January 18, 2003
Rev. Kit Billings
"You have heard that it has been said: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you not to resist evil; but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also."
Few sayings of Jesus in the New Testament reflect the essential spirit and ethic of Christianity like this one. And, few rub against the grain of the primary mindset of our world today as powerfully as this one. I say this about our society given that it appears to me that our country is addicted to litigation-I say this in part because of the seemingly endless pages of attorneys listed in the Yellow Pages each year. The fact that most of them stay in practice would indicate that perhaps there aren't a lot of us willing to offer the other cheek! It also happens that this is Martin Luther King, Jr. remembrance weekend, and in my message today I want to give honor to an important figure in American history within the civil rights movement.
Much is being said here by the good Lord in His words about going the extra mile, and it must be unpacked carefully. Once while I was driving in the city of Boston on a lovely, temperate summer day a couple of months before my ordination in San Francisco would take place, I was taken by the peacefulness that was flowing through me that day. Boston, as you may know, is a rather busy place, especially for auto drivers. Its reputation, as one of the worst places in the U.S. to drive, is quite well deserved. Well, that day I was in the left lane on a four-lane street and there was another car a couple of car-lengths in front of me in the right lane. Then suddenly, without a blinker or warning of any kind the car ahead of me made a quick left-hand turn, nearly causing me to smash into the side of this vehicle! Needless to say, I was shocked and very upset by all this, and suddenly surged with rage! I couldn't believe what this driver had done. All because his desire to turn left was suddenly in his mind, and without any care for my safety and that of the others on the road, this daredevil nearly created a terrible accident. I felt like my right cheek had been slapped!
Well, let me tell you, after four years of driving in Boston, and witnessing many shocking demonstrations of drivesmanship, this time it went too far! There are many good drivers in Boston, but they also have some truly awful ones who create a bad rep for the many good ones. At any rate, I decided I would also turn left (but do so legally) and get my hands on this fellow driver's license as well as perhaps around his throat. But as I drove after him, it suddenly hit me. I was passionate for the old Code of Hammurabi quoted by Christ: "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." The naturalness within me wanted revenge; this lower aspect of my self was cheering for the "law of tit for tat," and my creative imagination was crafting several scenarios of how to get it. At this point I pulled over and began to reflect.
What had I been studying those four years so deeply but the deep, merciful spiritual Christian path growing within the vision of the New Church?
In part I reflected about the heart of Christianity that God came into the world when the world knew Him not, when in Christ, God brought His saving love and truth into this world where even after many here rejected, mocked, betrayed and then finally killed Him, still the Lord was steadfast in His Divine message, still the Lord was determined not to punish or harm, but instead to forgive. I sat there and thought about that-a basic truth in the Christian church-that is, the marvelously determined love that Jesus was! The Lord was steadfast in bringing salvation here by means of loving and not rejecting, by being merciful and not angry and wrathful.
While the spiritual side of me thought about all this, I also recognized and could feel how the "natural man" within me (my LOWER SELF) wanted to retaliate still, and exact punishment! And then I thought about the Lord's words to us today, which struck like a deep yet good arrow down in my innermost gut: "if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also."
Wow! Quite powerful, isn't it? How disarming of the Lord to say such a thing, TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK. What a world this would be if we all always did this! I suspect if we did, many attorneys might soon be out of work!
But just what is it that the Lord was talking about here? Are we being asked by God to always succumb to the evil or hurtful whims of some lost and confused person or nations who want to do us harm? Are we to always lay down and allow ourselves to be hurt or abused?
First let's gain a bit of historical perspective about the roots of what the Lord was quoting in this lesson, the "eye for an eye" quote which stems from very ancient times. This tit for tat legal ethic stems from the Code of Hammurabi, and was also within the somewhat later ancient Hebrew Law given through Moses. While the "eye for an eye" code may seem very barbaric, in actuality it was a step up from the clan mentality of their day over four thousand years ago down to twelve hundred B.C.E. Rough-necked tribal codes had allowed for a man to kill another man in revenge for being injured physically or in one's dignity. Also, many men could gang up and kill the original perpetrator to exact revenge. Hammurabi's code was designed for ancient judges to prevent over-punishment and vengeance from happening. It was actually a form of mercy compared to the more than tit for tat being practiced among certain ancient clans.
This law became parcel of the ethics of ancient Israel. In the Hebrew Scriptures we find Hammurabi's Code clearly recorded yet paraphrased: "If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, burn for burn,…(and) stripe for stripe" (Ex. 21:23-25). These codes are often referred to as the ugly, thug-mentality and bloodthirsty nature of the Old Testament Jews. Yet these laws were, in part, a higher degree of justice and mercy.
Also, if we look carefully, there are tinges of Divine mercy written as well in the Old Testament, while it is also true that severe capital punishment was also prescribed. On the deep mercy side, however, we read in Leviticus 19:18, "You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people." In Proverbs 24, 25 "Do not say, I will do to him as he has done to me. If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink." And finally in Lamentations 3:30, "Let him give his cheek to the smiter; he'll be filled with insults."
As one theologian has said,
"There is abundant mercy in the Old Testament too."
Over time the law of tit for tat was not practiced literally, instead monetary punishments were often used, and judges were supposed to take charge after a crime was committed. But still a law of retaliation was sanctioned and lived out. Thus, maintaining resentment and seeking retaliation were supported in general through monetary means, until the highest degree of love and mercy entered our world in the Incarnate Life of Jesus Christ. The Lord's love-ethic simply will have nothing to do with revenge, retaliation or resentment. The Lord's ethic of offering the other cheek too is mercy and love at its highest degree-it reveals the strength of love that's required, which must derive from our innermost depths in the soul.
First century customs and culture reveal that the Lord's Law of Love at all cost is simply amazing. For someone to strike a man on the right cheek first in Jesus day, and then possibly the left, he would have to hit me with the back of his hand first, which then enables the smiter to hit me with an open faced hand on my left side. Back then, to be struck by someone's backhand was the highest of insults! But Jesus says, "It's totally alright. Do not return evil with evil." In Christ we see totally determined love. It is more powerful than any evil, and simply will not allow an evil or hateful person to drag this love down with it!
So, what the Lord was saying to us is this: "Even though someone else gives you the most calculated and terrible insult, you must not retaliate; and under no circumstances give it back nor resent them for it." Personally, I perceive that this depth of love was used in the Civil Rights passive resistance approach taken by Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahatma Gandhi and others also used it at its best.
Now, on the practical psychological level of things, however, this degree of mercy is ONLY possible, I believe, by means of three interdependent methods of love and healing being accessed, often times over many months time. The Lord meant for us to use this ethic with every kind of "slap in the face," even the worst kind, like when our children and loved ones are killed. To follow Christ, to follow in the way of the angelic ones, we are required to not retaliate in the face of horrible injustice, and also eventually to not want to even resent our wrongdoers. It's not often we get physically slapped in the face, but life throws us many insults and injury to character.
Several years back I felt what it's like to be severely attacked in my character as a practicing minister, which happened when a colleague of mine struck without warning, so to speak-and so, one of my life's most treasured gifts and responsibilities, being a minister, was being deeply and painfully injured.
And guess what? The natural man in me went through many different, hard emotions. At times I could have just chewed nails! But I was determined not to retaliate. And the basic way I stopped myself from creating an ugly scene was by doing these three things:
Released the hottest emotions by talking and venting with friends or counselors or simply by myself.
I was determined not to resent but to forgive-I knew that forgiveness was a choice.
And, I used the Lord's wisdom and made sure to pray for the person who I felt had sinned against me.
And so, as King David did in the Psalms, I cried out to God and spoke every bit of pain and anger I felt, and then with my friends I also talked the issue and my feelings out over and over, until the powerful feelings began to subside. This didn't take one week. It took several months, but gradually real forgiveness started to gain a foothold. And then something Swedenborg wrote in his deep reflection upon this morning's lesson came back to me. I recalled that evil brings its own punishment upon itself. Either in this life or the next, whatever evil a person exacts upon others won't be left unexamined by God. Either those evils will be completely felt and judged in the presence of the Divine, FOR THE SAKE OF THAT PERSON'S SPIRITUAL GROWTH, which means that the wrongdoer must literally feel what it felt like within me to be betrayed and to watch my character being trampled upon by his words, or the new arrival after his or her death will go to hell, often times by their own free will. And there spirits of like-hatred and like-darkness will live together, "and there was wailing and gnashing of teeth."
I suspect that my colleague in ministry will fare just fine when his Book of Life is opened before the Lord and some angels; but I suspect a much more unfortunate fate may happen to others. No one who is unrepentant of his or her evil or abuse will escape God's deeply examining Light after death, and this is the spiritual, internal meaning of the third Psalm as we read: "For You [O God] have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone; you have broken the teeth of the ungodly."
God in Christ is urging us to become so open to His love that we will simply never lose our ability to give and help. In Jesus' day, the Roman Empire owned Israel. It was always possible for a Roman soldier's spear to suddenly land slowly upon a Jew's shoulder, or point directly into his back, and then force them to perform labor, maybe even walk a mile in doing so. The Lord was saying, "Let me live inside of you at all times so that you'll be willing to walk an extra mile as well."
The Lord said, "Give to anyone who asks of you, and if anyone wants to borrow from you, do not turn them away."
In conclusion, our theology in the New Church sheds further light still. Swedenborg was given the ability to look into the spiritual, more internal level of truth in such sayings. The major issue here is my willingness to always care for the well-being of anyone, while trying to discern what form of charity will actually help someone in need to find what is good. It simply doesn't matter if the person I'm dealing with happens to enjoy hurting me. It's righteous to defend myself, but unrighteous to hate or need vengeance. Thus, when a drug addict asks for money, or an alcoholic for something more to drink, giving toward that addiction isn't the idea. But, my ability to want to help can thrive under such situations. Sometimes however, if one's abuser happens to be a father or mother figure who hurt or abused over many years time, then often years of releasing and healing the volcanic layers of pain and anger must be journeyed through first. Often, only then may truly REAL spiritual mercy be embraced.
Our celestial level of being can hear these words of Christ in Matthew revealing the truth that when others are caught up in hellishness, they will try to pull your own love and wisdom away from you, and drag you down with them. But, no matter what kind of evil and darkness an abuser may want to extract out of your heart and mind, with the Lord as our Infinitely loving Protector on our side, there's nothing to fear. Swedenborg wrote, "The Lord cannot protect us if on account of the evil done to us we should [then] burn with enmity, hatred, and revenge, for these drive away Divine protection."
We may be struck on the face spiritually or naturally speaking, as some lost soul attempts to drag us into physical violence or into a vicious court battle, but our spiritual goodness and truth (symbolized by the facial aspect of the human body) can ALWAYS BE GIVEN for them to see and feel. And if someone attempts to take the tunic of spiritual understanding you wear around your mind in life, the one you wear that was made from the truth in the Word, then give them as much of that spiritual garment you wear around your soul in return for their behavior. Thus Jesus said, "If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also."
A real Christian must stand ready in love with the strength of God behind them, ready to give and forgive. But there's only one way to be able to do this. You yourself MUST develop your highest Self…you must have God alive-and-well within you, in a very experiential, conscious and powerful way. With the Divine love and mercy of the Lord flowing greatly within, we're able to transform our rage, pain and devastation into forgiveness and a much higher perception of the infinite extent of God's love for all. The use of force and violence must always be our last resort, yet at times it may be needed to sway evil from acting and destroying.
The bottom line must be, that in a spiritual and natural sense in life we must be ready to always offer the other cheek too.