Chapter Five of the Gospel of Matthew continues to be packed with situations and responses concerning everyday life and events. Yet they are not the responses we expect and they offer challenges to our very core being. As we discussed a few weeks ago, much of what Jesus suggests as a response to offenses in the world, flies in the face of what would be intelligent behavior. Turning the other cheek to have the other one slapped, offering your coat and your cloak in this weather, not returning violence with violence seems, almost dysfunctional and counterintuitive, even dangerous.
A member of my Bible Babes group suggested that where Jesus cites “ you have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye” actually is progress in the world of Jewish tradition. In the Hebrew text, if your enemy takes one of your eyes then all of the eyes of your enemies must be removed, that is the only satisfaction to be sought. So bringing the scale down to eye-level, so to speak, to one for one, is at least less bloody. Resistance in the sense of Jesus’ use means, do not retaliate, do not use violent means against . What He is suggesting, is not ignorance or submission, but a reaction that is absent violence.
His method of pain management is to interrupt the cycle of pain and offense . Offering the other cheek, or the cloak and coat, these will shame the offender and initiate the first step towards justice and restoration of relationship. Our action of non-action has the potential to provide a model, a paradigm of response to be emulated by all- even the offender.
In the end it seems very difficult to find a way to make these suggestions come to life in the real world of violence and injustice. Schoolyard bullies cannot be permitted to harm and must be stopped. Weak members of our society cannot be prey to vultures who will charge usurious interest rates, refuse to repair their apartments, and reduce programs that assist them. But we can only do so much out of humility and love.
I think that much of this long passage from Matthew about the new behavior that Jesus offers, has two goals. The first one is to suggest, almost mandate, that we, wounded and wounder, act the way God would act. The rain falls on the just and unjust, the wonder of God’s love and grace, is that it is indiscriminate. All are loved by God including those we might not have on our A list of guests to our banquets. That is the large challenge, to attempt to love all, those who hurt and those who are hurt, who even seem to invite that hurt, ALL are to be loved by us as God would love them. Being perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect, is not about being flawless or unstained, but about maintaining integrity and truth. It is more about being mature to give and receive Love for all.
The other goal, and maybe the over-arching essence of this gospel is about relationships. While Jesus cites relationships that occur in society, –debtor, servant– it really is about how we can stay in right relationship with others using the relationship that God has with them as the model. Tough stuff my friends.
All of the inmates at Bedford Correctional have committed crimes of violence against another person. Some have only involved injury, many loss of life. Justice was sought on the part of the offended and our objective justice system meted out some compensation of revenge. It would not be a benefit to society to allow persons who commit such crimes to remain at large and unpunished. We hope that the punishment does not exceed the extent of the offense, but in the eyes of the family of the wounded, no punishment would seem sufficient.
In our families, in our work places, in our friendships it is a different prospect when we are wounded by another, slighted by their unkind gossip, overlooked to be invited to a child’s birthday, snubbed at the golf course, not promoted to the job we suit. These are real injuries which strike a deep chord of insult and hurt and the desire for some sort of striking back. Retaliation. Revenge, Addressing the offense in some way to even the score. This is the fertile soil that Jesus wants us to consider tilling and planting with other means of redress. As a greeting card from St Mary’s convent read Retaliate with Blessing!!
Many years ago our eldest daughter was struggling with her teen years as many of us did and will do. I was determined to prevail in any and all skirmishes in the war of Mom vs teen. So with every smart snippy cutting barb from the 16 year old, came a similar smart, snippy cutting barb from the 40 plus wise, mature, sophisticated Mother. Great behavior wouldn’t you agree? Much to be taught and learned in those exchanges about love and forbearance and tools for later life. Ha ha ha!
Something had to change. Ironically, it was on a retreat weekend, much needed time away from the family, that it was given to me, that I was the agent of change in this war of wills. I had to be the one who took a deep breath, turned away, counted to ten, whatever it took to let the stinging barb smash into the walls of the room, not my heart and answer with understanding and the space to say, I was wrong, or how can we fix it, or even I’m sorry but you cannot do that, so what can we do. The war went on, but slowly, and I mean glacially slowly, the thaw began and the walls we had built in defense started to crumble. The loving person on both sides of the trench emerged and reconciliation began in earnest. Is it over, mostly, but history can set off sparks years later when we both know better. My only revenge, is that now she has her own teenaged whirlwind to deal with and I can observe what a better job she is doing than I did.
This pattern of having to have the last word, came , not unlike some of your own family behavior patterns, from having to be defensive with my own mother who, while she loved me, always had the corrective ruler of disappointment to crush my successes. All of this knee-jerk age old patterning is what Jesus is trying to interrupt. Be in right relationship whatever it takes, that must be the goal and desire of our hearts, despite what the actions might say about our intent.
There is a little-used section of our Prayer books which I would encourage you to look at. Page 447 which is the section that has all white edges, which features two forms of private confession or Reconciliation of the Penitent. This pastoral office can be done with an ordained or lay person. The goal is to relieve oneself of the pain, the sin, the burden of some obstruction to your path to God, confess it, receive absolution from it and with some guidance in ways to address the issue for future learning, move on in wholeness. Not unlike resorting to a third party to seek justice in a criminal case, we come to a third person to help us sort out the pain of the injustice we feel in our hearts. Not to inflict revenge on the person who has offended us but to start to set right the relationship by starting it off with God.
It was here that I found inspiration to end the war of wills with my daughter. Admit to its destruction of my soul, and hers, and then at peace with the blessing that God had removed it from my heart as an obstacle, go forth and bless our love. I commend this office to you. Lent is only weeks away and this can be a great start to a Holy Lent. Remove those scales from your eyes which only allow you to see what you want to have happen, rather than the intentional love that God wants you to share. The weight removed from your heart can be liberating and healthy. This practice holds true for those whom we might have offended, we need to be right with them and taking the first step in love to restore that relationship will feel like walking that you have given away coat and cloak, it will not be easy, but since it will ultimately be of God and serve God, grace will be provided. We are welcoming two folks today through baptism onto a new relationship with God and the community at large. It is a fundamental relationship we can work on constantly.
So rather than get tangled up in cheeks and cloaks, and body parts all over the battlefield, let us draw from our Gospel the message of the desire of God to see us be restored to wholeness of mind and spirit in loving relationships with Him and those around. Put on your glasses of love and let the prism of the possibility of grace guide your feet. Think of it as inviting someone who might hurt you, to a banquet of love put on by You! Bon appétit!