessness and despair of death that power is most clearly revealed.

The way of the Cross……is the way of God’s power.
The way of the Cross……is the way of Christ’s love.
The way of the Cross proves how we are to live, too.

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). There’s an echo here of Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.” That echo is intentional. Jesus teaches us and demonstrates for us that even when we feel cornered, we are to respond with peace.

There’s Always a “but”…

Now I have to add, our stories may not always turn out like that of Ferdinand. Sometimes—against all odds—they will: we take a radical stand with Jesus instead of retaliating, and it results in what we might call a success.

But perhaps more often: we will be slandered, looked down upon, and mocked. This is, after all, what Jesus tells us to expect in Matthew 5:11-12. This is (he says) the way people taking radical stands for God have been treated throughout human history. This is also the way Jesus was treated, so why should we expect anything different? In fact, 1Peter 2 says:

Grace is clearly at work when a person accepts undeserved pain and suffering and does so because he [or she] is mindful of God… For you were called to this… Christ suffered for us and left us His example so that we could follow in His steps. When He was verbally abused, He didn’t return the abuse; when He suffered, He didn’t make threats to cause suffering in return; instead, He trusted that all would be put right by the One who is just when He judges. He took on our sins in His body when he died on the cross so that we, being dead to sin, can live for righteousness. As the Scripture says, “Through His wounds, you were healed” (1Peter 2:19, 21-24 VOICE).

It’s not an easy road, but it is the one that Jesus blazed for us. It is the path that faithful people have sought to follow for centuries. And no matter what we may think of what is going on in the world or the chaos of our lives, this way of non-retaliation—this way of peacemaking—is the way we are called to live even still.

Amen.

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