Seventh Sunday after Epiphany 

Service Date: 19 February, 2017

Worship was led by the Revd. Dr. Walter Houston who preached on Matthew chapter 5 verse 39 -‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.’ Jesus is overturning the traditional macho dominated culture and emphasising loving and giving. We need to lay aside our pride and avoid being oversensitive and easily offended. Jesus suffered humiliation for us, as well as physical pain, at the crucifixion.

Hymns:

Rejoice and Sing104  Praise my soul the King of heaven

Rejoice and Sing  90  O Lord, all the world belongs to you

Rejoice and Sing 310  Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost

Rejoice and Sing 522  From heaven you came, helpless babe

Rejoice and Sing 601  Christ is the world’s true light

Sermon:

Matthew 5:39 (part): ‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’

The swing doors of the saloon burst open. The crowd of drinkers at the bar fall silent and turn to the door. The chink of money on the poker table suddenly stops. All eyes are on the stranger, a tall thin man with a face as hard as nails, tanned by the sun and lined by the wind. His hands rest idly on his pair of Colt .45s, as his cold narrow eyes search the room ‘It’s Mad Jake Mulligan, the fastest draw in the West’, goes the whisper. ‘Jake, whaddya doing here?’ starts one. ‘Shut ya mouth, codface! I ain’t interested in you. I’m looking for the man who called me a liar. And that man’s dead meat, or my name ain’t Jake Mulligan.’

You may think there’s not a lot of resemblance between first-century Palestine and the 19th-century Wild West. But they do share one thing which is not so obvious among our friends and neighbours. They were both macho societies, dominated by men, with women keeping well in the background; and the men were passionate about their honour and dignity, and highly competitive with other men. Any insult had to be avenged, and for a man to slap a man’s face was the ultimate insult. Not for a woman, of course, that was just amusing, because men weren’t in competition with women. But Jesus says: ‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.’ In other words, don’t avenge yourself, accept the insult.

It is very easy to misunderstand this verse. It isn’t about how you ought to behave to a gang of muggers, and it certainly isn’t about domestic violence. Jesus is not telling women to submit to abuse and violence from their partners. Still less is he criticising the way society deals with criminals, or how a country might respond to foreign aggression. All these things might be covered in thinking about the implications of Jesus’ teaching, but they are not the primary thing he is talking about. What he is denouncing is personal vengeance. More deeply, he is criticising the way in which men’s sense of honour leads them to feel bound to avenge an insult.

And we get off on the wrong foot if we think of Jesus as laying down a law which Christians must literally observe. True, Matthew does give the impression that Jesus is a new Moses, going up the mountain to hand down a new law to his disciples, taking sentences from the old law and brushing them aside or going beyond them. But to think that everything he says here is meant to be taken literally leads to absurdities. Just think: if someone slaps you on the face, the appropriate response might be to tell them to calm down, to ask them what’s got into them, to run away or to call the police, depending on the circumstances. What Jesus is doing is taking a vivid example of the effects of this sense of honour and turning it on its head.

He is doing the same thing with his next two examples. ‘Real men’, confident of their power, didn’t take each other to court. They sorted things out on their own, testing their power and honour in a duel of wits, if not physical violence. To take someone to court was an admission that you were weak, that you couldn’t get your rights any other way. So to be sued and lose your case meant that you had been forced to give way to a weaker man. But Jesus says: ‘If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.’ Give way with a good grace!

Judaea was an occupied country. A Roman soldier had the right to compel a member of the subject population to carry his pack for one mile. What a humiliation for a proud Jew, a member of God’s people, to have to do the work of a slave, not just for anyone—that would be shameful enough—but for one of your people’s enemies. But Jesus says: ‘If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two.’ Rejoice in your humiliation, offer him more.

All three examples are criticisms of a society based on male prestige and pride. Swallow an insult! Ask for another! Give way to the weaker man, and even be generous to him! Rejoice in your humiliation! This is even more radical teaching than might have appeared at first sight, for Jesus is cutting at the root of his people’s culture. He is preaching against their pride. Jesus is saying to men: you need to exchange the pride which is so quick to take offence and sees all other men as a threat for a humility which sees others as potential friends and brothers.

And ‘love your enemies’ follows from that. For if every man is a potential enemy, some will always be actual enemies. In any little village, you would find two families who hadn’t spoken to each other for generations, because of some injury or insult in the past, and hatred had sunk deep into their souls. Jesus is saying: let all that go. He quotes ‘you shall love your neighbour’ from Leviticus, but adds to it, ‘hate your enemy’, which is not in Leviticus, but some might have thought it followed. They might say ‘I’m happy to love my neighbour, as long as it doesn’t include my enemy.’ But in fact ‘love your neighbour’ implies ‘love your enemy’, because some neighbours will always be enemies, and in fact, as you may have noticed, the Leviticus passage says ‘Do not take vengeance’ just before ‘love your neighbour’—which is what Jesus is trying to say. As Jesus points out, no one has any difficulty in loving their own friends and family, but to love your enemies is the hard part. That is, to treat your enemies as if they were not enemies. To do that means swallowing your pride again, forgetting the insults and the history and the hatred, and stretching out the hand of friendship.

Now you may be thinking that none of this has anything to do with you. We are completely different from the people Jesus was speaking to; we are not macho and what Jesus says doesn’t concern us. It especially doesn’t seem to concern women. And it is true, as I have said, that it is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ teaching to encourage women to submit to male violence, or more generally if we encourage the weak to give in to the powerful and the brutal and the violent. When the Church has been in league with the powerful of this world it has often been to its advantage to interpret it in that way. But that’s not what Jesus meant. He was speaking to the proud and the powerful.

But that doesn’t let us off the hook. If the particular culture Jesus was speaking to is not ours, pride is something which every human being knows, women as well as men; indeed in some form it is necessary and right for every human being. If that were not so, Westerns would not be so popular. The best Westerns can show us the real human emotions which lie beneath the brittle crust of male pride.

You can see that pride, touchy, bitter and explosive, on the football field and in the boardroom. You can see it in the Twitter feed of the President of the United States! And while Donald Trump has often been accused of having a thin skin, he only shows in an exaggerated form what is true of us all. What is serious about it in his case is that he is the most powerful man in the world, with the man carrying the nuclear codes standing always a few feet behind him. And such pride, we know, has terrible effects in the competition between nations and ethnic groups. Wars break out when a group refuses to back down or admit they were wrong, because they would lose face.

On a different level, how many families practise the competitive bogus ‘unselfishness’ so tellingly described by C.S. Lewis in  The Screwtape Letters? (pp. 133-34: not given here to protect copyright).

What Jesus is asking us in these few verses is to reorder our priorities so that the needs of others come before our own dignity. But is it too idealistic to say that everybody should give up their pride? It is perfectly true that a person without any pride is a poor thing, miserable and crushed and not able to play their full part in the life of the world.

But the point is, not to get rid of our pride but to put it in its proper place, where it enables us to offer of our best to other people instead of excluding them and damaging them. That is a practical problem in educating our moral sense, learning a better way of living with others. How did Jesus tackle this task of education? After all, he was no lofty moral teacher, telling us what was right and leaving us to get on with it.

I would put it this way. He offered his own humiliation as the transforming power through which our own pride is taken up into his humility.

When his disciples were competing for the right to be his second in command, he told them that the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. We tend to overlook the fact that the worst thing about crucifixion, to people at the time, was not the pain (although that was excruciating), but the humiliation. A man was stripped naked in public, lashed until he collapsed, and hung up in full view of everybody, for people to hurl insults, rotten vegetables and worse at him.

That is the fate which Jesus embraced for our sake. The Gospels don’t spell it out. But Paul says that he ‘humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, the death of the cross.’ And everybody knew what kind of humbling that was. And he met that humiliation because of the pride of others, who could not bear to confront his radical demands.

Learning in the school of Jesus means, first, being forgiven by the free love of God which comes to us through his life, death and resurrection. God has plenty of reasons to stand on his dignity with us. We’ve offended him more than anyone has ever offended us. But he doesn’t: he freely forgives. Even if we have been his enemies, he can never be ours. That is the beginning of the education of our pride.

The second thing learning in the school of Jesus means is joining together with all his disciples to imitate his example, to live as his body and in the power of his Spirit. We share in his humiliation, but we also share in his glory: ‘therefore God highly exalted him, and gave him the name above every name.’ That means that we do not need to live out of our own pride and glory; our pride is to share in his and all our fellow-Christians’ pride. So we educate our pride. We take pride not in always competitively defending ourselves against the threat of other people’s achievements, but in co-operating with others to achieve things together. In becoming members of Jesus’ family, parts of his body, we become able personally to deal with insults and slights and humiliations, because these things are all put into perspective.

For many years the most intractable, and certainly the bloodiest, feud in these islands was that between Republican and Loyalist in Northern Ireland. The Catholic and Protestant labels which each side carried were badges of pride, symbols of an identity which had to be defended against threats. They did not refer to the Lord Jesus Christ who humbled himself to the death of the cross. But the very fact that so many people on both sides identified themselves as Christians perhaps made it easier for the true message of Christ to reach them. And perhaps that was the reason for the relative success of the Good Friday agreement.

Perhaps too, the Corrymeela Community, in its quiet setting by the coast of Antrim, helped in the process. Here, people come together from both sides in a peaceful, non-threatening atmosphere, and Christians learn to be Christians, to understand each other’s fears and hopes, to live with each other and to love each other—to love their enemies! Here the followers of Christ fulfil their true calling, humbly helping others to achieve the humility of Christ and so the love of Christ.

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