Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18,1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48
Imagine being ten years old and on a playground. An older kid, for no apparent reason, pushes you down and you break your collarbone. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth says the law, and I now have not only the right but the duty to have this other boy’s collarbone broken. From Exodus 21, when people fight, “if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”(1) Retributive justice laws such as these were an effective way to prevent violence and crime. If you do something bad; you will have something equally bad happen to you. These types of laws are still in existence to some extent around the world; whether it is a hand being cut off for stealing or that someone is put to death for murder. But tell me, do two wrongs really make a right?
In our imperfect world, we have wrongly sentenced numerous people to death. Innocent people have died. And in recent years we know of many death row inmates who have been exonerated because of DNA evidence. According to one study, 4% of people on death row could be innocent.(2) If we are to use retributive justice, who should answer for these wrongful deaths; the judge, the jury, maybe even the prosecutor? This is where a saying attributed to Mahatma Gandhi gets it right, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”
But this is not Jesus’ counter argument to an eye for an eye. He says to offer more. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. 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.” To strike someone on the right cheek was an insult. To take someone’s coat, especially if they were poor, was unjust. By offering the other cheek or giving the person your underwear as well as your coat you have quietly drawn attention to the unjust act, and shamed the perpetrator.
Christ is telling us that we can shift the power of our interactions. By humbling ourselves, no one can humiliate us and the truth of the situation becomes apparent. Let’s go back to the playground. Imagine this time the younger boy, now with a broken collarbone, has his wits about him. He stands up while crying in pain and says, why don’t you just push me down again? It is possible that the boy will just get pushed down again but any witness or passersby will see the truth of the situation. This way of acting is not the way of our world. This is the way of God’s world. God’s world does not follow our instinct. We are not to stand up and fight or to plan revenge. Through humility, we are to point to the injustice.
The Lord says to Moses, speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel. Looking through our New Testament les we realize that we are this congregation.
Paul says that he is laying a foundation. Christ is the foundation, the material we build on. It is through Christ that we are to build our relationships and our faith. What is going to be built on this foundation is the temple. Not just any temple, but God’s temple. He says, “You are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you.” This is the collective “you” not “you” as an individual. Think of it as y’all. Y’all are the temple. Paul is the wise builder laying the foundation which is Christ, or the Gospel, and all of us are the temple that is being built; we are the Church. The person building this church is not Paul, it is the people. Each of you, individually, are building the church on the Gospel foundation that Paul has laid for us. Again Paul says, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”
If we are the ones to build the Church on the Gospel foundation; we need to know how to go about this. First, we must know our foundation; we must know what it supports and how our building attaches to or grows from it. This, I believe, is not only what Jesus is telling us today but it is what the Lord is telling Moses.
The Lord, speaking to Moses says, call all the people together, call the Church together, and tell them that they are the holy ones. This is important because holy means set apart for God’s use. As members of Christ we are set apart for God’s use, we are in the world but not of the world. This is an incredibly significant point of our faith; we are in the world but not of the world. Through Moses, the Lord continues to tell us how we are to relate to the world. Moses is given five ways to live in community with the people. The first one seems to be about farming. “You shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” Then he goes on to say, do not steal and lie. Do not make life more difficult for others especially the handicapped. Do not defraud, cheat, or be unjust. You shall treat the poor and wealthy equally. Do not hate your kin or bear a grudge against your neighbor, but “love your neighbor as yourself.
Back in the day wealth was measured by land ownership. A wealthy person did not work their own land; they hired it out and received a portion of the proceeds. The middle class and the working poor, if you will, worked the land; maybe their own small plot or that of others. They were the tenant farmers and those working for the wealthy. Many of them were the day laborers. All of these people, from the wealthy to the poor were to follow the rules of harvesting.
These Levitical laws include safeguards for the marginalized people, the poorest of the poor and those that did not or could not work. By not picking the crop clean, you are leaving some to be obtained later. By leaving the crop that falls to the ground, during picking or otherwise, you are again leaving food that could be eaten or sold by the poor. In the same vain, not harvesting to the edges of the field was a way to offer travelers passing by some sustenance.
These rules were put in place so that after the paid harvesters came, the fields could be opened up for the poor and the aliens. The lowly of society could at this point take what was still on the vine or pick up what had fallen to the ground. People would collect food for their families who would otherwise go hungry. It’s possible that they could even make a small amount of money to sustain themselves a little longer. The poorest people in the community had a way to share in the bounty of both the wealthy and employed. It is obvious that the wealthy would have received larger profits if these rules were not followed but then what happens to the poor or the foreigners who have not been accepted into society. Leaving these scraps was a way to love your neighbor. Maybe this is why after turning your cheek, giving your underwear, and going the extra mile Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Feeding the fringes of society is an age old problem. We have the ability to feed everyone but at what cost. Feeding the needy does have a cost whether it was by setting aside crops so that the poor can glean them or whether we open our wallets and help them. There is a cost. But there is also the societal cost of not helping and in part because of our lack of generosity Jesus says, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”(3)
As a holy people, set apart for the work of God, Jesus is telling us that life is about generosity, not retribution. We are to be generous even when we have been wronged. We are to be generous to those who we wish did not see in our communities. The law is to love our neighbors as ourselves; including giving to the poor, the foreigner, the marginalized.
1) Exodus 21:23-25
3) Mark 14:7