Sermon on Matthew 5:38-48 for Epiphany +7 A, February 19, 2017

Matthew 5:38-48
[Jesus said:]  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, 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. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-4-23-20-pmOnce, when I was young, I was riding a horse at camp. There was a garden hose laying across the area I was riding through. The horse balked at the hose in obvious fear. I wondered if it might rear up or buck me off.

The horse was acting out of what they call a fixed action pattern response – the hose resembled a snake. Horses evolved to fear snakes. It is a survival mechanism. It is an automatic, instinctive response.

And so is the instant urge to strike back, when someone slaps us on the cheek.

The Lizard Brain

Now we know why horses and humans and all animals have these kinds of instantaneous reactions. They are part of our survival mechanisms. They come from a very primitive part of our brains.screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-4-20-04-pm

We survived because we developed instincts. Getting food, reproducing, fighting off predators and fleeing those we did not think we could win a fight with, all come from that primitive part of the brain.

Even lizards, which crawled out of the water to live on the land 500 million years ago, have this primitive brain, so it is often called the lizard brain. The lizard brain does not think. It just reacts. Slap me on the face, and I immediately feel an overwhelming urge to fight back.

And if you slap me, if I am bigger and stronger than you, I may not stop at simply slapping you back. I may hit you, or even worse. The rule of violence is that it escalates. When whole clans get involved, the violence can escalate into war. The volume of suffering mushrooms. Victims multiply.

Limits on Violence

So, in an effort to prevent an unending escalation of violence, the ancient Hebrews developed the law of “an eye for an eye and a toot or a tooth.” You could take revenge, but it had to be proportional. Today we still use the principle that the punishment should fit the crime. We find it barbaric to cut off the hands of thieves, or to subject people to public caning as they still do in some countries.

Reflecting on the problem of vengeance-based violence escalation, and reflecting on the proportionality of punishment is not something that lizards, horses or even chimpanzees can do.

We can, because in addition to that lizard brain, we have evolved other parts of the brain. screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-6-45-04-pmWe are capable of rational thought. We are capable of speech. We are able to imagine the kind of world we want to live in, and make plans and decisions about how to bring that world into existence.

For example, we can set up legal and judicial systems that take personal vengeance off the table. Leave it to the police and the courts.

But we still have a world filled with violence. Some of you have had to deal with violence even in your own homes. Even if you have never been a victim of violence yourself, still, like me, you are regularly horrified by the amount of violence that goes on.

Imagining a Better World

As followers of Jesus we have been given the amazing gift of a vision of a non-violent world. Some (like Walter Wind and Richard Rohr) have said that Jesus represented a quantum leap forward in evolution of human consciousness.

We are invited to imagine a world that Jesus imagined: a world in which the cycle of screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-6-48-16-pmviolence, instead of coming to an even balance of proportionality, could come to a halt. The cycle of violence could stop.

Listen again to Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;”

Resist Violently

Before we continue I must clarify some issues. In English it says, “Do not resist and evildoer.” The word “resist” specifically means “violently resist.” This is so important. Resistance to evildoers and to evil itself is necessary. But Jesus is speaking of violent resistance, which is what our lizard brains want to do.

Jesus could imagine a world in which people did not live out of their lizard brains, but rather took it upon themselves to stop the cycle of violence by refusing to be violent in return. “Blessed,” he said, “are the peacemakers.

The Right Cheek

Another issue that comes up here is this: does Jesus’ ethic mean victims of abuse and violence have to simply take it? If we refuse to resist violently, does that mean that we simply remain victims?

Not at all. Notice that the text says,

“if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”

To be struck on the right cheek is to be slapped with the back of the hand. It is an insulting blow, meant to put you in your place, as an inferior. Punching someone facing you with your right fist, you would be striking their left cheek. To strike the right cheek would be to make a back-handed motion. Receiving that blow to the right cheek was meant to be humiliating.

So Jesus said, in other words, do not strike back violently, and do not run away. Stay there facing the person and turn the other cheek, demanding to be treated like an equal. In other words, use non-violent resistance.

Loving Enemiesscreen-shot-2017-02-17-at-6-59-54-pm

Jesus goes further. It is normal to love your own kind. Watch the Nature Channel. Mothers of every species care for their young. Males protect the herd from predators. It is the lizard brain that knows how to survive by protecting each other. Loving those who love you is no achievement at all. Even lizards do that.

But Jesus calls us to imagine a world in which we refuse to walk the path of hatred, which is the path to violence.

“I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”

If you can imagine that you are a precious person, made in the image and likeness of God, loved by God, in fact, a child of God our Creator, then ask yourself: who is not? What persons on this planet are not created by the Creator? Who in the world is not a child of God? Who cannot call their Creator “father” or “mother”?

If you have ever seen two brothers fighting, you know what the father does: he breaks it up. How could he ever want one to win over the other? If he is the father of both, then the idea that they would be each others enemy is grievous to him.

Love your enemy. Your enemy is your bother. So if he is persecuting you, pray for him. If he has so lost his way that he has taken to the path of violence, then if you are his victim, pray for his enlightenment.

The Brain on Anger

Anger and hatred come from the lizard brain. In fact they are unhealthy for us.

In a book entitled “How God Changes Your Brain” the authors use scientific research to explain how our brains function.

When we feel fear or anger, which come from that primitive part of the brain, our bodies produce stress hormones. These are wonderful if we need an extra boost of energy to scramble up a tree to avoid being eaten, but in the modern world, they just contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, and even depression.

But we all have people who do things that upset us. Sometimes just watching the news makes us fearful and angry. Our fear and anger do not help us at all. Remember, they do not come from the part of the brain that thinks rationally or makes plans to make a difference.


So, the authors have two suggestions. First, they recommend daily meditation. Study after study shows that people who practice regular meditation, or what we call contemplative or centering prayer, are able to control their fear and anger responses. The hair trigger between stimulus and response gets replaced by a more thoughtful process for people who regularly meditate.

I have found this true in my life. Meditation leads to greater mindfulness; greater awareness of the present moment. That means less automatic reactivity, less lizard brain reactions. The effects of meditation are not instantaneous, but cumulative, over time. That is why this is such an important Christian spiritual practice. Loving our enemies is not natural. So, we need this practice to make it possible for us.

A Meditation Exercise

There is a further more specific meditation exercise that helps us love our enemies, instead of hating them. The practice begins with this: we sit quietly, and after a deep breath, we say, out loud or silently to ourselves:

“May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be filled with kindness and peace.

It is neurologically helpful to smile while we say it.

“May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be filled with kindness and peace.”

This is a prayer. It is a prayer to be the kind of person we all long to be. The kind of person Jesus was. The kind of person God wants us to be.

After we have repeated these phrases long enough to feel peaceful and without anger, then we imagine the person who we are having trouble loving, and we say,

“May they be happy.
May they be well.
May they be filled with kindness and peace.”

Instead of hating the person or wishing evil upon them, we pray that they would be the kind of person that would probably not turn to violence against us, the kind of person that would not do the kinds of things we find so objectionable, the kind of things we feel drawn to hate them for.

Now this does not mean that we smile on evil. This does not mean that we become passive. This means, rather, that our active opposition to evil comes from a good place instead of from a negative place in our hearts.

Nothing is more destructive to a group of people who are working for a common cause they all affirm, like civil rights, or human rights, or for environmental protection, or for peace, or even a church or religious group, than to have people operating out of fear and anger. We do not demonize the people whose policies and practices we resist. We do resist! But we do so motivated not by hate, but by love.

Perfectly Executed

This is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. The word perfect here means completely fitted to accomplish the purpose we are working for. It is like a perfectly executed play.screen-shot-2017-02-17-at-4-18-32-pm

Did you watch the Super Bowl? Do you remember the pass that Julio Jones (who is from the town I live in) caught with his body stretched out as tall as he could be, with his toes barely in bounds, the ball high and just off the sideline? It was a perfectly executed pass and perfectly executed catch. (I guess I should say the Patriots had some of those as well, but I’m not going to.)

I want to tell you about another perfectly executed play which I recently heard on a Robcast. Alexander Shaia’s family are from Lebanon. They immigrated to Birmingham, Al back in the days of the steel boom. But by the time Alexander was growing up in the 1950’s those days were long gone. They were considered “colored”.

His family ran grocery stores in some of the black neighborhoods. To make a long story short, they had trouble with the Ku Klux Klan. They believe it was the Klan who set fire to their grandmother’s house. They all rushed over to watch it, as it was engulfed in flames. Alexander was just seven year old; it was 1958.

As they stood there helplessly, they believed they were were looking at not only the destruction of the house, but also at the grandmother’s funeral pyre.

It turned out that a neighbor had come by to take his grandmother to church that evening. Later, as they gathered for a meal together on a table made of planks of wood on saw horses, Alexander said everyone knew better than to take a bite of food before grandmother said grace.

They were Lebanese Maronite Catholic Christians. Before she prayed, she, who had just recently lost her husband, and now her home, looked from person to person, making eye contact with each one. Then she said to them,

“No hate. No hate. No hate.”

That is a perfectly executed Christian life. To be the victim of enemies and to refuse the path of hate, because you have been given the gift of an alternative world to live in; a world of love. Even love of enemies.

Even God does not withhold good from the bad guys. As Jesus said, God

“makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

“May they be happy.
May they be well.
May they be filled with kindness and peace.”

May we be the people who live into this vision of the world, and become sons and daughters of our father and mother in heaven.




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