Matthew 5:38-48 (NRSV)
38 “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. 42 Give 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.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so 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. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Last year I read an article about a potential earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone, a fault line that runs from the coast of the US Pacific Northwest all the way to Vancouver Island in Canada. The article was called “The really big one”, a reference to the more well-known earthquake expected along the San Andreas Fault, “The big one”. But whereas “the big one” would cap at about 8.2 on the Richter scale, the one along the Cascade Range has an upper limit of between 8.7 and 9.2.
With only a few weeks to go until Lent in a very interesting and tumultuous time in our world’s history, Epiphany 7A is in many ways “the really big one” when it comes to Christian faith. In Matthew 5:38-48 Jesus continues to walk us through the responsibilities of Kingdom living. His antithetical statements (“You have heard it said… But I say…”) continue. He tears down the “accepted” practices of the culture around him that are really clever corruptions of the law.
But now his attention shifts to our greatest test: how we deal with those who oppose us. One of the biggest challenges for twenty-first century Christians is how we treat those we consider an “enemy” to our way of life. The most profound difference between the context Jesus addresses in this discourse and our own context is that, in most countries, Christianity has “power over”. In Jesus’ time, however, Jews were living under the double oppression of the ruling Romans and their own ruling class.
Dr Hannah Adams Ingram makes an interesting observation on Jesus’ apparent suggestion not to fight back. She writes that Jesus saying to “turn the other cheek” is an act of defiance:
Scholars suggest that for someone to slap another on the right cheek, it would have likely been a backhanded slap reserved for people considered to be of lower status. So when Jesus challenges his audience to turn the other cheek, he is encouraging a subversive act that equalizes the status of the two people.
Culturally most of us are in a position where we would be striking the right cheek, so to speak. Our responsibility, then, our “cheek turning” is to embody our positions of “power over” in such a way that they become “power with”. We are to love our “enemies” in such a way that they become neighbours: that is the Kingdom way.
Our world has become very partisan. It can be hard to tolerate someone from “the other side” of politics or religion on our Facebook feeds, let alone real life. Yet loving our enemies is “the really big one”, the event that ruptures and reforms the landscape of our daily life. Whether it becomes the bedrock of a Kingdom life or serves merely to tear down the idols we’ve built is up to us.