Context, community, and the sermon on the plain

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The Zen Master Shichiri Kojun sat reciting sutras when all of a sudden a thief burst in, brandishing a sharp sword. He demanded his money or his life. “Do not disturb me,” said Shichiri. “You will find the money in that drawer over there.” Then he continued with his sutras.

After a little while, he paused and said, “Don’t take it all. I need some to pay my taxes.”

The thief took most, but not all, of the money, and began to leave. Shichiri said, “Thank a person when you receive a gift.”

The thief said, “Thank you!” and he left.

Sometime later, the thief was caught. He confessed to several crimes, including stealing from Shichiri. Shichiri was called as a witness. “But,” said Shichiri, “This man is no thief. I gave him the money, and he said thank you.”

Nevertheless, the thief was sentenced to prison. But after he was released, he went back to Shichiri—only this time, as a disciple.

* * * * *

I love this story of the thief who became a disciple. It shows how to turn the experience of being stolen from into the experience of giving a gift, and suggests how such an act could transform an identity and a relationship. Yet when I encountered a thief at three o’clock one morning while my husband was away, I didn’t give him everything I had. When he asked me if I wanted my things back, I said yes. When it looked like he was about to settle in for a good chat, I told him that he had to leave. And then I escorted him out of the building, locked the door, and went to the police.

Did I fail? Perhaps. But there is an enormous difference between what a solitary monk can do, and what a mother responsible for three children can do, with a thief in the middle of the night. I have been thinking about this difference and Jesus’ sermon on the plain; and what strikes me is how much things rely on context.

The big problem with Jesus’ sermon is when it is used to justify passivity in the face of violence, or to scold a victim for not loving, blessing and forgiving their oppressor. So before we go any further, let me say upfront: Jesus is not saying here that a battered woman should go back to her abuser and cop a broken jaw this time. He is not saying that bullied children should suck up to their oppressors; and he is not saying that powerful people should tell victims to forgive and move on. His sermon was addressed to particular people in a particular time and place, and unless we understand these things, we will not be able to apply it well to our lives now.

In Luke’s story, Jesus was teaching twelve male disciples. In other words, he is talking to a group of first-century Palestinian Jewish men; and he’s telling them how to resist being dominated or defined by anyone other than God. For example, when someone hits you on the right cheek, they are hitting you with the back of their hand. Man-to-man, this was, and is, humiliating, for you are being hit like a child or a woman: a no-person in the first-century world. When this happens, Jesus says, show them your left cheek: invite the powerful person to hit you as an equal. Don’t fight back, but don’t cringe. Instead, calmly remind them that you are a man, too.

As for the cloak and tunic thing, back in those days, people only owned two garments, and they wore no underpants. When Jesus says, “When someone takes your cloak, give them your tunic, too,” he’s talking about collateral for debt, as set out in Deuteronomy. Back then, someone could take your cloak in exchange for a loan, but they had to give it back before nightfall so that you wouldn’t get cold. If they didn’t give it back, and you gave them your tunic, too, you became naked. By exposing yourself, you were exposing your poverty and their greed, and inviting them to rectify the situation.

This context behind the teaching is important, for it suggests that disciples are not to be doormats. We’re not to dominate, but nor are we to be trampled all over. When we are hurt, we might feel tempted to retaliate, perhaps with punches or name-calling or backstabbing or humiliating or silencing; or we might feel tempted to gloss over things and pretend the hurt never happened. Jesus tells us not to get swept up into cycles of retaliation and revenge—but he is not telling us to be passive, either.

Instead, he tells us to try to disarm those who cause hurt by disarming ourselves. We are to let go of our own potential to hurt others: to put down our weapons; to choose not to use them. To become, by choice, vulnerable. We are not to play tit-for-tat; instead, we must simply, but actively, love.

So when somebody hates you, don’t turn your back on them. Instead, do something good for them. When somebody curses you, don’t curse them in return. Instead, offer them a blessing. When somebody treats you badly, don’t tell everyone about it. Instead, pray for the strength of character to treat them well, and pray for healing of relationship. But even as you choose to love like this, know that there is no guarantee of success. Jesus himself says, Don’t expect a return. Only love can transform hate; but hate has the freedom to reject love; and even the most perfect love can lead to crucifixion.

Loving like this is so difficult that it is impossible to sustain alone. Perhaps this is why Jesus’ sermon is in the plural: every time he says ‘you’, he’s saying ‘you guys,’ ‘youse’ or ‘y’all’: remember, he’s addressing a group. I think this is because loving an enemy, or loving someone who is hurting you or your community, is about seeking to restore relationship. It is not about countenancing abuse or oppression. Instead, it requires an end to the behaviours which destroy relationship, and it takes community to achieve this: to place appropriate boundaries around oppressors; to protect victims from further harm; and to bless and pray for and with people who struggle to pray for each other and themselves.

Love like this can never be naïve: it’s rooted in an awareness of human sinfulness. It acknowledges our own propensity for violence; our own brokenness; and it’s grounded in gratitude for the love, forgiveness and mercy which God has already shown to us. Our awareness of our own sin helps us love not only our friends, but also those who seek to wound or control, because when we look at such people, we recognise elements of ourselves.

Jesus tells us not to judge, lest we ourselves be judged; and to forgive, forgive, forgive. This is much easier when we recognise ourselves in others. Of course, Jesus is not telling us to reserve all judgement. We cannot operate without some basic agreement on what it means to be a follower of Jesus; not all beliefs and behaviours are acceptable. But we are to refrain from fault-finding and condemnation.

So we withhold judgement and forgive because we know our own faults and sins: it too easily could be us causing the hurt. We forgive also because there are times when people hurt without comprehension, or act without understanding. Like Jesus, then, we forgive, for they do not know what they are doing. We might place boundaries around people’s behaviour, but these boundaries are to provide a safe space for them to learn and grow.

And we forgive because that is, quite simply, who we are in Christ. For ultimately Jesus’ sermon on the plain is not a list of instructions for individuals to follow, but a description of the posture we adopt when we find a home together in the culture of a compassionate God. Grounded, humble, aware of our own sin, forgiving; knowing that condemnation always rebounds on us; knowing that virtue is its own reward.

But this all sounds a bit airy-fairy, so let’s finish with another story; this one, about condemnation.

* * * * *

Once upon a time, a man was looking for a home. He arrived in a new town, went into the local bar, and asked the barmaid what kind of people lived there. She replied, “What kind of people were in the place you left?”

“Awful people,” said the man, “Liars and gossips and bullies and cheats. I couldn’t trust them further than I could spit.”

“Such a shame,” said the barmaid, “but you better move on, because that’s exactly the kind of people you’ll find here, too.” The man left.

Sometime later, another man came by, also looking for a new home; and he also asked the barmaid about the people in the area.

The barmaid replied, “What kind of people were in the place you left?”

“Wonderful people,” said the man. “Thoughtful, generous, forgiving, kind. I hated to leave them; I miss them already.”

“Then this is the place for you,” said the barmaid. “because that’s exactly the sort of person you’ll find around here.”

“The ration you give to others will be the ration you’ll receive.” Amen. Ω

A meditation on Luke 6:27-38 given to Sanctuary, 24 February 2019 © Alison Sampson, 2019. Credits: Image credit: An early 15th century Coptic prayer book from Ethiopia. View the full book at bit.ly/1XP8af8. Give to everyone who asks: The Thief Who Became a Disciple, found in 101 Zen Stories (retold). Do not condemn: Adapted from a story in Sermon on the Mount, by Clarence Jordan.

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