The Sermon on the Mount: Teachings of a Jewish Mystic (Part 3)


Readings for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (Year A):

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm 119:33-40

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

This sermon was preached at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in San Rafael CA on February 19, 2017.

When Jesus was in his mid to late twenties, there was a major political demonstration that likely had a significant influence on his life and teachings. In 26 AD, the prefect of Judea Pontius Pilate brought the Roman imperial standards into Jerusalem and displayed them at the Antonia Fortress, which was connected to the Jewish Temple. The imperial standards were symbols of the empire, sometimes a golden eagle on a pole called an aquila, but in this case, they included statues and effigies of Caesar. Now this was tremendously offensive to the Jewish people since it violated the second of the ten commandments: thou shall not make any idols or graven images. To have idols within the same complex as the Jewish temple was an absolute atrocity, so the Jewish leaders asked Pilate to remove them. Unsurprisingly, Pilate did not care that he was violating their law and so denied their request. So what did the Jewish people do? They organized a kind of sit in. Hundreds of them lied down, fully prostrate around Pilate’s house and remained motionless in that position for five days and nights. On the sixth day, Pilate said he would respond and so he had the protestors gather in a stadium to hear his answer. However, instead of answering them, he had his soldiers surround the Jews in a ring three soldiers deep. As historian Josephus tells it,

Pilate, after threatening to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar’s images, signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords. Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the law. Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.[1]


The Jewish people opposed what they understood to be evil not by violently rebelling but by nonviolently resisting, to the point of risking their own lives. Although their sacred law was being terribly defied by Rome, they knew that attacking Roman soldiers would be yet another violation. They also knew that each human being was made in the image of God (whether Jew or Gentile) and there was a divine potential for good in every person. To destroy a human life would be to destroy a beautiful and beloved creation of God in which God had invested and inserted a part of himself. It was by risking their own lives that the Jewish people were able to appeal to that goodness even within Pontius Pilate, that divine spark. They resisted evil not with more evil but with a bold and courageous appeal to goodness, even within someone who might be considered a monster.

Young Jesus was steeped in these Jewish teachings and saw how they could effectively challenge and transform the world’s most powerful empire. He likely witnessed many other examples of Jewish nonviolent resistance throughout his childhood and young adulthood, and after spending a season in the desert likely marinating in what is called Merkabah mysticism, he developed a keen understanding of the connection between mystical enlightenment and an ethic of nonviolence. This morning’s section of the Sermon on the Mount provides an excellent case in point. Let us open our Bibles to Matthew 5:38.

Jesus says, “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.” Now here it sounds like Jesus is telling his followers not to resist evil, not to engage in any form of resistance whatsoever. And this is where it is again helpful and even necessary to look at the original Greek. The Greek word for “resist” here is antistenai which is made up of two parts: anti which means “against” and histemi which is a verb that in its noun form (stasis) means violent rebellion and armed revolt. “It refers specifically to the moment two armies collide, steel on steel, until one side breaks and flees.” (Wink, 11) So a more accurate translation would be “Don’t retaliate against violence with more violence.” Instead, resist evil and violence in a different way. Seek that creative third way of resistance that transcends the primal response of fight or flight. Jesus then clarifies this meaning by providing three concrete examples of creative non-violent resistance to evil and oppression.

He says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.” About three months ago, I preached on Luke’s version of this teaching out on the prayer labyrinth for All Saints day. It wasn’t that long ago so maybe some of you will remember that I asked Br. Richard to come up and show how he would strike me on the right cheek. (He’s not here today because he knew this was in the readings and he didn’t want to have to do that again). But I’m still kind of tickled by the fact that we have a picture of a Franciscan friar punching an Episcopal priest on our Facebook page. Apparently, he used to be a boxer so he knew that in order to strike me on the right cheek, he would need to use a left jab. So he would use his left hand and, at Jesus’s day, the left hand would only be used for unsanitary tasks. It would not even be used for striking someone on the cheek. Instead, someone would strike the right cheek by using the back of their right hand and that would be done not so much to injure but to insult, not to hurt but to humiliate. Masters would backhand their slaves and Romans would sometimes backhand Jews. And it is important to remember that Jesus is generally speaking here to a Jewish audience. So by turning the other cheek, the oppressed Jew would rob the Roman oppressor of the power to humiliate, essentially saying, “If you are going to hit me, hit me as an equal, as a peer, as a human being just like you.” So the Roman oppressor has the choice to either acknowledge the other as a peer or to stop hitting altogether. So the call to turn the other cheek is not a call to be a doormat but rather a call to nonviolently resist oppression, humiliation and dehumanization. (Ok, some of you already knew that. Let’s look briefly at the other examples.)

Verse 40: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” New Testament scholar Walter Wink thinks this teaching likely evoked some chuckles among Jesus’s listeners because it’s basically telling people to strip down to nothing. The Greek words for coat and cloak were himation and kiton, which meant outer garment and inner garment. So why would Jesus tell his listeners to strip naked? And how is this a form of creative nonviolent resistance? Well, many of Jesus’s listeners were likey in enormous debt, as they were overtaxed by an empire that needed money to fund its many military campaigns. Many who could not pay off their debts with money had to give away other personal belongings, including their clothes, including the shirts of their back. So when Jesus calls them to give away even their undergarments, he is inviting them to essentially say to their creditors, “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?” It’s important to know that nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell not on the naked party, but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness (Gen 9:20-27) (Wink, 20). So not only would the creditor be shamed by the nakedness he would also be exposed as a cruel moneylender, stripping his debtors down to nothing, and he would therefore be invited to change his ways and repent. Walter Wink argues that Jesus “in effect is sponsoring clowning,” playfully exposing the truth, and therefore carrying on a “venerable tradition in Judaism.” (Wink, 21). There is a saying in the Jewish Talmud: “If you neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back” (Baba Qamma 92b).

Finally, Jesus’s third example in verse 41: “If someone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” In the Roman empire, soldiers were allowed to force occupied peoples to carry their heavy packs and equipment for one mile, but only one mile. And there were mile markers on highways to ensure this because the Romans were enlightened enough to know that forcing people to schlep their equipment (which could be 65 to 85 pounds) over excessively long distances would easily provoke occupied peoples to violently revolt. Forcing a civilian to transport equipment for more than a mile carried severe penalties for the soldier under military law. So Jesus’s call to go the second mile is not so much about being extra generous and assiduous in helping others complete a task. It’s more about how an occupied people can take the initiative in an oppressive society, “how they can assert their human dignity.” (Wink, 24). So Jesus invites them to imagine the “hilarious situation of a Roman soldier pleading with a Jew, saying “Come on, please give me back my pack!’” and the Jewish person responding, “Oh no, don’t worry, I don’t mind carrying it another mile.” This is Jesus offering a creative, nonviolent, disarming and comical response to violent oppression. He was speaking to particular situations of oppression which his listeners knew very well and offering a playful third way to resist and dismantle systems of violence and to invite the oppressors and persecutors themselves to repent.

Jesus says, “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor 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.” Once again, Jesus sounds like a true Jewish mystic as he invites his listeners to see the divine spark within everyone, even our enemies, our persecutors, our tyrannical leaders who overtax us in order to fill their wallets and fund their wars (and perhaps avoid paying their own taxes). The Bible is clear that our God is a God of justice. Oppressors and tyrants will indeed reap what they have sown. And yet our job as children of our Father in heaven is to help others see the ways in which they have succumbed to evil and violence and to repent, just as the Jews helped Pilate to change his mind, even if it was just for a moment. The God who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, wants all of his children to discover their divine spark, to recover their imago Dei, that image of God imprinted on them by Heaven at the moment of their creation. When Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” he is saying “Be faithful to your divine purpose just as God is faithful to his own purpose.” The Greek word for “perfect” is teleios, which comes from the word telos, which means “purpose.” The word “perfect,” I think, is a very imperfect translation. Being true to our divine purpose means connecting or reconnecting with our divine spark, our imago Dei, and seeing that same divine spark in others, even in our enemies; it means unleashing our divine potential through love, compassion, creative resistance to oppression and ultimately through our devotion to the One who fully embodied the image of God on earth, Christ our Redeemer and our Liberator and our Lord. Amen.

[1] Josephus, War 2.172-174; Antiquities 18.55-59. Walter Wink writes, “Despite the similarity to a wolf’s baring his throat to show he is overmastered, the two acts are polar opposites. The wolf is surrendering; these Jews were being defiant. The wolf seeks to save its life; these Jews were prepared to die for their faith. The Jews later tried the same tactic against the Emperor Gaius (Caligula), and again prevailed, aided by the providential death of the emperor (Antiquities 18.257-309).” In Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 108, n. 12.

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