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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before February 23, 2014

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Matthew 5:38-48

38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

What I am Learning:

Let's begin by reviewing Chapter 5 of Matthew. Jesus begins by redefining what God considers honorable, what people have high status with God. Instead of the rich, powerful, and publicly religious people having high status, it is the poor, powerless, and those willing to risk on behalf of justice for all people who are in line with God's values.

Then Jesus reminds his disciples that just as he is a change agent, so he expects us to be change agents as well. He uses the well-known image of salt - a catalyst that helps the goat-dung burn hot enough for families to cook their food.

He then calls the disciples, and indeed his whole nation, to the difference between neighbor love and rule-keeping that looks like love, but really reduces love to a manageable list of do's and don'ts. Jesus came to fulfill the instruction of God for how we are to love ourselves and our neighbors. Neighbor love has a higher value than worship, or rather real worship cannot happen when we have hurt our neighbor.

All of these sayings describe a way to be a Christian community of mutuality. Jesus seems to be showing us how rank, power and privilege deform us as individuals and as a community. It is deep work to recognize how rank, power and privilege govern who gets to speak and whose questions are recognized.

Jesus invites us from a bullying culture to one of mutuality in Christian community.

In today's reading he lays out how those living in God's way of mutuality (the kingdom of God) address the larger bullying culture around us. In other words, after telling us how to deal with the corrosive effects of bullying and rank within Christian community, he now gives a glimpse as to how to deal with those outside Christian community.

Notice first that Jesus contradicts scripture. But he does so after acknowledging it and its importance. Jesus contradicts it, but does so while trying to listen to Scripture's deep meaning, to the Spirit of it.

Ancient tribes could easily get into a tribal feud if a member of one tribe hurt another. To reduce the chance of an escalating feud, leaders were inspired to teach "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This was intended to keep the violence to a minimum. Not perfect, but better than escalation that could lead to war!

Jesus says that we are to love our enemy. This is the Greek word "agape" which means self-giving love. Our definition of love in TCC is this:  Love is risking oneself so that oneself and others may be more authentic to the person/community God is calling them to be.

Many have assumed that to "turn the other cheek" means to invite abuse. This is not so!

Those of higher rank would slap an inferior person with the outside of their hand when their honor was infringed. They would slap equal with the palm of their hand when this happened.  To turn the other cheek invited your superior person to slap you with their palm. Turning the other cheek is a way of claiming your humanity and equal status with a supposedly superior person. It was a way to resist domination.

If anyone used the court system, a rigged system that favored the rich and connected, to sue you and take your coat then give them your cloak as well. Some have thought this meant that we can be abused by getting ripped off. No. In first century middle eastern culture to see a naked person dishonored those who looked. So if you lose in a rigged court case, give them your coat, and then in full view take off your inner garment as a public witness to their shameful court system. It was a way of resisting domination and calling for change!

If a Roman soldier asked you to carry his pack for one mile, you carry it two miles. This was the right of Roman soldiers. It was not your choice. But if you carry it a second mile you place the Roman soldier in your debt and claim your humanity and the right to choose. This could serve as a challenge to the soldier's view that the populations were not really human.

If someone begs from you, give to them and if they ask for a loan, give it to them. Jesus seems to have moved from those outside a community of mutuality who have more privilege than you now to those with less. He says that our response to those in need is to share what we have.

Lastly, he encourages us to love our enemies. Some have suggested that this means only some enemies. Nope! Jesus encourages his community to love, to seek the welfare of, those who act as enemies. Every enemy, every time!

The last line is scary. He does not mean perfection in everything: he means perfection in neighbor love. Daniel Maguire says that "the thrust of biblical religion is toward the recovery of the broken human capacity to love." (The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity. Fortress Press, 1993)

God loves everyone, we are invited to love ourselves and everyone. This is not easy. It is complex work. We will not always be sure what to do or what the effects of our love might be. We can rest, however, that our small acts of love are woven into God's love of all God's children, including us.