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Friday, February 21, 2014

Don't the pagans do as much? (A7O) - Part 1

In preparing for a webinar sponsored by my friends at TeamRCIA in San Jose, Diana Macalintal and Nick Wagner, I was re-reading the little Lent book I wrote last summer, Change Our Hearts. What struck me now and did not strike me as I was writing the book is that half a dozen of the gospels of the forty days of actual Lent, that is, from Ash Wednesday to Spy Wednesday, minus the Sundays, are taken from the Sermon on the Mount! This no doubt struck me because we have been listening to that section of the gospel of St. Matthew all this month, and will continue it through March 2, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Reading over this Sunday's gospel again reminded me that I had written about it in the book, which made me go back and count the passages from chapters 5-7 of Matthew, and there are 6, 5 of which are proclaimed in the first 10 days of Lent.

The reason I bring this up is that one of the underlying premises of the book is that Lent is for the spiritual preparation to make or renew the baptismal promises, and the readings of the lectionary during Lent are a sort of "crash course" in Christianity (that is the subject of today's webinar) for the elect—and a remedial one for the rest of us. Six of those gospels are from three chapters of Matthew, and we have heard all of them during the last month.

Sunday's gospel, though, may be the most challenging of all. It's very concrete, behaviorally-oriented,  particularly when taken together with the direction to which the first reading and psalm are pointing us. For starters:
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
(1) When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
(2) If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
(3) Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles."
So we're back at the end of what are called the hypertheses, the statements that we heard last week (in brevis) "You have heard that it was said...but I say to you..." Here, he takes the talion law that goes back past Leviticus to the code of Hammurabi, and suggests to his listeners, "How's that working out for you?" Everyone who has witnessed the brutality of retaliation knows that it doesn't assuage the
pain of the injured party, it just multiplies it into the community and extends its deathly power down through time and space. Then he offers some practical advice, some nonviolent strategy, to his disciples upon whom he is springing such astoundingly difficult behaviors. They are people who understand honor and shame, and who have turned them into an art form. John Pilch and others give us some insight into what Jesus may have been suggesting here.

(1) When we think about this verse, we need to remember that there weren't any "left-handed" people in those days. Right up to the time of my parents, children who favored their left hands were discouraged from using them for writing and, I presume, other activities. I guess being left-handed was seen as some kind of rude disability! But in ancient times, it just wasn't done. The right hand was the honorable hand, only hand used to touch another person. The left was reserved for toileting and other unsanitary activities. So picture two people, standing face to face. One is a Roman soldier, say, and the other is you. Only one of these two people is going to do any hitting, and it isn't you.

So, because you are his inferior, he strikes you like he would a slave, with his right backhand, across the right side of your face. He's not messing around, it hurts like hell. But Jesus says, "Turn the other cheek." So you turn the left cheek, and now he's got a problem. To hit you on the left cheek, he has to either use his left hand (unacceptable, loss of honor) or hit you like an equal, with his right (unacceptable, because you are not his equal.) I'm not sure whether, in fact, it would make a big difference to a Roman legionary under the broiling Palestinian sun, but in the realm of story, you have turned the tables on the aggressor, and maintained your honor without fighting back.

(2) Going to court, according to Pilch (Cultural World of the Gospels, Cycle A) was in itself a dishonorable way to settle differences. But in such a case, the plaintiff could, as collateral or payment, demand the defendant's cloak. Jesus's solution to the problem is, "Give him your cloak as well." This may sound like, "Be, like, way generous with the dude." Instead, it would leave you naked before the plaintiff and the judge and witnesses, and all of them would be dishonored for looking on your nakedness. Again, civil disobedience without violence.

(3) Roman soldiers had a written code of conduct which permitted them to press locals into service to carry their backpacks for them for the distance of a mile. If they went over that distance, they were subject to punishment by their centurion or other officers. So in this case, Jesus suggests "going the extra mile," but it's not to make the oppressor's burden easier. Again, the oppressor is the target of this symbolic action. Now, he has to press for the good nature of the subject, because the bearer has the upper hand. Honor is preserved, no bloodshed.

For a people who have suffered under oppressive regimes for three centuries, and who regularly felt the might of Rome visited upon their populace, this might have offered a way out of the cycle of violence and reprisal or oppression and repression, all of which escalates into war. By breaking the cycle of retaliation and claiming the status of equality with all people as children of God, these simple strategies of political theater, difficult as they might be, might begin to change the world. Disciples of Jesus, like Dr. King and Gandhi (in his own way) used similar strategies of non-violence to assert the human dignity of oppressed people as equals of members of the dominant culture, some of whom themselves claimed to be disciples of Jesus! The Jesus movement rejected violence as a solution to problems: violence was the strategy of Caesar. In the end, when Rome moved against Jerusalem in 70 CE, no symbolic gestures would stop the flow of blood in Jerusalem. The community was instructed to look for the signs that the end was coming, and flee to the hills. (24:15-21)

There's a lot more to this Sunday's gospel. I'll get to it tomorrow. Have a great day.

Music we're doing at St. Anne this weekend:

Gathering - We Are Called (Haas)
Psalm 103 The Lord Is Kind (Cotter)
Presentation of Gifts: Be Perfect (Cooney)
Communion: One in Love (Kendzia/Cooney)
Sending Forth: Bring Forth the Kingdom (Haugen)

We also have the Rite of Sending to Election and Recognition by the Bishop this Sunday, so we'll be using "Who Calls You By Name" (Haas) and "I Have Loved You" (Joncas) as well.