Scripture | Matthew 5:38-48
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.
If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
Our reading today comes from a section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is reinterpreting the law.
He is revisiting some of the core rules of their society. Rules that were rooted in scripture and were historical. But to say he is revisiting these laws, or even reinterpreting them doesn’t quite describe the what he Jesus is doing.
These were laws that were common knowledge. Commonly held beliefs that were still enforced and seen as the best way of ordering society. It was believed that it was these concepts that help maintain justice, and peace.. And in these radically new teachings, Jesus is completely flipping these laws on their head, and it doing so, flipping the order of the world on its head.
- If someone wrongs you, the law said you are within your right to retaliate with an equal oppositional force. Repay their wrong with a punishment equal to it.
But Jesus says no, don’t do that... turn the other cheek... don’t continue the cycle of violence, don’t let it spiral out of control. Live in a new way, a way of love... let the wrong stop with you, turn the other cheek.
- The believed truth at the time was that your enemies are your enemies for a reason. They have wronged you. You have a history that cannot be forgiven or forgotten they have hurt you, and can be expected to hurt you again. The common practice was to love the people who give you love back, ... but if people give you hate, you should hate them back.
but Jesus says no, don’t do that... love your enemies too, love even the people that despise you and hate you... This is what God does, so this is how you that how you show you are God’s children.
I worry though..
these are some of the most well known teachings of Jesus and I worry that these lessons are so familiar, so common place, that we can hear them and not have it fully sink in. That we can hear this or read it and miss what it is asking of us.
I worry that we can hear these lessons and not fully grasp how much these concepts matter. How much this way of living and treating other people can transform people, can transform communities, can transform society. I worry that we can miss how much this lesson can transform the world...
So I have a story for us...
This is a true story. From the NPR podcast “Invisibilia” you can watch here or read along below: (Invisibilia, Season 2, Episode 5, “Flip the Script”)
It takes place in a neighborhood Washington, D.C., on a warm summer night.
There are eight friends gathered around a backyard dinner table.
They are toasting family and friendship and a new restaurant that one of the women had opened earlier in the week.
And everyone was having a good time.
There is lots of good food passing around and French wine.
It was one of those magical evenings.
Until, it wasn’t...
It was getting later in the evening
and all of the sudden someone else is standing there, a man pointing a gun.
and a hush fell over the group.
“Give me your money,” he says, “or I'll start shooting.” He looked anxious and nervous, with wide eyes. And, he keeps repeating this... over and over... “Give me your money”
But no one at the party actually has any money. So they just start talking, grasping for some way to dissuade the man. And naturally they started with guilt.
"What would your mother think of you?"
And he says:
"I don’t have a mother."
The exchange got more and more tense, their guilt was just fueling the atmosphere of danger
“This is headed towards a very bad end,” one of them thinks.
“Someone is going to get hurt if not all of us.”
But then one of the women at the table says something unexpected. She says,
"You know, we’re here celebrating. Why don't you have a glass of wine, and sit down with us?"
And it was like a switch... you could feel the difference in the air.
the look on the man’s face changes. He took a glass, tastes the wine - and says
"This is a really good glass of wine."
So they say “Oh, well have some more” and they offer him some cheese.
And then he puts the gun in his pocket and sat down The man drinks his wine, eats his cheese.
And then he says something that no one expected, almost to himself:
"I think I've come to the wrong place."
And they responded, “...we understand, these things happen”
For a moment, they all sit there together, stars overhead twinkling, sound of chirping insects in night air. And then the man says:
"Can I get a hug?"
And so acouple folks get up, and give him a hug. and then he says:
"Can we have a group hug?"
And everyone gets up and forms a circle around the man.
Then the man says
And he walks out with a glass of wine out of the gate. And all they could think to do was run into the house and cry in half in fear and relief and half in gratitude.
They called it a miracle. It felt like a one in a million experience.
Psychologists and sociologists have a name for this though...
They call it non-complementary behavior.
It is a rare behavior because our natural tendency is to mirror the people we interact with. When someone is kind to us, we tend to respond with kindness. When someone is hostile to us, we are typically hostile back. Sociologists call this complementary behavior. A certain behavior is met with the same behavior in kind.
And breaking this pattern - say, being kind to someone after they have been mean to us - that is non-complementary behavior. And because it is not our natural social response it’s incredibly hard to do. (ibid).
But when it happens, it almost always shakes up the situation. It disrupts and disarms the hostility in a person and forces them to confront and re-evaluate their actions, it forces them to change.
Later that evening, after everything had calmed down at the dinner party, the guests would find an empty wine glass neatly placed on the sidewalk by their alley outside of their house- not thrown, not carelessly discarded - placed.
Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said
‘Love those who love you, and hate those who hate you, You have heard that it was said:
‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’
But I say,
Love the people who hate you, offer your other cheek”
Jesus was of course a master of non-complementary behavior. Almost every story about him in the bible details how shook up their world with non-complementary behavior. Disrupting and Transforming people with a radically new love...
To the poor lepers who expect to be overlooked, he saw them as they were and met them with unexpected healing mercy.
To the people he encountered with power and resources, who assumed they have all the answers and have it all together... He disrupted them which caused them to question their entire way of life.
To the outcast sinner who expected guilt and shame and judgement, he meets them with unexpected love, forgiveness, and acceptance.
This is how transformation happens. It takes hard work to break the cycle of hostility and hate. It takes purposeful intention to love even when everything in our nature tells us we shouldn’t. It takes thoughtful prayerful work.. But it does works.
It works on the personal scale between individual people... transforming relationships... in our offices, in our classrooms, in our families, on social media, and on the street. But it is even something that works on a much, much larger scale.
The sociologists who study non-complementary behavior have noted that this is one of the reasons we admire people like Mahatma Ghandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Because they were able to maintain a level of kindness, warmth and integrity even in the face of people who were being actively cruel to them. Because they were able to love even the people that hated them again and again, and in doing so, they transformed their communities and created change.
Non-violent organizing and demonstration in India. That was an example of non-complementary behavior that would go on to change India’s government and society.
The march over the bridge in Selma, Alabama, the lunch counter sit-ins... This is what turning the other cheek looks like. This non-complementary defended justice for all god’s children and would go on to ignite change in how we provide civil and human rights to all the people of our country.
Offering a man with a gun to your head a glass of wine. That was an example of loving your enemy... that transformed one life, by confronting him with welcome and love, it forced him to evaluate just how out of place he had become....
As Christ followers this is how Jesus wants us to live too, how Jesus wants us to follow him. Non-complementary behavior. Loving everyone, but especially loving the people who are hard to love. Loving the people we want to hate, Loving the people who wrong us. This was how Jesus transformed everyone he met. This was how Jesus transformed the world, and this is how we too will transform the world.
So may you meet people with guns with wine glasses
May you meet hostility and hate, anger and fear with unexpected love.
May you meet discrimination and injustice, with non-violence.
and may all you behavior, be non-complementary...
Thanks be to God, Amen.