The Gospel reading for this week was a portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we all know: “you have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Do not resist an evildoer? This verse about turning the other cheek is probably one of the most quoted New Testament passages—just after love your neighbor as yourself and John 3:16. But it’s troubling. Don’t even resist?
I looked up the Greek word here for resist, anthistemi—like the word that we use for allergy medications—antihistamine. It means to set against, withstand, oppose. We use antihistamines to fight the chemicals in our bodies that are causing an allergic reaction and making us weak, tired, stuffy. If you’ve ever suffered from allergies, you are thankful for good medication that can resist these reactions. But, Jesus, it seems, would have told us to stock up on tissues and tea—no Benadryl allowed!
What’s hard for me about this verse is that resistance actually seems to be a major theme in Jesus’ teachings. Doesn’t the Gospel invite us to resist greed, to resist Empire, to resist the forces of evil in the world…Didn’t Jesus resist the men who wanted to stone the adulterous woman? Didn’t he resist the forces of death when he raised Lazarus to new life? Didn’t he resist Satan’s temptations of power and wealth while he was in the wilderness? Wasn’t Jesus, in his ministry, a resistor?
And it didn’t end there. Isn’t the Resurrection the ultimate act of resistance? In his resurrection, doesn’t Jesus say no to death, no to violence, no to sin, no to injustice?
So, what is going on in this passage? Should we resist as Jesus has modeled for us, or shouldn’t we, as he instructs us?
A few weeks ago, I was at a conference of Interfaith Youth Core Alumni in Atlanta, Georgia, and there was a young Muslim woman who was speaking on a panel about the work she is doing to build peace in the Middle East. Someone from the audience asked her which stories from her faith tradition have inspired her work and this is what she said:
It has been written that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), though he was beloved by many in his time, was not beloved by all. In fact, he had a neighbor who did not like him one bit. And this neighbor, because she didn’t like him, would get up very early every morning and bring all of her garbage and rotten food, even the waste from her animals…and she would leave them in a pile on the doorstep of the Prophet. And every morning Muhammad would wake up, see the trash, quietly sweep it away and then go about his daily chores and activities.
One morning, Muhammad woke up and he opened his front door expecting to see the pile of trash as usual, but on this day, there was nothing there. No trash. Without hesitating the Prophet went to the pantry, collected some fruits and herbs and rushed next door to his neighbor’s home. Sure enough, she was very sick—so sick that she had not had enough strength to collect the garbage to leave at Muhammad’s front door. Muhammad offered her some food and stayed with her and prayed for her recovery.
This seems to me to be the kind of thing Jesus is talking about when he says: do not resist an evildoer.
Jesus is asking us to change the way we think about justice and injustice–to envision a larger picture. The Prophet Muhammad did not let the garbage pile up on his doorstep, but neither did he grow to hate the woman who seemed to hate him so much. He saw the woman for who she was—a human, broken, like the rest of us, who might fall sick one day and need to rely on the compassion of others.
Perhaps Jesus is saying, don’t set yourself in opposition to those who do evil to you, to those who do evil in the world; instead, imagine them as part of the larger picture of God’s salvation. Don’t build fences, build pathways. Don’t stand your ground, expand your ground. We are not called to be antihistamines that fight against the evils of the world: we are called to see those evils and envelop them. We are called to imagine that even those who seem to do the most harm, might also have a share in God’s kingdom.
We don’t need to tolerate injustice. We don’t need to let evildoers free. We don’t need to sit idly while people step all over us; we do need to do the work we can to clean up the messes that people leave on the doorsteps of the world. We know that from Jesus’ own example. And we need to keep the resurrection in view.
I think that Jesus is inviting us to rethink our own stories. In what ways do we let ourselves get bogged down in the small battles of our daily lives? What “evils” do we resist that Jesus might actually nudge us to welcome as part of the larger vision of salvation? Do we resist difficult conversations with people whose political, social, or religious beliefs differ from ours? Do we resist wisdom from other faith traditions—like the story I just told you about the Prophet Muhammad—because we think that by appreciating what others have to offer we will somehow become less whole ourselves? Jesus says, don’t resist—embrace the coming of a new world and have faith that all of us will have a role to play in it.