You Have Heard That It Was Said

February 19, 2023

Series: February 2023

Speaker: Bethany Nelson


Today's Sermon


"You Have Heard That It Was Said"


First Reading
Leviticus 24:17-22
Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Lord your God.

Second Reading
Matthew 5:38-42
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.

Greg Carey is a New Testament professor at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.  He shares the following story about his 10-year old daughter, Erin. “Stumbling into the kitchen after a long day of work, I put down my groceries and listened to my voice mail.  There was a message from Erin.  Dad, I’m the lector at church on Sunday, and I have that passage that says, ‘Turn the other cheek.’  You know that passage, right? Do the other Gospels have that same passage?  Is it different in the other Gospels? Could you let me know, because … no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus is wrong.”

I’m not sure what my favorite part of that story is. The fact that she decided Jesus was wrong, or, the “no offense, Dad”  I can imagine her continuing, “I know your job is to study and teach the New Testament and I know I’m questioning the man on whom you have based your entire life and career, but … I think he is wrong.” 

I can understand where she is coming from.  Turn the other cheek?  Walk an extra mile?  Give up all my clothes?  What is Jesus talking about?  Why would we willingly do any of that?  Of course, the passage from Leviticus is not any easier, with its talk about putting people to death and causing bodily injury – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  That’s violent!  Obviously, both of these passages require a closer look.

Let’s start with Leviticus.  It was written at a time when the system of retribution and retaliation had spiraled way out of control.  You know the idea that the punishment should fit the crime?  In those days, the punishment often did not fit the crime.  People would face huge – often violent – consequences for minor infractions.  This happened both informally, between two people having a disagreement, and also formally within the legal system. These laws in Leviticus, and others like them that show up in Exodus and Deuteronomy, are called the “lex talionis” – the law of retaliation – and they are an attempt to enact a fair justice system among the people of ancient Israel.  Rather than promoting violence, which is what it can sound like, these rules are actually an attempt to curb violence, and to make sure that penalties are not arbitrary and that punishments are not more severe than the crime.  You can only retaliate for as much as has been done to you … no more.

At the time, this was a big step in a good direction.  However, it still perpetuated a system of violence.  Violence was still an OK consequence, just as long as it was not too much violence.  Fast forward many years, and in steps Jesus.  Jesus who, in his Sermon on the Mount, offers several teachings that start with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said.”  We heard some of these teachings last week, and Rob pointed out that in those passages, Jesus took an established rule or law and made it even more challenging – he took it to the next level.  In today’s passage, Jesus takes an established law and seems to flip it on its head.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you … if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also ...” This is where we come back to the 10 year old daughter thinking Jesus is wrong.  Jesus wants us to get hit twice? I understand not perpetuating the culture of violence, but I’m not sure I’m on board with getting hit twice.

So what is happening here?  Scholars have some theories, of course!  One theory has to with one’s status in Jesus’ time. I don’t want to dwell in the violence for two long, but by way of explanation, there were two ways to hit someone.  A backhand slap, or a forehand slap or punch.  Apparently, it was an offensive gesture to give someone a backhand slap. That was a way of showing that you thought they were beneath you.  They weren’t even worthy of your forehand punch.  And, assuming one is right-handed (sorry, left-handed people), if you use your right hand to give a backhanded slap, you will hit the person on their right cheek.  So Jesus says, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek.  Give them your left cheek.  That way, you are forcing them to give you a forehand punch, and to acknowledge you as their equal.

Technically, that’s a fine explanation – we know status was very important in Jesus’ time.  However, it does feel like that explanation is going a bit down a rabbit hole of historical minutiae.  Plus, if we take that statement literally – that Jesus actually wants us to get hit twice – then we need to take his other statements literally … including the one about giving away both your coat and your cloak if sued. That would be both the inner and outer garments worn back then, which would leave one standing naked in the courtroom.  Likely not Jesus’ intent.

More likely, is that Jesus is teaching us – urging us – to end the cycle of violence.  Don’t respond to violence with violence.  Don’t respond to hate with hate. Don’t respond to evil with evil.  Refuse to take part this cycle.  I love how theologian Matthew Myer Boulton explains it. “Jesus’ instruction ‘Do not resist an evildoer’ actually points toward a deeper, more radical resistance: namely, noncooperation in the underlying paradigm of hate and brutality involved in evildoing.  In fact, we may say that for Jesus, true resistance to evil entails a defiance of the vicious, endless cycle of enemy making.  Do not fight fire with fire, Jesus says; rather, fight fire with water, and thereby refuse to take part in the all-too-familiar work of injury and domination.”[i]

Before I go any further, I must state clearly that this does not mean that we remain in relationships or situations that are harmful or violent. Turning the other cheek does not mean having no boundaries. It does not mean allowing yourself to be wounded in ways that injure, or frighten or leave you feeling bad about yourself.  More from Myer Boulton, “The centerpiece of this teaching is noncooperation with harm in all its forms.  It entails discontinuing arrangements that allow or enable perpetrators to wreak havoc.”

Jesus’ teaching doesn’t mean remaining in situations that are harmful.  But what does it mean?  What does it look like to resist by “noncooperation in the underlying paradigm of hate and brutality involved in evildoing?”

I want to show you a scene from the movie, “42,” that tells the story of Jackie Robinson becoming the first black major league baseball player.  In this scene, Robinson is in the office of Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Rickey lists for Robinson all the ways that he will likely face hate and prejudice while playing and traveling with the team, just because of the color of his skin. Rickey then asks Robinson when this happens, “What are you going to do then?  Fight them?  Ruin all my plans?”

(scene from video)

In his autobiography, Jackie Robinson writes, “Could I turn the other cheek?  I didn’t know how I would do it.  Yet I knew that I must. I had to do it for so many reasons. For black youth, for my mother, for myself.”  Robinson and Rickey both realized that nothing would be accomplished with Robinson fighting back … except to perpetuate the cycle of racism and hate and evil.  But, Robinson did have an opportunity – not to stop the cycle all by himself – but to make an important statement with his nonviolent resistance.  It wasn’t easy.  He writes in his autobiography about the hateful comments, taunts, and behaviors he endured, but he continued to turn the other cheek.  He kept the focus on his skills as a baseball player, and the focus also turned to the inexcusable behavior of the others. After one particularly nasty game against the Phillies, one New York newspaper wrote, “Chapman (the manager of the Phillies) and three of his players poured a stream of abuse at Jackie Robinson.  Jackie, with admirable restraint, ignored the language coming from the dugout, thus stamping himself as the only gentleman among those involved in the incident.”[ii]

It is unacceptable that Robinson had to endure that hateful racism at all – or that people still have to endure that today – but in resisting the evildoer and in not cooperating in the cycle of harm, he did help to create positive change.

One more example, this time a story from NPR. 

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner. One night, as Diaz stepped off the train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn. He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

"He wanted my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, 'Here you go,'" Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm."

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim confused, asking, "'Why are you doing this?'"

Diaz replied: "If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner. If you want to join me, you're more than welcome.

"You know,” Diaz says, “I just felt maybe he really needs help."

He and the teen went into the diner and ate together.

When the bill arrived, Diaz told him, "I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this. If you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you."

The teen "didn't even think about it" and returned the wallet, Diaz says. "I gave him $20 ... I figure maybe it'll help him. I don't know."[iii]

That story could have ended a lot of different ways, and unfortunately, stories like that don’t always have good endings.  But, look what is possible.  Look what can happen when we work to end the cycle of violence and of hate. 

Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted as saying, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  Jesus shows us that there is another way.  May it be so.  Amen.


[i]Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1, pg. 385.

[ii]I Never Had It Made, by Jackie Robinson.