It is early days in Jesus’ ministry. Yet, word is already out about a new prophet mighty in word and deed. Word is he is a healer and a teacher. Word is, this one’s the real deal, the genuine article.
So, when word arrives that he is in town … he’s come to our town every last one of us, rush over to the Common to hear this preacher and teacher, to see this miracle worker ... to judge and to see for ourselves.
When we arrive at the Common, Jesus is at the top of a hill and thousands are spilling down the hill, eager to hear him.
Now, before I tell you what it is he says, there is one more thing you should know about the circumstances, the status of the persons to whom he is preaching.
You who have come out to see and hear Jesus, you are an occupied people. You are not citizens (you have no driver’s license, no passport). You are peasants, tenant farmers, subsistence farmers, day laborers, tradesmen. You are but humble villagers in a land occupied by a foreign empire. Our villages and towns and cities, our roads and highways are patrolled by armed soldiers ... soldiers who bear no love for us ... who can harm us, on a whim, with impunity.
It is in this context that Jesus teaches us, saying:
If a Boston city official steals your parking space—the one you spent three hours shoveling out—don’t key his car. Don’t puncture his tire. Don’t swear at him or make rude gestures at him. Don’t complain to your friends saying, “Can you believe that guy?” Don’t even think a bad thought about him. Just don’t.
If a soldier smacks you for no good reason … smacks you upside the cheek because he doesn’t like the look in your eyes or the smirk on your face—turn the other cheek. Let him smack that one too.
If a litigious patrician sues you for the shirt on your back, don’t wait for the judge to rule. Take the shirt off. Give it to him. And then, do one better, get your overcoat, fold it neatly and give him your coat as well.
If a military officer orders you to carry his gear from the Common to his home in the North End, carry it. When you arrive—even though your back aches and even though your clothes are soaked with sweat—do this: insist on carrying his gear up the stairs to his fourth floor apartment.
Do you get what Jesus is asking of us? Do you get how hard this is?
Discipleship is more than being nice or doing good. It is a matter of your inner disposition.
Discipleship applies to the state of your soul and the state of your mind … to your attitude and intentions.
If I hurt you—slap you, trip you, spit on you—that will have the effect of damaging our relationship. If, on the other hand, I refrain from harming you physically, but I loathe you inwardly—if thinking of you causes me to seethe and fume; if I harbor and nurse resentment against you—well, that too has a real and damaging effect on our relationship.
What’s more, hating you damages my relationship with God, because God loves you.
As far as Jesus is concerned, there is no real dividing line between killing and hating. Wishing to kill is as bad as killing.
Moreover, in Jesus’ mind, it doesn’t matter who is to blame ... who is in the wrong. That’s irrelevant, extraneous. Don’t even think in those terms. Any rift between you and another person—no matter the cause—is your responsibility. Reconciliation is your vocation.
What’s more, while Jesus holds you to this standard, you are not to judge others by this standard, or to hold them to it. God will take care of that. You will be hard enough pressed to hold yourself to it. That, alone, will take all of your powers.
Jesus teaches this radical, over-the-top ethic in a world where the balance of power is tragically out of whack. Rome possesses all of it. Jesus and his family and friends, his neighbors ... they have none. Do you get how difficult this is?
In the 1950’s, Howard Thurman, minister and professor, concluded that the non-violent resistance taught by Jesus in the 1st century to those with their backs against the wall … that those very teachings and strategies could be employed in this country, in this millennia, in the struggle for Civil Rights ... could be employed by people of African descent, people whose backs were no less against the wall here, than were the Jews of 1st century Palestine.
If you want to know if these teachings of Jesus; this strange and difficult ethic really works—If you want to know if his Sermon on the Mount really works, or whether it represents the ravings of an impractical dreamer—If you want to know whether it is humanly possible to love your enemy, turn the other cheek, when compelled by force to go one mile, go two miles: there is an answer.
This radical ethic served as the foundation of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement.
On February 1, 1960, four young, African American men—college students—entered a Woolworths’ store in Greensboro, NC. As they had planned, they politely sat at the “white’s only” lunch counter. Ever so courteously, they ordered coffee. Following store policy, the staff refused to serve them. The store’s manager was called. He asked the students to leave. They did not leave. The four students stayed, sitting politely and silently, until the store closed.
The next day, more than twenty African American students came to the store to join the sit-in. Newspapers and cameras arrived with them. The media witnessed the way white customers heckled the black students and the staff refused them service. The media reported that in the face of threats, provocation and even violence, the students maintained a disciplined polite, peaceful demeanor.
By the fourth day there were 300 African American students waiting patiently in line to sit at the whites only lunch counter. One by one they politely asked for a cup of coffee. One by one they were refused.
African American students were yanked violently off the stools by white racists. While on the floor of the store the students were spat at, endured the ugliest of racist slurs and were kicked. Then, one by one, silently, without any response to the violence, bruised and bloodied, each climbed back onto a stool.
In the presence of the TV cameras, their dignified, passive response to violence was an astonishing witness.
Here is what Woolworth’s didn’t know. Each morning, before appearing at the lunch counters, the students staging the sit-ins prayed together. And, together, they rehearsed and practiced the rules they had adopted … the teachings of Jesus:
1. If cursed at or abused in anyway, do not strike back.
2. Do not laugh.
3. Do be friendly and courteous at all times, no matter what.
4. Do sit straight
5. Do speak politely when spoken to.
6. Do remember the teachings of Jesus Christ.
7. Do love your enemy.
Jesus taught that violence begets violence. And, that the opposite is just as true. Hitting someone who does not hit back can last only so long. Fury spends itself pretty quickly when there’s no fury facing it.
And so it was, that under the withering lens of the cameras, the white racists backed off, the beatings subsided. (John Lewis on the lunch counter sit-ins, 1960, Nashville TN)
Today, the lunch counter and stools from that Woolworth’s Greensboro, NC are on display in the Smithsonian Institute: a witness to the power of non-violence … to the efficacy of the teachings of Jesus.
The discipline of this discipleship is the hardest thing you will ever undertake. But when you harness your own emotions, muting your ego, you will find yourself within the realm of God ... and possessed of the power to change the world.
The Good News According to Matthew by Eduard Schweizer (John Knox Press), 1977. The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew’s Faith by Daniel Patte (Fortress Press), 1987.