Marcus Borg, that bald and beautiful bard from the Skeptical Order of Christians, once wrote that, “Salvation is about liberation.” (_Convictions_, 75)
I agree. And I think that’s exactly what Jesus is offering in this week’s Gospel lesson: salvation.
But before we go on, you have to read it from Matthew 5:38-48 (you can just click here if you want).
Finished? Good. Onward.
The Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew is all about salvation. Not how you “get saved,” as the street preacher would tell you, but how you “are saved.”
Saved from the cycles of revenge that plague our society. Saved from the cycle of the sin-management system that bad religion has made you put in place. Saved from the anger, hurt, and resentment that powerlessness can cause you. That kind of thing builds on you like plaque in the artery, eventually choking the life out of your spirit.
Jesus is talking about salvation on the small scale here, but it will lead to salvation on the big scale in just a few short weeks, Beloved.
Let’s look at salvation on the small scale for a second, though, before we go on.
Gandhi, who was more Christ-like in action than most Christians in the public eye today, so rightly noted that “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” This is an appeal to the spirit of the law, the same notion that Jesus is putting forth here.
Because, by law, this action of taking an eye and a tooth was technically legal. If, in your interactions, you’re looking for a cycle of revenge, then by all means, you are allowed to take out a person’s eye if they take yours. You cannot take more than an eye, though, just the eye, or just the tooth for a tooth.
But Jesus calls us to live in a different world where the cycle of revenge is broken, where we acknowledge that enough blood has been taken with one eye. And so Jesus calls for an end to that cycle of violence. In this, Jesus points to liberation for a humanity who is blood thirsty.
But then Jesus moves a step further. Because it is not as if we should have people just running around poking out eyes just because they can. But that is exactly what the ancient world was like, especially in an oppressive society where Rome occupied the land. A soldier could demand that you carry their sack for them if they were tired. A citizen could sue the non-citizen for everything, even their underwear, over small offenses. People rightly began to clan together, loving those who looked, believed, and acted like they did, and shunning those who were “other” in such a world of unchecked power. Why do you think Jesus encouraged his followers to greet more than just their “brothers and sisters?” He lived in a world that was set on pitting Jews against Gentiles, Samaritans against Gentiles, Gentiles against Jews, Herodians against Pharisees against Sadducees, against…need I go on?
By the way, when you read that, translate it into this: citizen against immigrant, black against white against brown, men against women, gay against straight, Democrat against Republican against Independent, rich against poor against middle class…need I go on?
The cycles of power-play continue today, my friends. If we imagine Jesus is preaching to someone else, then we’re not taking seriously how little has actually changed in the human heart in 2000+ years.
So, what does Jesus say to the power-play games of the world? What salvation is offered there? If we can’t take an eye, what can we do?
“If someone demands your underwear in a lawsuit, give them your coat, too. Then you’ll have to walk around naked and everyone will know the shame that the plaintiff has caused you in such ridiculousness, and the burden will then be on them,” Jesus says.
“If someone wants you to walk a mile with their sack because they can, volunteer the second mile and shame them in their ridiculous request,” Jesus says. “Part of the domination is making you do something you do not want to do, but if you show them that you want to, they’ll realize their power is small in comparison to your will power.”
“If someone smacks you on the cheek, turn it, make them smack you again, but this time with the back of their hand, in a way that is degrading to the smacker. Then they’ll realize their shame,” Jesus says.
Once the cycle of revenge is broken, then we can start to break the cycles of power-plays through naming degrading acts and shaming those who do them. Be saved from the systems of power plays. Remember: Jesus is speaking to an occupied people. This was not a world where they could take an eye when their eye was taken, even if they wanted to! So Jesus tells them to give up that desire, for it is only feeding a system of hate, and instead enter into a kingdom cycle of naming shame and shaming those who do harm through acts of resistant love.
And speaking of love, why should we forgive our enemies anyway? How is that liberating?
That old adage, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” is just about as true as true can be, and Jesus leans into this understanding of our spirit in these last verses of The Sermon on the Mount.
In being liberated from having to hate our enemies, we are free to truly love, ourselves (and love ourselves, if you get my drift).
“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” could better be translated “Be complete as your heavenly Father is complete.”
Complete, not full of revenge. Complete, full of love, even resistant love. Complete, not full of resentment. Complete, offering love even to those who won’t offer it back.
And this, Beloved, is where we arrive at salvation on the large scale, and with Lent within sight, perhaps it’s good for us to start looking that way. Because as the persecuted, complete, perfect One was led down that road to Calvary and hung in an ordinary human way, he certainly could have been uttering ordinary human curses about eyes for eyes, tooth for tooth, playing the games of power and revenge and grudges.
But instead he says, “Father, forgive them…they don’t know what they’re doing,” offering an umbrella of liberating love even over those who persecute him. Instead he looks down at the disciple who deserted him and entrusts his mother to him, and he to her. Instead he turns to the criminal, certainly deserving of death by all human standards, and assures him of life.
And in doing all this, shows just how far God will go to save us all, completely.