The gospel for February 20th (Luke 6:27-38) picks up where last Sunday’s gospel (about the beatitudes) leaves off. In the opening lines of that gospel Jesus had said Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. The last section of that gospel included a series of woes…But woe to you who are rich… well fed … who laugh. The conventional way of calculating who was blessed was stood on its head. Jesus told his followers that, as citizens of God’s kingdom, they were to live very differently, starting NOW.
This morning’s gospel elaborates how to live.
“But to you who are listening I say:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.
If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.
Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Incongruously, Jesus had told his poor, hungry and distressed disciples that they were blessed (Luke 6:20-23). Now he stepped up the irony. They were to respond in a way that defied common sense. He instructed them to live like they were already citizens of God’s kingdom: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
Not everyone could follow these instructions. Matthew’s gospel tells us, someone said to Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “….keep the commandments.” … The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; …” Jesus said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Matt 19:16-22)
It was an Epiphany moment….for the rich young man ….and for Jesus’ disciples when they heard, If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.
In case they hadn’t absorbed the apparent contradiction to good sense Jesus gave a specific example, If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. Who wouldn’t fight back? Not turn the other cheek! But that is not what Jesus told them.
Misunderstanding this passage has been problematic. Incorrect readings interpret it as encouraging victimization and abuse and sanctioning passivity in the face of violence against others. It is not. It is an instruction to face injustice and violence with courage...and to reject it. A better understanding comes from the immediate context. Jesus was speaking to his disciples whom he had addressed as blessed. They were already beneficiaries of the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20) They were to act with the assurance that they already inhabited God’s kingdom and they were to bless those who were violent towards them.
Jesus’ lesson lived on. In Birmingham, Alabama on September 28th, 1962 Martin Luther King was giving the closing speech at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (SCLC). The auditorium was packed with black and white religious and civil rights leaders.
Nearly everyone was dressed formally, except Roy James, a 25 year-old, 6-foot, 2-inch, 200-pound white man, who stood out, not just because of his color but because he was wearing a casual white T-shirt, jeans and boots. The meeting was open to all, so members didn’t learn until later that James was a Storm Trooper of the American Nazi Party. And he grew angrier as King spoke.
Finally, James jumped on the stage and slammed his fist into King’s left cheek, hitting the 5-foot 7-inch civil rights leader so hard, it sent him backward. James jumped on King and punched him again as the audience screamed and some rushed the stage to help. Before they got there, King was able to escape momentarily and stand to face James. Instead of backing away King dropped his hands and looked his assailant in the eyes. King was already bleeding profusely from the punches, his lips and face swelling rapidly. He was completely vulnerable, as though being prepared to lay down his life.
In the next instant, the people who had run to defend King grabbed James and began to pummel him.
King shouted, “Stop. Don’t touch him. We have to pray for him.” And no one harmed James, instead, as King had suggested, they prayed for him. King assured James he wouldn’t be harmed. Then he took James to a private room and the two men calmly spoke. After talking with him, King showed James a back exit from the auditorium so he could avoid the crowd.
King did not hate James, but rather tried to reach him with reason and love in the spirit of Turn the other cheek and Love one another as I have loved you. (James was later convicted of assault, jailed 12 days and fined. The American Nazi party subsequently awarded him the Adolph Hitler medal.)
King did not convert James but he did confront his violence with love. His words and action that day demonstrated this gospel’s response to injustice… and he overcame it. King rejected not only injustice but also its tool of violence. He broke the cycle.
Jesus continued, If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Discipleship went beyond ritual giving, beyond a standard sense of caring and sharing to extravagant generosity. The standard was Do to others as you would have them do to you.
One cold snowy winter Sunday about 10-12 years ago Jim Ryan, one of our former parishioners, was volunteering at St. Stephen’s breakfast. Jim had been going in and out clearing the snow from the door then putting down salt on the ramp. He was wearing a coat as he worked. One of the larger guests had come in wearing only a sweatshirt, torn jeans and running shoes. He was blowing on his bare hands, stomping his feet and said something like, “nice jacket” to Jim, who didn’t pause an instant but took it off and gave it to the man. The fellow was stunned and said, “really?”. Jim just said, “you need it more than I do” and smiled at the guy. It happened in a moment.
As we drove home after breakfast I mentioned to Jim that I had seen the exchange and commented that it was generous. Jim replied, “Isn’t that what the gospel said we should do! Besides, I have lots of coats.”
While I single out Jim and an event from years ago, other people in this parish act this way today in many different situations. They make God’s kingdom real, here, now. We rarely notice what they have done. They tend to act out their generosity inconspicuously. We are blessed to have them among us.