February 24, 2019, 7th Sunday after the Epiphany Year C, Luke 6:27-38
Chris Williams was taking his family for ice cream one evening over a decade ago. On the way they got into a collision with an underage drunk driver. His pregnant wife, nine year old daughter, and eleven year old son were all killed instantly. While waiting to be rescued from the wreck he remembers immediately thinking, “Whoever has done this to us, I forgive them.” Now a motivational speaker who shares the power of forgiveness through his story Chris says, “forgive for your sake, not the other person’s. Forgive because if you don’t, your bitterness will consume you.”
On October 2, 2006 Charles C. Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse. He shot ten young girls, killing five of them and himself. Though grieving their own loss, the Amish community attended Charles’ funeral. Charles’ mother recalled, “For the mother and father who lost not just one, but two daughters at the hand of our son to come up and be the first ones to greet us – wow! Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”
In 1994 Immaculée Ilibagiza, a Tutsi from Rwanda, escaped death by hiding in a secret bathroom in her minister’s house with seven other adults. Between April and June of 1994 an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis including Immaculee’s entire family, were killed in the space of one hundred days in a genocide. While she says she can never forget what she went through Immaculée says forgiveness was crucial for her to move forward after. She says, “And I don’t want it (revenge), I don’t want them killing my family to give me this luggage, in my heart, in my belly, to hold that anger.”
When we hear such stories of forgiveness we can stand in awe and admiration of them. They are wonderful and inspiring acts of how others live out their lives and their faith, but we can think we could never do the same ourselves. Often I think that is because we hear readings from the Bible about forgiveness, like our gospel reading from Luke today – a continuation of our reading on the Beatitudes from last week from the Sermon on the Plain – and we can think of them as to do lists for how to live a life of faith, but a list that applies to others and not us because it is just simply too hard.
Love your enemies.
Do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you.
Pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek offer the other as well.
From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to any who begs from you.
If anyone takes away your goods do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.
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.
This is quite a to do list. It sounds impossible to achieve for many of us so I think that many of us simply write it off as something only super Christians can achieve and hey, that’s not us, so we can simply forget it as some pie in the sky ideal and not worry about it anymore. Except, I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind when he offered the list up to his followers. For him it wasn’t a list for only a few elite, over-achieving do-gooder Christians to follow and the rest to ignore as irrelevant to our lives. I believe he meant it as a guide to life for all of us because I believe for him this kind of behavior is what it means to build God’s kingdom. I believe that while these behaviors might be difficult, what they do for us is to change the power dynamic in our relationships with one another and set us free to live as God created us to live as God’s beloved children.
For example, when Jesus says if anyone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other. He isn’t instructing us to be victims and to accept whatever abuse comes our way though it might appear to us on the surface to be so. Instead, what he is talking about here is taking away the power from the one who strikes you. He is talking about turning the tables so that the one who tries to have power over you loses that power through your response to their actions.
In his book, Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink explains that in the world in which Jesus lived a fist fight would indicate a fair fight between equals, but an interaction like this indicates a situation where the goal was to humiliate not injure, to put someone in their place not fight. Luke doesn’t say which cheek is being struck, but Matthew’s gospel is a little more specific here and that helps us to realize this as Matthew says it is the right cheek. As the left hand was only used for unclean tasks in society of Jesus’ day Wink says we can assume that hand was not being used for this act. And a fist wasn’t being used because a fist using the right hand would land on the left cheek. To land a strike on the right cheek using the right hand would mean using the back of the hand which was a way to admonish an inferior. A master would backhand a slave, a husband would backhand a wife, a parent would backhand a child, a man would backhand a woman, a Roman would backhand a Jew. However, to turn the other cheek to a backhanded slap meant the person would then have to strike you with an open hand, thus taking the power away from their attempt to demean the recipient and forcing them to see you as an equal.
Wink also points out that when Jesus says that from anyone who takes your coat do not withhold even your shirt is a similar move to take away the power of the perpetrator over the victim. In those days only the poorest of the poor would have their coat taken away or withheld as payment for a debt. Exodus and Deuteronomy say that for those who hold a person’s cloak as part of a debt owed must return it to the person at night to keep them warm as they sleep. To give your shirt as well as your coat would leave you naked before your creditor. In a Jewish society where nakedness was taboo and shame fell less on the naked person and more on the person viewing the nakedness, the debtor who had been powerless to a system abusive to the poor, this action would not just point out the injustice of the system, but turn the tables to give power to the debtor over his creditor for once.
We see then through these two examples that what Jesus is instructing his followers to do through these actions is to shift the power dynamic so that the person harming you no longer has power over you anymore. Thus, in instructing us to live according to this list of behaviors by loving our enemies and forgiving those who have wronged us Jesus isn’t telling us to simply be submissive, take whatever abuse comes our way, or to allow injustice. In fact, quite the opposite. What he is talking about is taking power away from the person that has wronged us by following these behaviors. In turning the tables so power is redistributed he invites us to live in such a way as to be set free from situations, systems, and relationships that oppress or harm us.
Jesus knows holding onto our hate, anger, grief and pain only hurts us as it eats away at us and chains us forever to the one or ones who wronged us. However, following this list sets us free to live free of the powers of this world that try to keep us down and beholden to them. It sets us free to live in the way of love, forgiveness, and mercy that God intended for humanity so that we can live as the people God created us to be. Yet, our sinful selves often insist that we choose to hold onto what hurts us wanting the other person to pay for the wrong they have done to us. However, as Debie Thomas points out in her commentary on this text, “Where we humans make love and judgment mutually exclusive — where we cry out for revenge, retribution, and punishment — God holds out for restorative justice. A kind of justice we can barely imagine. A kind of justice that has the power to heal both the oppressed and the oppressor.” (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay) God holds out for a way that offers the possibility of wholeness for all, instead of the certainty of brokenness for us all if we continue to cling to our pain.
Debie Thomas goes on to quote Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber on the power of forgiveness to set us free from clinging to the harm done to us. Nadia says, “Maybe retaliation or holding onto anger about the harm done to me doesn’t actually combat evil. Maybe it feeds it. Because in the end, if we’re not careful, we can actually absorb the worst of our enemy, and at some level, start to become them. So what if forgiveness, rather than being a pansy way to say, ‘It’s okay,’ is actually a way of wielding bolt-cutters, and snapping the chains that link us? What if it’s saying, ‘What you did was so not okay, I refuse to be connected to it anymore.’? Forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter. And free people are dangerous people. Free people aren’t controlled by the past. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not. Free people are not easily offended. Free people are unafraid to speak truth to stupid. Free people are not chained to resentments. And that’s worth fighting for.”
Jesus wants us to be free so we can live in the goodness God intended for humanity from the beginning of Creation. Therefore, this list of behaviors in our gospel isn’t about tying us to an impossible to follow to do list of how to be some sort of goody two shoes Christians or perpetual victims who allows people to walk all over them. Instead, it is a list that reflects what it means to live in the freedom of God’s love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. It is a list that shows what it looks like when we live as followers of Jesus. A people who are set free to love, bless, forgive, and give. A people set free to fully be who God created us to be. Amen.