“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” That Jesus – what a kidder – no pressure folks! Be perfect – doesn’t he know that some of us kill ourselves everyday trying to be perfect? And these are the ways he tells us to do it?
This reading only comes up occasionally but is very central to who we are as Christians, right? Seems out of proportion – like we should hear it more often. And when we do hear it do we completely understand it? Yet we quote it often enough – “turn the other cheek” “give your cloak as well” “go the extra mile” - sounds all pretty and simple doesn’t it? Let’s look closer.
There is a biblical scholar, Walter Wink, who has done a great amount of work on this passage. His exegesis is extraordinary at showing exactly what’s at stake in these relatively simple-sounding sayings. It’s amazing how he explains it – I will attempt to explain it here, but you can google his paper – or look on Facebook at the Text This Week page for a link – it’s really fascinating!
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” is actually A LOT more specific than how we have generalized it to “turn the other cheek” – the only way for someone to strike you on the right cheek in those days was with a right-handed backhand. Your left hand was considered dirty, contaminated, unclean – it was used for personal bidness – not for any sort of social interaction. A backhand was considered the most humiliating sort of slap and could only be used for servants, slaves, those less than you. A slug was for equals – an open-handed slap was an insult of sorts. A back-handed slap was to remind the other of their place – remind them that they were less then human. By turning the other cheek, with the left hand being rendered unclean, that would force the slapper to either an open-handed slap or a slug – either of which equalized the people. No longer slave or free… sounds familiar?
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” – this suit would be to pay a financial debt – usually to pay unfair taxation. Nakedness was a huge humiliation – but Wink paints the picture of being summoned to court and forced to give up your coat. You only wear two garments – no undergarments – Jesus says give it all up and walk out naked and free! Can you imagine the shock? Maybe the suer would try to force your garments back on you – who is ultimately shamed?
“If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second” takes on another layer of meaning - the Greek words used in this point to the Roman Army’s privilege of being able to compel ordinary citizens to carry their military packs. The packs could be 40-60 pounds and you were obligated to carry it a mile. However, the soldiers would get into serious trouble for making you carry it more than a mile – there was a limit to the amount of forced labor you had to endure. There were mile markers on every road. Imagine the soldier following you, when you continue past that mile larker and head to the next… all of a sudden, he’s facing a flogging for breaking the military law. He’s at your mercy to give up his pack.
The Leviticus reading today was about recognizing those around you as human – from the top view – it assumes you own the field, you pay the laborer, you are able-bodied, you are the judge. This Gospel reading is about making other’s recognize your humanity – your dignity as a human being – being an agent of your own humanity – giving you the power to make a choice from the view from below. Jesus is talking to those oppressed by society. Let’s be careful here though: “turn the other cheek” should NEVER be used to urge a spouse to stay in a marriage – NEVER. Reclaiming human dignity then would be to leave – remove oneself from the situation. Jesus is very clear that we are no called to be doormats! One of my favorite images is Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple – nothing passive about that! In this gospel today, he’s telling us about turning the tables in much more subversive ways.
What keeps us from claiming our own human dignity? What keeps us from seeing the systems that stifle the human dignity of those around us? It is so much easier to go with the status quo. Lord, open our eyes… help us to claim our own selves – our own dignity – our own belovedness, so that we can then see the belovedness in others! It’s only when we are mature enough in the love of God to accept ourselves as beloved children, that was can see others as equal, as just as loved, as forgiven. We can learn from this Gospel lesson today that we are not to willingly accept humiliation – we are to overcome it by shaming those in power.
Be perfect – that’s how the phrase from the Greek is translated here. A more accurate translation might be “Be whole – be what God intended for YOU to be – be beloved” – we live our entire lifetime striving toward this – “being sanctified by the Holy Spirit” – we believe that we will fall short, but we will keep striving – and with God’s help through prayer and supplication, by Sacraments, by community, by striving for social justice for ALL, that we will indeed move closer and closer to wholeness – to perfection. Jesus never said any of this would be easy. There was only one perfect man – and look what we did to him - but he modeled this Gospel to the very end – he refused to accept the humiliation – he himself declared his own agency with “It is finished” – and then he rose again… AMEN.