A few years ago, I prepared a dinner for our children as they were coming back home for reading week. I made a couple of dishes including a kale stir-fry. However, nobody wanted to touch it. So, I extolled the nutritional value, “It is one of the most nutrient-rich foods.” Still no one around the table really wanted to dig in to it. Last week as I prepared this reflection I remembered that happening and wondered if you too might respond to today’s lection as I did then. We know that this Sermon on the Plain is good wisdom and that it contains the Golden Rule. However, for those not so familiar with this text I want to highlight a few verses: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you” (6:27b-28).
In many churches, including ours, it is the custom of the congregation, after the reading of the gospel, to respond together, “Herein is Good News.” After these verses are read, can we respond with conviction that this is good news? Are we so sure it is Good News? Let’s hear a few more verses: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (6:29-30). Do you still think this is Good News? Let’s face it. If someone takes away my bike, do you think I will be OK with that and forgive the person who took my bike? No, I don’t think I would. It is nonsense. It is not practical. It does not make sense. How, then, do we understand today’s scripture?
Not everyone of today’s Gospel admonitions fail to make sense. How about this one? “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (6:31). This verse is commonly called the Golden Rule. It is found in other religions too; it is not unique to Christianity. Indeed, it is found not only in Luke and in Matthew but in the writings of Homer and Seneca and Philo. This is the kind of wisdom we learned in kindergarten when the teacher told us to treat other people the way we like to be treated. We all know this. So, we may say it makes sense. Still it is not easy to put it into practice in all circumstances.
The difficulty of putting Jesus’ wisdom into practice is that it is not practical. No one comes to church on Sunday expecting to need to be ready to have all my beliefs and behavior challenged. In today’s case, no one including me would say I am ready to love my enemy. Do we “give to anyone who begs from us” (6:30a)? Sometimes “Good News” is “unwelcome news.” Perhaps this is where “no news is good news.”
But I changed my mind after reading New Testament scholar Walter Wink’s book Engaging the Powers(1992) a few years ago. Let’s consider this. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (Luke 6:29a). This verse is similar to Matthew’s: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (5:39b). The key to understanding Wink’s argument is rigorous attention to the social customs of the Jewish homeland in the first century and what these sayings would have meant in that context.
Let’s think of one possibility: to hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks such as bathroom functions. I know this is not a pleasant thought but it is helpful for our understanding. In this case there is not much possibility of it being applied, since by religious law, in doing so the oppressor may be excluded from the community and pay penance for ten days.
Now the second possibility: to slap the right cheek with a backhand would require the right hand. A right-handed backhand was not a blow to injure but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves and Romans backhanded Jews. The whole point of the blow was to insult.
After such an act, Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek,” that is, the left cheek. Now let us imagine how one could hit or slap the left cheek of the peasant or slave. In a situation of master and slave, the master would use his right fist. But in Jesus time fists were used for social equals; only among those of equal social status could fists be used. Thus, in this context, the master could not use his right fist because of the differences in their status. For the master to use his fist would be admitting equal status. If the master hit the left cheek of the peasant with his right fist it would mean the master had lost his superior status.
“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” For me this wisdom makes sense. The oppressor cannot hit the other person anymore without losing his status. As we read today’s gospel further it sounds sensible. How about these instances: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you” (6:37-38a)? We may agree that we should not judge and condemn others, but I don’t know about forgiveness; forgiving is not easy.
In all our interpersonal relations, consciously or unconsciously, we sometimes hurt others and are hurt by others. When we are victims of a broken relationship, we may try to forgive but fail. But, if we do not forgive, we are letting the pain of the past control us. This impairs our ability to love and trust and be at peace in the present. Thus, forgiveness is something we must and need to do, not just for the sake of those who have hurt us, but for the sake of our own healing.
I heard this from a woman at a nursing home many years ago: “I can forgive but I can never forget.” I don’t know what she couldn’t forget but any infidelity of a spouse or a lie that turned her life upside down, abuse or betrayal, cannot be forgotten. Forgiveness is not a matter of putting other persons on probation. Forgiveness is not an excuse for unjust behavior and to forgive is not necessarily to forget. Forgiveness is not denying our hurt but a matter of healing and letting go of the past for a new beginning. The most helpful thing for me was to realize that forgiveness is not an ‘event’ but a process. It takes time; healing is a constant process.
In the process of forgiveness and putting Jesus’ wisdom into practice, we are reminded to “be merciful, just as your God is merciful” (Luke 6:36). This can be understood as: “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” Compassion is the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a Christian life centered in God. Being compassionate means to embrace each other as the person is created in God’s image. So, let us have the courage to embrace others with open hearts. The next time our children come to Vancouver I will prepare a kale stir-fry without mentioning the nutritional value. I hope they like it. Thanks be to God for wisdom. Amen.