Mercy, Boundaries, Love
Girdwood Chapel Sermon, February 19, 2017
Mercy, Boundaries, and Love
Leviticus 19: 1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5: 38-48
When I was in college I spent a year as a Resident Advisor. I was not a terribly good advisor, as I partook more often in the breaking of the rules than in the enforcing of them. But, it is because of that experience that I can draw an illustration for our sermon today. See, believe it or not, freshman guys are not known for having the best decision making skills, yet somehow, they can be quite creative in the mode of pranks. The combination of those traits can certainly be dangerous, especially when it comes to revenge.
It began innocent enough. After an intramural game which included quite a bit of trash talking the losing team, decided to prank the winning team. We lived in suites that included a central area with four rooms and a bathroom. As the winning team slept the losing team snuck into the suite and tied all of the door knobs together with pieces of string. When they made loud noises in the center room, all of the guys found themselves pulling and slamming one another’s doors. That was the beginning of an escalating series of pranks that went on for an entire semester, each one based on getting revenge for the previous one and the scale of retribution increased each time. That semester I woke to a strange noise in my room, only to find a turkey running around when I turned my light on. Ink was placed in shower heads. Hair gel was replaced with Nair. A car was picked up and placed between two walls. By the end of the season of pranks, the good natured ribbing that was present in the beginning was gone. It had turned into a full out war. Friendships began to suffer and innocent fun was now causing pain and/or damage in many different ways. Pranks had turned into revenge and revenge had become personal, even hateful. Having no luck in resolving the issue between the two halls we were required to go to a mediation session with the Director for Resident Affairs.
During this meeting, both sets of guys were admonished for their behavior and when asked why they thought it was appropriate to be moving toward the more violent and destructive acts, they responded, “it supposed to be an eye for an eye, right!? If they escalate, then so do we.”
We do hear the term, “an eye for an eye”, a lot in our culture. But, like those freshman fellows so many years ago, most of us have a misunderstanding of what the quote means. We assume that the phrase is designed to illustrate the importance of making sure the punishment fits the crime. We also hear it a lot when it comes to military action. If an outside country or entity were to commit a hostile act against another country, then the world would see the retaliation as justified, perhaps automatically warranted, because we are to act with retribution in the form of “an eye for an eye.” But, would you be surprised to know that the intent of the law or phrase is not to provide justification for one’s actions but for one to demonstrate mercy in their response to being wronged. It was meant to levy forgiveness rather than allowing for continued punishment and retaliation. Sure, the law says you have the right to expect someone to pay a price for wronging you and that price they pay should equal to what their act cost you. But, Jesus is indicating by being with Him and knowing Him and believing in Him, even this retribution is not required for it is insignificant in your eternal life with God.
Let’s take a look at the examples Jesus gives.
First, He tells us that if we are slapped across the right cheek then we should offer the left. It is our human inclination, our want, even our desire to strike back when struck. But, Jesus tells us to go against that instinct and to offer the other cheek up for a smack as well. Over time, this offering of the other cheek has been associated with a certain passivity or rolling over...the Christian should simply take what is being dished out. But, this is not true at all. Thinking about this exclamation in regards to the context of the time offers a considerable amount of strength to the one who practices it. In Jewish culture it was considered an insult or demeaning to smack someone across the face with a backhanded slap. In the overall Roman culture it carried the same connotation. Depending on the sources we use it can be found, however, that if an owner of slaves slapped the slave with an open hand then that slave was being set free, or if a Roman soldier slapped someone with an open hand then they saw them as an equal. There was also a twist to be considered here, in that when a strike was delivered it must be delivered with the right hand. If it was not delivered with the right hand, then the one delivering the blow was looked down upon, lower than the one who was being struck. So, by turning the other cheek, one is taking power and demonstrating inner strength. They are saying, you have slapped me to take away my dignity, but you cannot do it. Slap me again on this cheek with your open hand, set me free, for I am your equal.
We live in a litigious society now, and it was similar in the Roman society. Courts handled all disputes. Interestingly, clothing was treated as a commodity during these times. So, Jesus says if someone sues you for your tunic offering them your cloak as well. Is your time on earth well spent in a court arguing over something that can be replaced? No, simply settle out of court, but take back the power and show the strength and trust in the Lord by saying, I offer you this freely and without malice. You did not take this from me, I give it as a gift.
Jesus also says, if someone asks you to walk a mile, then you should walk two. We hear this from time to time in our daily endeavors as being told to go the extra mile. But, this advice from Jesus had a specific meaning during His time. A Roman Soldier could legally require any person walking the street to carry his shield, or helmet, or other pieces of armor for one mile. These were generally not light pieces of equipment. The enlistment was generally not to be considered a pleasant experience and often those being tasked were carrying loads of their own. However, Jesus provides a way to remove the humiliation and the degradation by giving power through doubling the walk. During that second mile, the soldier knows that the person is walking too far, much further than the law mandates, and worry may replace smugness. Because the objects are so heavy, a certain admiration for the strength the person is showing may begin to surface. This strength, this power, comes from God above and it is hard not to recognize.
Jesus is showing that vengeance plays only the role of satisfying our earthly needs. The desire for someone to be wronged the way we were wrong and treating our sadness and pain with the knowledge they are experiencing the same. But, by demonstrating mercy in the ways Jesus is outlining we are taking back power and showing strength in a way that allows us to heal and reveals the power and righteousness of God.
It is important to note that the examples Jesus uses are specific examples with contextual meaning. This goes back to the discussion concerning the passive nature of the comments. If someone slaps you offer the other cheek, but it does not say if someone is intending to hurt you not to fight back. Jesus says, if someone is taking you to court for frivolous reasons than it is not worth your time, but he does not say do not go to court for more meaningful reasons. Jesus says to walk an extra mile, but does not say to walk until you fall over. Jesus has set boundaries. The boundaries allow us to harness the power and strength God has provided and to demonstrate the mercy of God to those with whom we come in contact. I can see purpose in the boundaries in a couple of ways. First, if anyone was to push us beyond the boundaries than they are creating a bad reputation for themselves and likely committing outright acts of evil against us. Second, we should never return acts of evil with acts of evil. Our responses should be calculated with meaning and demonstrative of God’s grace and mercy. This is where love comes in.
Jesus says you have heard it said to love one another, but I say love your enemy also. How hard is that? How difficult is it to love the one who is making our life miserable, who may be causing us pain, who may be trying to degrade and to humiliate us? How hard is it to show love to someone you are certain hates you and everything you stand for? Jesus’ reasoning is that God does this everyday. God shines grace upon the whole world each day, just like the sun’s rays touch all who walk in the world, so does the grace of God. There are those who accept and understand this grace and there are those who choose to ignore it and operate in lives outside of it, but nonetheless, God reveals His love and offers it all. In doing this, God is always providing the opportunity for one to respond to His love with their love.
When we relate scripture back to the Old Testament and when we consider the laws in the context of the time, we must, as Christians, understand a beautiful truth. That truth is that the laws have new meaning and new context when applied in a life in Christ. An eye for an eye was a law designed to show mercy in an age when mercy was not revealed. Revenge took on drastic measures and whole families could be decimated through the escalating actions of unmitigated responses. It was a law that said, have mercy, and keep your sense of justice fitting to the crime. But, in Jesus, in the salvation of being brought back into communion with God, we are offered a different sense of righteousness. We are given a different degree of strength and power. While direct vengeance may serve to make us feel better in a humanly satisfied sort of way, it does nothing to reveal the grace of God or the freedom of our salvation. We are not to be doormats and allow the world to walk all over us, but we are to use our minds and our strength in the Spirit to respond in a manner of steadfastness in the Love of God. Rather than returning evil with evil, or sin with sin, we should respond with mercy. We should respond with love. Doing so disarms those who seek to degrade us, for their power is rendered meaningless. Their will becomes our choice and our choice is to sit in the grace of God.