Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 24, 2016
8:30 pm Christmas Eve
“The Power of Love Trumps the Love of Power”
Matthew 5: 39-41 – New Revised Standard Version
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
Michael had always dreamed of having a cabin in the woods. One day he hit the lottery and all of a sudden he had enough money to buy some land and build a place. He went and bought the building supplies and had them delivered to his land. But when he drove up, he discovered they had been stacked exactly right on top of where he was going to build his cabin. He obviously hadn’t planned very well.
After college Margaret moved into her first apartment. The first morning she went into the kitchen to eat breakfast but her cupboards were empty. She’d never had to think about where her breakfast came from before.
One of my godchildren texted me late one night. I’m flying into Denver but I don’t have anyone to pick me up. Could I come and get him? I asked how he had planned to get to Colorado Springs in the middle of the night. He said he hadn’t thought about it.
We’ve all done these things too. But it’s frustrating to watch this happen and not want to either judge them or save them. Why didn’t you have a plan?
Like, why do I feel totally unprepared to respond every time someone says or does something totally and completely offensive? By now we should all be accustomed to all the racist and hateful rhetoric being spewed by people who feel liberated from political correctness – otherwise known as being a decent human being.
Why do I feel like I have nothing to say when someone says it’s not such a big deal that Mexicans or a slew of other are named as targets? Comments that range from “He doesn’t really mean it” to those who actually accost people walking down the street. Or like the South High School student standing in line at Starbucks who was told, “Your time here is coming to an end.” I hear this and I stammer and stutter and turn red in the face. I’m not prepared. I should be by now, but I still feel caught off guard every time. How about you? We should have a plan.
Jesus tried to prepare his followers for just such a time as this. The birth, life, ministry and teachings of Jesus took place within the context of a brutal, cruel and violent Roman occupation of their homeland. As scholars note, “Romans knew well how to hate, humiliate, and destroy their enemies” – and that was even before the time of Twitter!
Jesus was God’s plan. A plan that was disappointing for some. Like zealots who wanted a Messiah to lead them to a violent overthrow of their oppressors. God had other plans. And among them, some tactics for how to deal with Roman tyrants. Which might give us some ideas for now.
Jesus said 1) “turn the other cheek,” 2) “give your cloak as well,” and 3) “go an extra mile.” But let me assure you, these statements all had vastly different meanings for the original audience than we may imagine today. We may hear them and think of them as being passive and soft and weak (the ultimate offense). But these three things are actually subversive. And, quite literally, funny ways to engage with bullies.
Respected biblical scholar Walter Wink said that when Jesus told his followers “do not resist” the Greek means “Do not return evil for evil.” It’s more like, “Do not turn into the very thing you hate; don’t become what you oppose.” Last Sunday I said, the way in which we resist is as important as the will to oppose that which is coming. Do not resist isn’t mis-translated as much as it is under-translated. Susan Mettern describes it this way: Act in such a way as to show the absurdity of hatred. To love your enemies is not to let them walk all over you but to show them how absurd they are being.
So Jesus gave three examples:
The first is, “if someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also.” If I were to strike a blow, it would land on your left cheek. I could hit someone on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but you couldn't even gesture with your left hand in a Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. The only way to hit someone on the right cheek would be with the back of your hand.
But, that’s only symbolic. Using the back of the hand is not meant to hurt someone. It’s meant to put you in your place. So Jesus is saying, "When someone tries to humiliate you, to put you back into your inferior position… turn your other cheek." That will force them to recognize they are doing something unclean.
But it’s also silly because you wouldn’t backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it’s failed. By turning the other cheek, you stand there defiantly saying, "I refuse to be humiliated by you." And you keep your dignity.
Now, it’s also possible they were simply overtaken by anger in the moment so to turn the other cheek forces them to choose to do it again. Will they realize they’ve just become a monster?
What would happen if you simply hit them back – eye for an eye? You would have become the very thing you hate. That’s a danger as we try to respond to friends on Facebook or family at Christmas dinner. Or that horrible woman in line at the JCPenny in Kentucky. Everyone stood silent as she bullied another shopper. What’s our plan? Because silence says you agree.
Jesus’ second example: "If anyone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, give them your undergarment as well." This is about collateral for a loan. And normally, when someone needed a loan, they would use their animals or their land as collateral. But Deuteronomy said the very poorest of the poor could turn over their outer garment. By day, it’s used as an overcoat, but it’s also what someone sleeps in at night. The creditor had to return this garment every night. But every morning he could come back and get it, trying to get him to repay his debt.
Jesus' audience is full of debtors. They know the law is on the side of the wealthy. They’re never going to win a case. So Jesus tells them, "Okay, so you’re not going to win. Take the law to the point of absurdity. When your creditor sues you for your outer garment, give him the only other clothing you have."
Since they didn't have underwear in those days that meant taking off everything and standing naked in front of the court. Then imagine the debtor walking onto the street. Everyone would ask, "What happened to you?" He’d point and say, "That creditor has all my clothes." Imagine everyone laughing at the absurdity of walking around naked. Jesus said, simply embarrass the powerful creditor. And it would probably be a very long time before another creditor took someone so poor, someone who has literally nothing else, to court.
Jesus' third example: if a Roman soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two. Military law made it permissible for a soldier to grab a civilian and force them to carry their heavy pack, but only one mile. There were mile markers on every Roman road. If they forced you to carry their pack more than one mile, the soldier would be breaking military law. So Jesus is saying, "All right. The next time you’re forced to carry a pack, cooperate. Carry it. And when you come to the mile marker, keep going."
The soldier won't know why you’re still carrying it, but he does know that if his centurion finds out about it, he’ll be in deep trouble. Pretty soon word will get around and no soldier will try that again.
Jesus taught people how to take the initiative away from the powerful. How to reverse the actions of those who love power by articulating the power of love. A way of living in a violent world without violence by convincing people of the absurdity of their words or deeds. To not become that which we hate.
Now, some people will never be convinced. That’s why we need laws to protect the vulnerable, like that family from Nazareth who had no place to stay in Bethlehem. Who had to give birth in a barn. Who later became refugees to Egypt to escape the tyrant who went around in a paranoid hysteria killing every two year old boy in and around Bethlehem.
You know, if you think about it, maybe it would help if we built a big wall behind which we could keep all the homophobes and xenophobes and misogynists and white supremacists and hateful rhetoric spewing people who can’t be convinced of their absurdity. To protect everyone from their dangerous agenda to harm LGBT folks, immigrants, refugees, people of color, children, religious minorities, the poor, the sick… and the planet.
The birth, life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus give us a better way to respond to all those “liberated” bullies out there. God’s plan, put into motion with the birth of Jesus to turn the other cheek, give your cloak also, and go an extra mile, is clearly meant as a way to subvert a dark and violent world.
Just look at how the plan started: Angels didn’t visit the powerful. Rather it was to dirty and undignified shepherds. And God chose a poor, unmarried young woman to carry Jesus – not a rich princess more befitting the long expected Messiah. And the whole idea of making a stable as the birthplace the Savior of the World… These things did not happen to those who love power. God’s plan in Jesus was to demonstrate how the power of love can trump the love of power.
That’s the Good News this Christmas Eve. Because, as Jimi Hendrix said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace."
 Susan Mattern, Rome and the Enemy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999
 Walter Wink, “The Third Way,” 1993. See Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003
 For these three examples, I have quoted generously without sentence attribution from Walter Wink’s “The Third Way.”