One Saturday, Sam and Dave were out playing a round of golf. As they were approaching the 9th hole, Sam looked out across to green to see a funeral procession going by on the street next to the golf course. Sam stood still, took off his hat, and placed it over his heart. There he stood, silently until the procession drove past. Then he continued his play.
Dave said, “Gee, Sam. That was mighty nice and respectful of you to stop your play like that out of respect for that funeral procession.”
“Well,” Sam said, “I was married to her for thirty-two years. She deserves that much.”
You want to make sure you pay the proper respect. But there’s no reason to go overboard. Most of us want to do just what’s required and nothing more. Whenever I tell my students that I want them to write an essay, they always ask how much they have to write. And I always answer the same way—as much as is necessary. They hate that. They want me to tell them how many paragraphs, how many words. But I remember when I was a kid. When they teacher said 500 words, I counted every word with the thought in my head that I would stop as soon as I got to word number 500.
We have some good friends who follow messianic Christianity. That is, they believe in Jesus, but they also observe all the traditional Jewish laws, according to their own interpretation anyway. One Saturday afternoon, we were at a wedding. At the reception, they were serving tacos made from carnitas—pork meat. Now this couple would eat pork, but not on the Sabbath. And the Sabbath runs from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. So they were watching the sky. According to their rabbi, the Sabbath was over when you could see three stars in the sky. So they were watching, and as soon as that third star became visible, they went for their tacos de carnitas. I didn’t tell them that first star was the planet Jupiter. It might not have counted. It’s sort of hard that this was what the good Lord had in mind regarding the consumption of pork.
This Sermon on the Mount I’ve been talking about for the past two weeks has been all about rules, and how far they could be bent. That was the heart of what Jesus had to say. The ten commandments say “thou shall not commit murder.” So is self defense murder? Is it murder to kill somebody in a war? Jesus says we’re asking the wrong questions. Jesus says just being angry at someone is sin enough.
What about adultery? I’ve heard people discuss the fine points of adultery. Is it cheating if you just kiss somebody besides your husband or wife? How far can you go before it’s cheating? Is phone sex cheating? Jesus says just thinking about cheating is cheating. It isn’t what we do, it’s what we think and what we feel. Actions come from thought.
Originally, when the bible said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, it was trying to limit the extremes of vengeance. It used to be a head for an eye, or a entire village including all the animals, women and children too, for a tooth. Said the good book cut the price DOWN to an eye for an eye. But then Jesus came along and once again pointed out that the whole idea of vengeance was crazy headed.
“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 violently resist the evil one, but whoever strikes you to the right cheek, turn to him the other, and to the one wanting to see you and taking your tunic, release to him your coat also, and whoever will press you into service one mile, go with him two. To the one asking you, give, and to the ones wanting to borrow from you, do not turn away.” (Matthew, Chapter Five, a direct translation)
It would seem here that Jesus is telling us here that we should just allow yourself to be mistreated, but this is not the case. Maybe it’s my martial arts training, but if you consider the act of striking somebody on the right cheek, it becomes obvious. Ancients did not use their left hands to strike. In order for me to strike your right cheek, assuming that I’m facing you, I would have to use the back of my right hand, a sign of disrespect. Jesus is saying that if you’re struck on the right cheek, stand right back up, tall and proud, and offer your left, as if to demand that you be treated as an equal.
Ancients, in poverty, would often offer their coats as collateral for loans. Loaning money at interest was against the laws of Moses. If someone demanded your coat because you could not repay the loan at interest, Jesus suggests you offer your tunic also. Go naked. Going naked shamed not only the one going naked, but the person seeing also. Jesus says point out the injustice, expose the injustice, along with yourself.
The Romans often impressed the Jews into service. They could force anyone to shoulder a burden for a mile. But Jesus said to go the extra mile. This wasn’t to show what a nice guy you were. It was to point out that you aren’t being forced to do anything. You take on the burden willingly. It raises your status. This entire passage is about resisting injustice. It is about non-violent resistance to evil. The term translated as “resist not the evil one” does not mean not to resist evil. Jesus often resisted evil. The term translated as “resist” means to resist with violence. Jesus is saying don’t be violent, but stand up to injustice. These were ideas that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. used with great success.
“You have heard that it was said, "You will love the one near you and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for the ones persecuting you, that you might come to be children of your Father who (is) in heaven, for he makes his sun rise upon the evil ones and good ones, and he sends rain upon the just ones and the unjust ones, for if you love the ones loving you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you embrace your brothers and sisters alone, what more are you doing? Do not even the gentiles do the same? You-all, therefore, will be consummated ones as your Father in heaven is consummation.” (Matthew, Chapter Five)
From our earliest times, we have tried to play God. According to the Garden of Eden myth, Eve’s great sin was eating from that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God told her, according to the story, not to eat of the tree. But the serpent told her that if she did eat the fruit of that tree, she and Adam would be like God. That’s what she wanted—to be like God. That is what we all want. We want to be in control. We want to control nature. We want to control the world. We want to control our own destinies.
And Jesus is pointing out exactly what it means to be like God. We don’t want a vengeful God. We don’t want a God who treats us how we deserve. We keep praying that God will forgive us. We want God to be merciful. Jesus makes it clear. God makes the sun rise on the evil and the good. God sends rain to the evil and the good. Just look around you. The evil seem to be doing just fine. That much seems clear.
So if we want to be like God, then I guess that means we have to be forgiving too. It means we have to be good to our friends and to our enemies. We want good without evil. We want pleasure without pain. We want rights without responsibilities. Jesus said that is not the way of the universe. You can’t have one without the other. That is not complete. You can’t have yin without yang. You can’t have light without darkness.
The word often translated as “perfect” or “consummate”, means in Greek to be complete. If you want to be complete, if you want to be like God, then you have to free yourself from hatred and vengeance. You have to have love for everyone, the good and the evil, for your neighbor and your enemies. That’s what it means to be like God. That’s what it means to be righteous.
Being righteous doesn’t mean to follow a set of rules, or perform a set of rituals. It means a total change of heart. It’s not as though God wants to do rotten stuff and then stops Himself because it’s against the rules. It is the very nature of God to love.
Jesus was talking to a group of people who believed that being righteous meant to follow the rules. Jesus is pointing out that righteousness isn’t something you can earn. It isn’t what you do that makes you righteous, it’s who you are. And who we are isn’t righteous at all. We are a people who want to see how far we can go. How many words do I have to write? Moreover, when it comes to good and evil, we don’t have a clue.
It doesn’t really matter if this story of the Sermon on the Mount is true or not. Most of it comes from a much earlier oral tradition. Matthew took most of it from a lost gospel called the “Q” document, a gospel from which Matthew, Luke, and Mark all borrowed. It’s pretty clear that these are the sayings of Jesus, whether he said them all at one time or not.
As I often say, the bible isn’t a book of fact; it is a book of truth. And it is the truth of these words that has caused them to live for two thousand years. Their beauty is enough to take your breath away. They are at once a portrait of the creator and a model for us to try to emulate. And the fact that Christians fail to keep those teachings time and again does not make them any less true. Of course we fail. We are not Gods. But if we’re anything like our grandmother Eve, we’ll keep trying. That is our folly, but it is also our hope.