The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 5th Chapter
Jesus said... ‘You have heard that it was 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; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 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. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In London, when you take the Tube, which you Americans would call the subway, there is a sign that says, “Mind the Gap”. It’s a warning that there is a bit of space between the platform and the train car and since losing tourists in that gap is a bit of bad form, they like to tell you to “Mind the Gap.” It turns out there’s also a gap between what many think this Scripture means and what Jesus actually meant.
So, for this Sunday, we're going to Mind the Gap! The first gap is when Jesus says, “do not resist an evil doer” or in another translation he says, “stand there and take it.” This has been used to advise people to subject themselves to abuse over and over again. One of the worst examples is when someone says to a victim of domestic violence that they are not to resist or are supposed to stand there and take it. That is absolutely NOT, NOT, NOT what Jesus is saying here. If you are being abused, you don't need to stand there and take it! You need to leave! If you or someone you know needs help leaving let me know.
So that’s what Jesus ISN’T saying here. What he IS saying here comes from understanding that when Jesus says we should not “stand against” evil he is using a specific military term that the people of his time would have known. It is the term for the moment two armies met and first strike blows. When Jesus says we should not “stand against” evil, he is saying that we should not meet evil with evil; we should not retaliate blow for blow, with an eye for eye or tooth for tooth. At first you might think that the only other option would be to allow yourself to be run over, but in this lesson Jesus goes on to give examples which make it VERY clear that isn’t in any way what Jesus has in mind!
Take a look at the next gap. “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn also the other.” This one takes a little CSI–Jerusalem to understand. First, in that culture people only used their left hand for… well, let’s say personal hygiene, so the hitter would be using their right hand. Second, from the text we know the hit is on the right cheek which means it has to be a backhand blow. Finally, in that culture, a backhand wasn’t meant to hurt so much as it was meant to put you back in your place. SO, by turning the other cheek you physically denied them the ability to backhand you on your right cheek again. You would be physically showing them you did not accept them as superior over you but you were also not returning violence for violence.
Then there is this gap. “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” In Jesus’ day if you owed someone money they could demand collateral until you paid them back. The very poorest of the poor only had the cloths on their backs which consisted of two pieces, an inner and an outer garment. The law allowed the creditor to take the outer garment during the day as collateral but they had to give it back at night so that the debtor could sleep in it, because that outer garment also functioned as their sleeping bag. Then in the morning, the creditor could demand it back. It was basically a legal method to harass the poorest of the poor, literally day and night.
To fight that harassment, Jesus suggested giving them both the outer AND inner garments which would leave the person naked (no Fruit of the Looms back then) and while being naked in public isn’t something most of us would go for in our culture, in that culture the public embarrassment would fall on the one who had demanded the cloak in the first place. Jesus was advocating a brave, nonviolent, strong but somewhat breezy protest that would shame the creditor out of that kind of harassment in the future.
The next gap to mind in this list of examples is… “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Jesus lived in an occupied country and any Roman soldier could legally force a non-Roman citizen to carry their 85 pounds of gear for them at any time, but the law said only for one mile. Roman roads had mile markers and so most people, as you would expect, would carry the gear to the next mile marker and drop the gear on the spot, but Jesus knew this Roman military law was very strict and if a soldier was caught forcing someone to go past that mile marker, that soldier would be in deep trouble with their centurion. Jesus suggested “going the extra mile” not to “go along” with an oppressive government, but to use their own laws against them in nonviolent protest, causing the soldiers to think twice before taking advantage of another person on the street. People might have told Jesus not to mix religion and politics but apparently Jesus didn’t get the memo.
The last gap in this whole passage that needs some minding is the very last verse which says, “Be perfect, therefore as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” People always want to make this into a personal, moral thing but Jesus isn’t asking us for moral perfection here. Jesus is asking for something MUCH harder! He’s asking us to extend our love to ALL people regardless of who they are, what they have done, what they believe, how they have hurt us or anything else. Jesus is asking us to love... like God loves…completely, perfectly, unconditionally, unendingly and without restraint to every corner of creation.
That’s what Jesus was really talking about back then, but for us here today, we are left with one additional “Gap to Mind” and that gap is trying to figure out how to connect this story from way back then, when the Romans occupied Israel and people only owned the two pieces of cloths on their backs, to our story here in this place and in this time. We may not have Roman Legions facing off with opposing armies, but where do we see the powerful attempting to get their way through threat, intimidation or violence? Where do we see might trying to turn things into right for them? We may not have masters backhanding slaves to put them back in their place, but where do we see those in power attempting to silence the powerless? We may not have to give up our coat during the day, but where do we see the rich making money on the backs of the poor?
With this last piece of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus drives home two points. First, YOU and every human being that ever has been or ever will be is a beloved child of God. Whether they know it or not, whether they believe it or not... they are… you are… we are all beloved children of God simply because God has made us that way! And second, Jesus is calling us as Christians to not roll over, but to stand up for what’s right and for what is just for all people. We are to fight, firmly and confidently but never violently for ourselves and for the least, lost and last in our society. We are called to work for justice in everything we do and insist that people, institutions and governments treat ALL people with the respect and justice due a beloved child of God.
Jesus is calling us with this Sermon on the Mount to open our eyes and see the ways our world is still divided... between the rich and poor, the weak and the powerful, the well connected and the forgotten, the healthy and the sick... Because in the end, you see, Jesus is insisting here that it isn’t simply our calling to “Mind the Gap” but to work with a purpose to “Mend the Gap” between all of God’s beloved children. Amen.