MATTHEW 5:38-48

“Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  Are we wrong, then, to resist an evildoer?  In truth, many of us resist one evildoer or another relentlessly.  How can that be okay, given today’s clear instruction from Jesus: “do not resist an evildoer”?

If we look at this reading in isolation it’s hard to see how we can go on actively resisting and not feel we are turning our backs on God’s word.  But today’s reading is only part of the Sermon on the Mount.  We would expect the whole Sermon to hang together to make a point and show us what Jesus is driving at.  In fact, it does; and that helps us make sense of Jesus’ words about not resisting an evil-doer.

The Sermon started with the nine beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit..  Blessed are those who mourn….  and so on.  Blessed translates a Greek word that means not just happy, but extraordinarily happy, or extremely fortunate.  Perhaps you remember reading in Greek mythology of the Isles of the Blessed, which was an earthly paradise.  The word we translate as blessed points to a state of being that is beyond the ordinary — you might say supernaturally happy.

The Sermon goes on to speak about fulfillment.  Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”  Jesus uses the word fulfill a lot.  For example, in John’s gospel he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be fulfilled.”  In other words, we find joy from the law and the prophets, and yet we can go beyond the law and the prophets to an even greater joy.   Whether Jesus is talking about being blessed or being fulfilled, he is talking about going beyond normal experience.  An extra measure of joy seems to be available to us, and that is what Jesus is pointing us toward.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is talking about a two-step process.  First comes formation; second comes transformation.  First comes the law and the prophets; that is, guidance for living our normal, daily life.  They exist to shape our actions, intentions, attitudes, values, and beliefs.  But what are they shaping us to become?  What are they guiding us toward?

Transformation.  Transformation is hard to talk about, because it has to be experienced.  Formation has to be taught; transformation can only be caught.

Let me insert an image that might be helpful.  In the study of dreams a house can often symbolize the self.  I’d like you to imagine a house — not the one you live in, but one you create in your imagination.  Now imagine yourself in it.  All of a sudden you notice a door that you hadn’t known was there.  When you open it you discover a vast room, warm and inviting, beautifully furnished.  You are overjoyed and you realize that that hidden room had always been there, but you hadn’t been aware of it.

This image is meant to make sense of Jesus’ words in today’s reading.  He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That same word can equally well be translated “complete.”  Be complete he is saying, don’t stop with just ordinary happiness; press on toward the Isles of the Blessed.  Be complete he is saying; don’t stop with formation, with the law and the prophets; press on to fulfillment, to transformation.  Be complete; don’t live only in the house you are familiar with; open the door and live also in that vast and glorious hidden room.  There is so much more to you than you realize.

I know that many of us, have discovered that “beyond” that Jesus is pointing us to.  You suddenly, and for no reason, find yourself deeply at peace, happy beyond measure, content with things just as they are, tranquil in a vast spaciousness.  It may last only a few minutes, or much longer, but when we return to normal life we remember that we did have that experience.  We would probably have it more often if we did as Jesus did: simply spending time in stillness, just soaking in God’s presence.

Sadly, certain things we do can make it hard for us to receive that “beyond” element into our lives.  In order to describe these things, I want to make a distinction between reacting and responding.  Jesus spoke about not resisting.  Resisting can take two forms.  Reactions are fundamentally negative; responding is fundamentally positive.

Because reactions move against something, they create counter-reactions; they polarize.  Reactions open a gap between me and the person I am reacting to; they lead to violence.

Responding feels entirely different.  Responding unifies, while reacting divides.  Responding accepts while reacting tries to control.  Responding forgives, while reacting condemns.  Reacting says, “My way or the highway;” responding doesn’t give ultimatums.

In today’s reading I believe Jesus is trying to steer his disciples — us — away from reacting.  He knows it engenders anger and shuts us down inside.  I cannot believe he would steer us away from responding though.  He himself responded vehemently to the injustices and hypocrisy of his day.  When he said not to resist the evildoer, he must have meant do not react-to.  Do not react to the evil doer, but do resist by means of responding, as he himself did.  Responding is a shorthand way of saying love your enemy.

Remember Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  He didn’t say this to make us pious; he said it so that we could experience that blessedness, fulfillment, completeness — the inner spaciousness that is ours.

I want to close by bringing all this theory into the real world.  I want to suggests how we can — not react — but respond to an enemy.  This strategy comes from Thomas Merton; and I found it both shocking and potentially helpful.

First he says that to love others we must first love ourselves.  But how do we find something in ourselves really to love?  It is impossible unless we find the likeness of Christ in ourselves.

Next he says that we have a limited idea of Christ; and that keeps up from finding Christ in ourselves.  The limitation is that we look for Christ in our own idealized image of ourselves — us at our best.

Finally he says, and I quote: “The Christ we find in ourselves is not identified with what we vainly seek to admire and idolize in ourselves — on the contrary, He has identified Himself with what we resent in ourselves, for He has taken upon Himself our wretchedness and our misery, our poverty and our sins.  We cannot find peace in ourselves if, in rejecting our misery and thrusting it away from us, we thrust away Christ Who loves in us not our human glory but our ignobility.”

This answers the question: how can I resist and not react to someone I fear and loath?  Merton says: first disabuse yourself of the idea that Christ is found in the good people, the good qualities.  No!  He took upon himself just the opposite.  That is the great insight of the crucifixion.  He identified with all we find abhorrent in ourselves.  Do you want to draw close to God?  To Jesus?  Then start to love all those aspects of yourself that embarrass you or shame you — your hidden (or not so hidden) weaknesses and addictions.  Then seek that same Christ in others.  Christ will be most powerfully present in your enemies!  From that place of tender, loving acceptance you can respond, not react.  You can speak to your enemy with power and passion about what you see happening and what its tragic consequences will be.  Like Jesus, you’ll be “perfect”!

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