Morning Musing: Matthew 5:39-42

“But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

There is a famous quote about good versus evil that is often attributed to Edmund Burke, but which he almost certainly never said. It goes like this: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Whoever happened to say that, it certainly sounds good. Where there is evil in the world, we should put a stop to it. Otherwise, evil will flourish out of control. But how exactly we should go about doing that is another matter entirely. What if the ways we normally think to stop it are all wrong? Let’s talk about it.

I want you to try to imagine something for me this morning. Imagine a superhero movie in which the hero, when punched by the villain, turns his other cheek and responds with words of kindness and graciousness.

I’ll give you a minute.

Got it in your mind yet?

I’ll give you another minute.

Anything forming yet? Yeah, me either. For the life of me, I can’t picture Batman not clobbering the Joker when attacked by him. I can’t imagine Superman responding to a Lex Luthor plot to take over the world by saying something like, “Would you please stop doing that?” And, for that matter, I don’t think there’s a world in which either of those villains responds to their respective heroes with anything other than overwhelming violence if they showed such weakness.

And that’s what we think about responses to evil like I just described those two heroes taking: they’re weakness. Putting a stop to evil requires strength, not weakness. If we don’t show strength in the face of evil, we will only encourage more evil to rise up in its wake. As it happens, though, this kind of evil-stomping-strength mentality has a way of bleeding over into the rest of our thinking about any problems we might face in life. When we are challenged on any point, we lean into responding with strength. And when that doesn’t work, we respond with stronger strength. The way we know a particular conflict has gone our way is that we are walking away the victors. We want to win. Everything. Losing is for losers.

This mindset has fully infected our culture. We frame every single interaction between any two groups in terms of winners and losers. Our previous president spoke almost constantly about winners and losers. Anyone who was for him and his aims was a winner, and everyone else was a loser. Both sides of the political aisle think in these terms. There is no compromise anymore. There is only brinkmanship and elaborate games of political chicken where the winners take all while the losers go back home to talk about how terrible the winners are and how you need to vote for them in order to turn the winners into losers.

And everybody’s angry all the time.

This kind of win-at-all-costs mindset, however, is not unique to our time. People have thought in these terms since nearly the dawn of human history. The sin in our hearts wants to win. We want what we want, and we understand our getting that in terms of someone else not getting what they want. It’s a zero-sum game. So, we fight and struggle and contend with one another. For everything. All the time. And if you’re the kind of person who thrives on conflict, this is all really exciting. But for everyone else – and eventually even you because constant conflict gets old after a while – it’s exhausting.

Into all of this mess, Jesus spoke some words that are so radically different from anything the world had ever seen before, that we still don’t fully know what to do with them. His words here are so incredibly counterintuitive that even His most dedicated followers have a hard time not rejecting them out of hand, or at the very least ignoring them in favor of some of the far less challenging other things He said. I mean, come on. Jesus’ opening words here are “don’t resist an evildoer.” But that makes absolutely no sense at all. If you don’t resist an evildoer, then what is that evildoer likely to do? Evil. And when he’s done, he’ll probably do more evil. And then what have you accomplished? Nothing. You’ve accomplished nothing at all. Evil is being done, and you aren’t doing anything about it. Congratulations. You failed.

And as if that weren’t enough, Jesus doesn’t back off from the point as He continues. He doubles down on it. He describes a series of situations in which a person is offended or abused or taken advantage of by another, and over and over again Jesus’ counsel is to respond with kindness. More to the point, He doesn’t say a single word about actively putting a stop to the abuser.

What on earth are we supposed to do with this?

Can I be really honest with you this morning? I don’t know. These words are really hard. They have stymied centuries’ worth of interpreters who are a whole lot smarter than I am. The likelihood that I’m going to solve the issue in the scope of a few hundred words this morning isn’t terribly high. But, for what it’s worth, that was never my goal. I just wanted to get you thinking this morning. Because even if we can’t get our minds around the full extent of what Jesus was trying to say here, I suspect it goes a lot further than we’re comfortable with its reaching. I don’t know how or even if we can apply Jesus words here on something like the scale of nations – although I am quite certain that at the very least we shouldn’t discount them at that level – but you and I spend most of our time on the scale of personal interactions. And in the scope of our personal interactions, these words are powerfully applicable in nearly every situation we might face.

So, again, what are we supposed to do with these words? Well, we set aside our nit-picky objections rooted in hypothetical situations we will likely never encounter, and we seek to embrace them in our daily interactions. What does that mean? I still don’t fully know. But I do know this: If you want to be on track with what Jesus said here, you need to embrace a whole new idea of strength. Brute force tends to rely on a very worldly strength. It is power and might and the ability to overwhelm an opponent. You can force people around you to kowtow to your whims and wishes with enough personality. But there is a stronger strength than that. It is the strength of gentleness. It is the strength of responding with kindness and never merely in kind. It is the strength of seeking to understand why the person who hurt you did that, and instead of paying them back, endeavoring to love them to a place where they don’t hurt you or anyone else anymore because God’s love has crowded out the devil’s hate that used to hold sway in their heart.

Doing all of that and more isn’t easy. In fact, it may be excruciatingly difficult. It certainly was for Jesus and literally so. But while we still tell horror stories about things like Hitler and the holocaust, Jesus and His followers changed the world and are still changing it to this day. Nietzche’s superman may be a symbol of great strength to many, but he’s nothing in comparison to the humble Jesus follower who responds with love no matter the situation she is in. Love like that has felled more than one empire and it will one day overcome the entire world. That’s real strength.

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