Scripture: Matthew 5:38-42
You may have heard that last week Donald Trump and the Pope got into a little tiff. That sounds like it should be the start of a joke, but it isn’t. Real life, ladies and gentlemen.
It started when Trump called Pope Francis “a pawn of the Mexican government” during an interview, for the Pope’s stance on immigration. Later, when a reporter asked Pope Francis what he thought of Trump and his plans to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, Francis responded, “A person who thinks only about building walls…and not about building bridges, is not Christian.” Trump responded, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” Also he repeated the bit about being a pawn.
As one reporter put it, it was a “classic case of ‘that escalated quickly.’” Trump says they have since made up.
My intention is not to go down a Donald Trump rabbit trail here. I’m bringing this up because it led to an interesting conversation on social media, in which someone I know spoke of the difference between “being a Christian” and “being Christian.”
Anyone, he said, can be “a Christian.” That is to say, anyone can call themselves by that name, perhaps go to church, perhaps pray or read the Bible, but that’s a wholly different thing than actually “being Christian,” as in, being like Christ. In Metho-speak we might say this has something to do with the difference between justification and sanctification, where justification is the beginning of the life of faith, saying yes to God and starting over, and sanctification is the work of the whole rest of the life of faith, in which we gradually become more Christlike as we avail ourselves of God’s grace. Most of us here, though perhaps not all of us, would say we are Christians (noun.) Most of us also probably still have some for improvement when it comes to actually following Christ.
I agree with Donald Trump, actually, that it does no real good to question another person’s faith. I also agree with Pope Francis that the policies we support, among many other things, can make us more or less Christian.
It was a conversation that seemed relevant to this series on the Ten Commandments of Jesus, which is about how to live as Jesus taught us to live. Or in other words, it’s about how to be Christian. Not just a Christian, but Christian.
Today we are back to the Sermon on the Mount as we learn a little bit more about what it means to be Christian, and again today, it’s a pretty difficult commandment, or actually set of commandments: When someone hits you, turn the other cheek. If they try to take your coat, give them your shirt, too. If they make you walk one mile, walk two. Give to everyone who begs from you, and lend to everyone who wants to borrow something.
What are we, crazy?
Maybe. Or maybe you’d prefer a different word. The one Dietrich Bonhoeffer uses—by the way, there’s another religious leader who dabbled in politics, as part of the German resistance to Hitler—is “extraordinary.”
“How then,” he asks, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, “do the disciples differ from the heathen? What does it really mean to be a Christian? … What make the Christian different from other men is the peculiar, the perisson [in Greek], the extraordinary, the unusual, that which is not a matter of course.” He decries the “false Protestant ethic” which “diluted Christian love into patriotism, loyalty to friends, and industriousness.” “Not in such terms as these does Jesus speak,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “For him, the hallmark of the Christian is the extraordinary.”
Forgiving people who don’t deserve to be forgiven. Loving your enemies. Giving people more than they try to take from you. Things that don’t make sense—unless you are trying to follow Jesus.
Since today’s commandment is actually a lot of commandments in one, let’s look at them one by one.
You have heard it said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
A lot of us have probably read this passage and thought, wow! Old Testament law is so vengeful! Not true. This passage from Exodus (21:24) doesn’t mean if someone pokes out your eye, you’re required to poke out theirs. It means you’re required to not poke out both their eyes. The original Jewish law was a way to limit retaliation to what was proportional.
But Jesus does say there’s a better way, and that is to forgo retaliation at all. Even if you would be in the right. And in fact, he says, don’t just forgo retaliation, but turn the other cheek—not just as a sign of ignoring them, but so they can hit you again.
This isn’t a hypothetical situation in Jesus’ day, not only because people are people in any time and place and sometimes we do bad things to each other, but also because the Jewish people are living under the oppressive rule of the Romans, so there are Romans around to put them in their place literally all the time. Maybe Jesus knew that retaliation was futile. Maybe he loved the Roman soldiers as much as his own people. In any case, getting yourself hit twice was apparently preferable to hitting back.
If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.
Again, if somebody tries to take something from you, give them more than they asked for. If people in our presumably Christian country took this one to heart, we might not have such a culture of litigation.
In Luke’s version of this teaching, the bad guy is robbing you, not suing you. I’m reminded of a story I heard from one of the Peace Corps volunteers I met during the summer I spent in the country of Lesotho. In Lesotho, by the way, you address all older men as “Ntate,” or father, and all older women as “Mme,” or mother. While this volunteer was out one day in the capital, some guy pickpocketed her cell phone. She realized it just in time to run after him shouting, “Ntate! You forgot the charger!”
I’m not sure I would have done the same.
If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
Remember, we’re under Roman rule here, and sometimes, if a Roman soldier saw an unsuspecting Jew just standing around, he could force him to carry his equipment. Can you think of one famous example of someone being made to carry Roman military equipment? (Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross.)
It’s funny how, just like “turn the other cheek” has come to mean something like, “take the high road and ignore it,” “go the extra mile” has come to mean “do a really, really good job.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have hated this characterization of the Christian as an impressive person who meets and exceeds society’s expectations. To “go the extra mile,” in context here, means to willingly submit to twice as much forced labor as you had to.
Here Jesus shifts gears slightly, because the last two parts of this commandment, Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you, aren’t quite about oppression or retaliation. It’s not just about the Romans who are in power over you; it’s also about the people you have social and economic power over. And yet they’re not easier: my mantra is something more along the lines of “Try not to say no to everyone who begs from you.” These are about giving even to excess, though; even when perhaps you’re being taken advantage of. If someone wants something from you, give them more.
There is a lot about these teachings that we might call questionable. Is Jesus telling abused people to submit to more abuse? I really struggle with that one. Would I really counsel someone not to even act in self-defense in a dangerous situation? As a woman, especially, I take issue with that. And I do actually tend to believe that healthy boundaries in life are a good thing, and I don’t even know what to do with that. Maybe some of what Jesus says here is for rhetorical effect and there is some nuance in how he expects us to apply these things to real life, but I’m not sure what that looks like. Is walking away without a fight as good as letting someone hit you again?
I will say that we do have a few options for how to interpret these teachings.
The first option is that this isn’t about coming back for more abuse at all. Instead, Jesus is talking about acts of nonviolent resistance. Note that Matthew specifies, if someone strikes you on the right cheek. Assuming most people hit with their right hand, which I think we can safely assume back in the day, to strike someone on the right cheek would be a backhanded hit. It’s an insult, not outright violence. But if you turn your other cheek, you’re saying, “Go ahead. Hit me for real.” The aggressor is put in an awkward place. Is he really going to hurt you, or not? Luke, for what it’s worth, doesn’t specify cheeks.
And if someone sues you for your coat, and right there in the courtroom you undress and also hand them the garment under your coat, what does that make you? Naked. What was meant as a show of power suddenly leaves everyone feeling exposed—you, because you are, and them, for what they are doing to you.
And if you insist on going the extra mile carrying some soldier’s heavy bags, what, again, was a show of power perhaps becomes a situation where you are actually weak and stumbling along in a way that makes the soldier in question look not just powerful but outright cruel, if anyone cared, which I’m not sure if they did.
Bonhoeffer says, “Violence stands condemned by its failure to evoke counter-violence.”
I like this idea. I can really get behind the bus-riding, salt-marching, lunch-counter-sitting, glitter-bombing Jesus of active nonviolent resistance. It makes the whole passage much more palatable.
But not everyone agrees that’s what Jesus is doing here. And to be honest I’m not sure that the parts about lending and giving fit that reading in the same way. You don’t need a strategy of resistance when someone asks you for money. You either give them some, or you politely say no.
So if the passage isn’t actually about a strategy of resistance, maybe there is actually something about the Kingdom of God that requires us to bear aggression without retaliation. Maybe, to quote Bonhoeffer again, “The followers of Jesus for his sake renounce every personal right.”
I don’t really fear the aggression of Roman soldiers—again, one of the privileges that comes along with being white in America. But one thing I do fear is being taken advantage of.
The other day I was walking back to Rosslyn from a meeting in Clarendon, and somewhere in the Courthouse area, a guy wearing a blanket and carrying a suitcase stopped me and asked if I could help him get something to eat. I had a dollar in my pocket, but I tend to think it’s a good thing to just buy someone something to eat if I can, and we were right outside a café, so I said OK, and we went in. Now, I am admittedly one of the cheaper people I know, and I was slightly dismayed at the price of a sandwich in this café when we got inside and looked at the menu board. But then the worst part was that he asked if he could get a smoothie too. As I paid for this guy’s almost-$15-dollar lunch, I really began to question my decision to not just give him that dollar bill.
I really have no reason to believe that this guy was taking advantage of me. I’m sure he was hungry. I tend to believe that people don’t generally just hang out outside cafes asking people to buy them something to eat if they couldn’t somehow use a free meal. But it felt like this guy was taking advantage of me. And I was mad at myself as I walked home, simultaneously for letting myself be taken advantage of and for being so cheap that I begrudged a $15 meal to someone in need.
But the question I think Jesus would ask of me is, should it matter? Should it actually matter whether this guy hadn’t eaten in two days or was somehow taking me for a ride? Or, as he began to rack up the bill I had agreed to pay, shouldn’t I have said, “How about dessert?”
I’m not sure I can say this from experience, but something inside me says that life could be about so much more than what I owe and am owed.
And maybe that’s why Jesus’ teachings in this passage are about a kind of resistance, whether or not it’s the political kind.
By giving more than someone tries to take, by offering the second cheek when they strike the first, by going two miles when they thought they were forcing me to go one, maybe I claim back a kind of power and dignity. I am no longer the oppressed, the humiliated, the taken-advantage-of, I am someone who gives, freely. Who helps, willingly. Who chooses, in the strength that God gives, not to ever hit back.
This passage is not about being willingly victimized, because in these situations, I am not a victim.
There is freedom in declaring, “I’m a child of God, and no matter what you do, you can’t take that away from me.”
It’s still uncomfortable. It still unsettles me. I still am not sure I know what to do with this part of becoming Christian.
But I kind of like it, anyway.
 The best transcript I could find of the conversation comes from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/02/20/what-pope-francis-really-said-about-trump-not-being-christian.html
 Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 152-153
 The Cost of Discipleship, p. 142
 Cost, p. 140