Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Do you ever get into a conversation with somebody and after a little while your mind starts to wander? That happens to me more than I like, and after a time I find that I don’t quite know what’s going on in the conversation anymore. Either the other person will ask me a question and I have no idea what they’ve been talking about or something will click and I realize that I haven’t really been listening to the other person. I’ve heard them maybe, in the sense that I’m aware that they’ve been talking, but I haven’t really been listening.
There’s a difference between hearing and listening. A dictionary definition for hearing is “to perceive or apprehend by the ear.” Hearing means that your ear has picked up a sound that has been made somewhere. Listening is “to hear something with thoughtful attention; to give consideration.” If you’re talking to me and I’ve tuned out, then I’m hearing you. The sound waves are still going in my ear and striking my eardrum. I’m just not listening. I’m not paying thoughtful attention to you. Julia says this happens more often for me than it should.
The Bible recognizes this difference. Revelation 3:22 says, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” Those of you who can hear, who can apprehend sound, listen – pay attention – to what the Spirit is saying. Jesus draws the distinction himself a few times. For instance in Mark 4:23 Jesus says, “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen!” There’s a difference between hearing and listening.
I think our Gospel reading from Luke today is one that a lot of people hear, but that not a lot listen to. I get it. Jesus is asking us to do hard things in this passage. That’s not a surprise. Jesus asks us to do hard things lots of places. I think this one, though, is one where a lot of us struggle.
One of the other readings for today is the end of the story of Joseph from Genesis chapter 45. You probably remember the whole story – Joseph is his father’s favorite, and to symbolize that favor Joseph received a beautiful coat from his father. Joseph’s brothers were jealous and threw him into a pit, and intended to kill him. Later instead of being killed Joseph was sold into slavery.
It’s a long and fascinating story, but eventually Joseph ends up in Egypt as Pharaoh’s right-hand man. There’s a famine and Joseph’s brothers, who tried to kill him, end up in front of Joseph begging for food.
Joseph reveals who he is, forgives them, and he tells them to bring his father to Egypt as well and he will see that they are taken care of until the famine is over.
I think that’s one of the best examples of loving your enemy that I know. There are a couple of things that make it powerful to me. First is that in this case, Joseph’s enemies were his family members. I guess you could think that would make it easier to love them because he knew them and was connected to them by blood. I think that would have made it harder to love, harder to forgive. There’s a sense of betrayal there that you don’t get with someone who isn’t part of your family.
It’s also powerful because Joseph actually has the means to do harm to his brothers. He could really take his revenge if he wanted to. I’ve been hurt by people who I’ll never see again. Forgiving them doesn’t make a lot of difference to them one way or another; it’s more something that I need to do to be at peace with myself. But would I be able to forgive them if I could hurt them as they hurt me? Could I let it go if I had the ability to cause the same levels of worry, of stress, of fear, that they caused for me? I think so, I hope so, but to be honest I don’t know because I’m not in that position. The people who I might consider my enemies aren’t kneeling before me in fear of their lives and hoping I will allow them food to survive.
This whole passage is hard because it’s hard to know how to apply it sometimes. It’s easy for me to say that I should love my enemies but it’s hard to know how to do that in every situation. What about turning the other cheek?
That one is interesting. Matthew records it a little differently than Luke does. In Matthew 5:39b, Jesus says “If anyone wants to strike you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” That’s a difference that matters.
The Old Testament scholar Walter Wink talks about how in Jesus’ day Jews only used the left hand for unclean tasks. It was tough to grow up a left handed Jewish kid. Most people are right handed naturally, and Jews would have been especially careful to use the right hand. Even gesturing with the left hand was wrong.
So if I am right handed and I am going to strike you on your right cheek that means I’m going to backhand slap you. If I were to hit the left I could make an open-hand slap or I could use a fist, but to strike the right cheek almost requires a backhanded slap.
Let me quote Wink himself from his book “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way.”
The intention is clearly not to injure but to humiliate, to put someone in his or her place. A backhand slap was the usual way of admonishing inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission. Part of the confusion surrounding these sayings arises from the failure to ask who Jesus’ audience was. In all three of the examples in Matt. 5:39b-41, Jesus’ listeners are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labor, but their victims (“If anyone strikes you…wants to sue you…forces you to go one mile…”). There are among his hearers people who were subjected to these very indignities, forced to stifle outrage at their dehumanizing treatment by the hierarchical system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status, and as a result of imperial occupation. Why then does he counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, “Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me.” Such a response would create enormous difficulties for the striker. Purely logistically, how would he hit the other cheek now turned to him? He cannot backhand it with his right hand (one only need try this to see the problem). If he hits with a fist, he makes the other his equal, acknowledging him as a peer. But the point of the back of the hand is to reinforce institutionalized inequality.
So Jesus isn’t saying, “Be a doormat.” Jesus is saying, “Assert your equality. Declare your humanity.” Gandhi said, “The first principle of nonviolent action is noncooperation with everything humiliating.” Martin Luther King, Jr. lived out of this as well.
Samuel Lloyd was one of the Deans of the National Cathedral. In a sermon he said of this, “Sounds like impractical idealism, doesn’t it—just caving in to evil. But in fact, Jesus is acting as a savvy community organizer advising followers who are having to contend constantly with the oppressive Roman rulers. When you have no power you have to find ways
to stand your ground and maintain your dignity. So over-respond, Jesus is saying, and show your oppressor for who he or she is. Let them overplay their hand, and you will be the one who walks away with his dignity. Civil rights leaders knew that when they sat down at segregated lunch counters.”
Jesus is speaking to the poor and the downtrodden, to slaves and Jews and women and prostitutes and children. It’s different for us, though. We aren’t particularly downtrodden. We may not be rich, but we’re not living in poverty either, at least I hope not. We’re not among the rulers of the world or even of this nation, but some of us work for them. There are times when some of us are in the power position in a relationship, and other times that we’re in the position of weakness in another.
The lesson, I think, remains whatever our position is. What does it mean to love my enemies? At least in part, it means that I treat them as my equal. It means that I treat them as humans, as people, not as dogs or animals or something or someone lower than I am by some measure.
The power of Joseph’s story isn’t just that he forgives his brothers. People who have been wronged in a relationship are the people in the power position. Joseph was the one with the power – not just the politicalpower, which he surely had as well, but Joseph was the one with the moral power. Joseph was the one who had been beaten and stripped and given to slavers.
And despite having the power position both physically and morally, Joseph treats his brothers as equals. He hugs them. He kisses them. He tells them to bring their father. He reunites the family. He recognizes their feelings and their guilt and he shows how God used it to bless them and so many other people. And how does the passage end? “And after that his brothers talked with him.” After all of that they gather and they talk once again, as they haven’t been able to talk for many, many years.
Part of treating people as human is taking them seriously. Part of treating people as equals is to listen to them, to try to understand their view, to take them seriously. I struggle with that sometimes, but it’s what Jesus calls us to do. I know, I know, that “You who listen” that opened our Gospel reading wasn’t a command. But if we listen to Jesus, not just hear him but listen to him, then we have to take him seriously. We have to internalize what it is he’s telling us in the verses that follow.
And what he’s telling us is to love our enemies. To do good to those that persecute us. To insist on our own humanity, but to also grant humanity and equality to those we disagree with, those who have power over us, and to those over whom we have power.
I hope all of us try to be among those who listen, both to God, to our friends, and to our enemies. Amen.