Simple, Yet Not So Simple

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One day many years ago I drove past a church in New York City. Actually, I was stopped at a red light on the corner and the church was to my right. The sermon for the coming Sunday was posted in big letters on the church bulletin board: "Following Jesus is Loving and Practical." I began to argue with that sign. I argued aloud in my car talking to nobody but myself. "I don't think so," I said. "Following Jesus may be loving but it's surely not very practical." I began to make a list inside my head of all the impractical things Jesus called us to do, but just then the light turned green and the car behind me started honking. I never got to finish the argument. I've wondered ever since what the minister said on that Sunday morning.

Now, if I ever decided to take up the argument again, I'd turn to today's gospel reading. Jesus' words in Luke, chapter 6: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you." Practical? I don't think so. "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again." Come on. Let's be realistic. If someone takes away all my goods, then I surely won't be able to give to everyone who begs from me. This is nonsense. It doesn't make sense.

"Do to others as you would have them do to you." Well, that's better. That sounds a lot more practical, like something you might see on a poster in a school hallway or a corporate conference room-a beautiful, full-color photograph, people of different races working together or children from around the world holding hands in a big circle and over the picture the words: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Now, that makes sense. We know these words as the Golden Rule. They're not unique to Jesus; indeed, they're found not only in Luke and in Matthew but in the writings of Homer and Seneca and Philo. This is the kind of wisdom we learned in kindergarten when the teacher told us to treat other people the way we'd like to be treated.

Sometimes it's tempting to boil the whole Bible down to one verse like this. It's a verse people can understand and it sounds like practical wisdom about getting along in the world. But it's not possible to boil the Bible down to one verse, even a very good one. If we pull the Golden Rule out of this chapter as a summary of everything Jesus said, it's likely that we'll miss most of what Jesus said. We have to go back to where Jesus began. He began with these words, "Love your enemies." He says it not only once but repeats it again a few verses later. "But love your enemies; do good and lend, expecting nothing in return." Thus, the Golden Rule applies even when we sense that someone won't treat us the way we'd like to be treated. This is where it gets very hard. This kind of behavior is not only impractical but it can seem downright dangerous.

Jesus' words about turning the other cheek and giving up your shirt along with your coat seem demeaning in the extreme. It's likely that Jesus is speaking here to those who were victims rather than victimizers, to those oppressed rather than their oppressors. But Jesus isn't calling victims to roll over and play dead! It's very hard for us to see that for it sounds like Jesus is telling victims to be quiet, to keep taking it.

New Testament scholar Walter Wink has helped us see something far different. He works primarily with Matthew's version of this story, but the same insights can be applied to Jesus' words here in Luke. Strange as it may seem to us, Wink sees Jesus' words as a form of non-violent resistance to oppression. Now this is tricky because we have to know something about the culture in which Jesus lived. In the culture of first-century Palestine, a person's left hand was used for what we might call, well, bathroom functions. I know it's not pleasant to think about this, but it meant that you'd never strike a person with your left hand. If you were superior to another person, you would strike them with the back of your right hand, never with the palm of your hand for that would mean you'd see them as an equal. So now this is the picture Jesus is painting. If someone strikes you on the cheek, it will most likely be with the back of their hand, for remember Jesus is talking to victims here so your oppressor will not see you as an equal. He's likely to hit you with the back of his hand. If you turn your face to the side, you force your oppressor to see you as an equal for even your oppressor won't use his left hand. Some things simply weren't done. Jesus wants us to see an almost comical situation here. The oppressor's hand begins to swing but is caught in mid-air because he doesn't want to treat you as an equal by hitting you with open palm.

The same humorous resistance comes in giving up your shirt when your oppressor asks for your coat. Now this isn't a case of giving an old coat to the winter coat drive. Jesus is talking about something completely different here. It's likely that someone asks for your coat in repayment of a ...debt. You owe your oppressor something and since you have no land and very little money, your oppressor asks for your very coat. Now there were very clear restrictions regarding the repayment of ...debts. You could not leave a debtor naked at sundown no matter what he or she owed. It simply was not to be done. It was against every sense of decency and good order. So Jesus sets up another strategy of resistance. If they ask for your coat, give them your shirt too. There you'll be standing half-naked; they'll be forced to deal with this new reality you've set up. "No, no! No, no!" they say, "I don't want your shirt. Put it back on!" They might be so disarmed that they'll return your coat as well.

Jesus is not telling people to remain victims but to find new ways of resisting evil. "Love your enemies," Jesus said, "do good to those who hate you." This is the ethic that moved Martin Luther King, Jr., to kneel down with many brothers and sisters before water hoses and snarling police dogs. Many people thought he was crazy. "Only violence can fight violence," they told him. But the authorities and the oppressors didn't know what to do with this kind of resistance. They knew the power of violence; they knew the powerlessness of victims who knew their place, but this was something they hadn't seen before: victims who refused to be victims, victims who refused to fight back with violence, victims who claimed their place and reshaped the battle completely.

"Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you." And don't be too impressed with yourself for being good to your friends. Anybody can do that, Jesus says. "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much again." Just when we have the Golden Rule memorized, Jesus reminds us that it's far deeper than how we treat our friends. It's far deeper than what we hope to receive. It's even different from treating others the way we hope to be treated. Jesus comes back again to the place where he began: "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return."

It's not very practical, not in the sense of getting ahead in the world or doing what comes naturally. When I hear these words from Jesus now, I often think about Matthew Shepherd's mother. Do you remember Matthew? He was brutally beaten for being gay, beaten because one man felt that he had made a pass at him. The man felt foolish and unmanly and so he got a friend to help him put the young college student in his place. The two of them beat Matthew over and over again. Then they tied him to a fence on a country road and left him alone in the freezing night. By the time someone found him the next morning and got him to the hospital, there was no way to save him. Matthew Shepherd died as hundreds stood in candlelight vigil outside the hospital. The two men who killed Matthew were arrested, tried, and convicted of the brutal hate crime. Proved guilty of first-degree murder, they deserved the death penalty in the state of Wyoming. But Matthew's mother came before the judge. She asked the judge to spare the lives of these guilty men. Who can understand what she had gone through in all the agonizing months leading up to the trial? What mother could sleep with images of her beloved son tied to a fence, beaten and alone through the cold night? What sort of people could do this to another human being?

"Love your enemies," Jesus said, "do good to those who hate you." When I hear Jesus' words now, I often think of Matthew's mother, her own life shaped by a gospel deeper than hatred, stronger than revenge. I don't know that I could do what she did. But I hold her in my heart as a witness to the power of the gospel. Such love is not practical, but it can change the world.

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