Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Years ago I attended a workshop led by Biblical Scholar Walter Wink. He focused on this morning’s section of the Sermon on the Mount. “We miss the humor,” he said, “because we don’t understand the context” (the cultural context). He insisted that this sermon would have had its hearers “rolling down the mount, overcome with laughter!”
“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 the second mile.” We tend to hear: be the proverbial doormat; let the world walk all over you. That’s what it means to be God’s people.
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Wink pointed out that since only the right hand was used for public interaction, being struck on the right cheek meant that one had received a back handed slap – one Jason Byassee describes as “offensive.” “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Wink says that such a suit would be brought against the poorest of the poor – probably a laborer. A coat and cloak were the laborer’s clothes. And for some, it was their only protection against the elements. It was, by law, not legal to take the coat at night. Furthermore, if the cloak were given as well, the person being sued was left essentially naked. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Wink pointed out that this was a right of the occupying Roman forces, to demand that someone carry the soldier’s pack – but only for a mile.
Jason Byasse says that Christians “have developed elaborate strategies for avoiding these commands, impossible and offensive as they are.” These three examples would have been well known to Jesus’ hearers. They were the life-experiences of those who were perpetually oppressed. They were slapped. They were used and abused by those in authority. It appears that Jesus is asking them to be the proverbial doormat.
Wink, however, says that Jesus is suggesting something different. Turning the other cheek meant declaring oneself a person of value, of worth. There is nothing violent here. Perhaps the response will be that one is hit again. But, it would be a slap that is not dismissive, a slap that is forced to acknowledge the person. By offering one’s cloak, the victim puts the oppressor in an uncomfortable situation. The oppressor is the one in danger of sinning – for it was a sin to look on another’s nakedness. Wink says to imagine the person who had demanded the coat stammering, “No. I don’t want your cloak!” Finally, offering to carry the Roman soldier’s pack a second mile would put the soldier in an uncomfortable position. He could, if caught, be subject to military discipline for letting someone carry the pack an additional mile.
Wink suggests that all three responses empower the oppressed to claim their identity as God’s beloved. It makes me think of Martin Luther King and his commitment to non-violent demonstrations – no matter what the response might be. King was a student of Gandhi who began the approach in the modern era. Gandhi was a student of the ways of Jesus. The oppressed claimed their worth. And in claiming that worth, they found they could offer themselves to the world, seeking the world’s transformation.
Perhaps one of the primary ways people are victimized is by telling them that they have no power – NO POWER—to act, to make decisions, to affect the world in which they live. Here, in this story, Wink says Jesus told those living with oppression that they did have power – the power to live as people of worth who could challenge the perceptions of others. It was non-violent. It did not force others to change. Yet it offered the opportunity. And, it told his hearers that God cared for and about them.
It got me thinking about all those times I have felt dismissed. Were there ways I could have acted differently – not to engage in battle, but to live with an awareness that I was a beloved child of God who had something to contribute? I’m sure all of you have had the experience of being ignored or unheard – or of having ideas taken and used by others for their own advancement. I’ve run into such situations as a woman in a job that until relatively recently belonged exclusively to men. It is easy to forget that proclamation that we heard in the assurance of pardon. “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” “If God loves us, if God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul asked. The world may mistreat us, but the fundamental reality is that God loves us.
"Be perfect, therefore, as you Heavenly Father is perfect.” So ends the passage. Byasse suggests that this is the journey of the life of faith – to seek to love as God loves, “with every breath God gives us.” That love calls us to love – that is to offer God’s grace and the possibility of God’s loving transformation – even to those who oppress us.
I was going to focus solely on the passage from Leviticus today – because it is the only time that Biblical book appears in the lectionary cycle. Furthermore, we read from it only when the season of Epiphany is extended. It’s not one of those books that draws us in – unless it gets used to condemn people. That’s what it’s known for in our society! I read the entire book. There’s a reason we don’t focus on it. The cultural context doesn’t connect with ours much at all. It talks about sacrifices for sin and well-being, about clean and unclean animals, about the priesthood, and about Jewish festivals. Last year, I heard a sermon on the book that suggested we look at the book in the broadest context imaginable. So, rather than taking little verses out of context, we ask what the cultural context can teach us about the book’s intent and message. The preacher suggested that the book focuses on how to live as God’s people. It is a Holiness Code. Its intent is to give a framework for life that is connected with God. It was suggested that in the modern world we might ask how technology should be used appropriately – in our own lives. Do we sit at the dinner table and focus on the phone rather than those who are with us? Do we have time that is untethered? Do our gadgets displace God?
This morning’s passage provides guidelines for a people who would be the primary occupiers of the land. They would be in charge. So these guidelines are not for the oppressed, but for those who would have power and the potential to abuse it. It calls them to be aware of the most vulnerable in their society. “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… you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.. you shall not deal falsely, you shall not lie, you shall not defraud, you shall not steal, you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer…”
Most of our cultural context is very different from that of the Israelites. But can’t we see parallels? How do we view the laborers in our society? We could talk of migrants, of field workers. We could also talk of those who work in our fast food restaurants. Or we could think about the immigrants who are all around us – many working in jobs we might not want.
This passage, like the passage from Matthew, speaks to what it means to live a sanctified life which the Westminster Catechism describes as a life that “improves our baptism.” This passage is for those who have power – to remind them to see and value and treat fairly those whom the world might ignore (at best) or abuse.
Years ago, I used a candy bar for a sermon illustration after hearing a presentation at a Presbyterian Women’s gathering. The candy bar was a perfect illustration for the ways in which we are caught up in the world’s broken ways. A simple candy bar includes ingredients from around the world. And many of those who farm or harvest those ingredients are mistreated and grossly underpaid. A man came up to me after church and said, “I always thought of myself as poor. But now I know that I’m not – compared to how people live in other parts of the world.”
It’s easy to number ourselves among the oppressed – when we are mistreated or dismissed and when we see the great disparities in our own country, communities, and culture. Certainly, we have work to do to open the eyes of those who dismiss us and others –readily (and sometimes self-righteously). Jesus showed us the way – and it is still not easy. It calls us not to violence – but to standing tall, trusting that God values us and is with us. Yet, to live sanctified lives, to live the way of holiness, we need to see, as well, the ways in which we have power and have misused and abused that power, contributing to the invisibility and suffering of others – the poor and the strangers in our midst.
Next Sunday we walk -- we walk for those who have so little we could barely imagine their lives. We walk for those far away – and for those who live on our streets. We bring food and clothing for our neighbors. It is one way we live out the holiness code of Leviticus.
Byasse tells the story of a friend whose parents were missionaries in Brazil. She was asked how they could live among the poorest of the poor without danger of being robbed. “Simple,” she said. “You can’t own anything anyone would want to steal.” “Live simply so that others may simply live.”
Living simply is grounded, for God’s people, in the knowledge that we are beloved children. That knowledge gives us strength to encounter this world and its injustices. It gives us strength to live in ways that look out for those who are vulnerable – to economic injustice, to exploitation, to racial inequalities and prejudice, and to religious intolerance that belittles and dismisses.