Sunday, May 4, 2014

Red Letter Jesus (5/4/14)

Red Letter Jesus
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 4, 2014

Emmet Fox, The Sermon on the Mount, pp.88-90
Resist not evil, spiritually understood, is the grand secret of success in life.  A correct understanding of this commandment will lead you out of the Land of Egypt, and out of the House of Bondage; regenerate your body; liberate your soul; and, in short, remake your life from top to bottom.  As soon as you resist mentally any undesirable or unwanted circumstance, you thereby endow it with more power—power which it will use against you, and you will have depleted your own resources to that exact extent.  Whether you have to meet a physical, or a personal, or a business difficulty, you must not, as people usually do, hurl yourself against it mentally, or even stand stubbornly in the middle of the road saying, “You shall not pass”; but, observe the master rule of Jesus, and resist not evil

Refrain from resisting the trouble mentally; that is to say, refuse to feed your own soul-substance into it.  Feel out, mentally, for the Presence of God, as you would feel out physically if thrust suddenly into a dark room.  Hold your thought steadily to that Presence as being with you, and as being also in the person or the place where the evil has presented itself; that is to say, turn the other cheek.  If you will do this, the difficulty, whatever it is, the undesirable situation or the trouble that someone is making, will fade away into its native nothingness, and leave you free.  This is the true spiritual method of loving your enemy.

Love is God and is therefore absolutely all powerful.  This is the scientific application of Love, against which nothing evil can stand. It destroys the evil condition and, if a person is concerned, it sets him as well as you free.  But to return hate for hate, curse for curse, or fear for aggression, has the effect of amplifying the trouble, much as a feeble sound is multiplied in volume by an amplifier.  Meeting hatred with Love in the scientific way is the Royal Christ Road to freedom.  This is the perfect method of self-defense in all circumstances.  It renders you absolutely invulnerable to any kind of attack.

If someone makes himself personally obnoxious to you, do not resist him in thought.  Resist not evil; realize the Indwelling Christ in your “enemy,” and all will be well.  He will cease to trouble you, and either change his attitude or else fade out of your life altogether, besides being spiritually benefited by your action.  If you receive bad news, do not resist it in thought.  Realize the unchanging nature and infinite harmony of Good ever available, at every point of existence; and things will come right.  If you are unhappy in your work, or in your home, do not resist these conditions mentally, or indulge in grumbling, or self-pity, or in recriminations of any kind.  Such action will only strengthen that particular embodiment of error; so, resist not evil.  Feel out mentally for the Presence of Divine Spirit, all around you; affirm its actuality; and claim that you have dominion over all conditions when you speak the Word in the name of I Am That I Am, and you will soon be free.

Matthew 5:38-47
As you know, we once were told, ‘An eye for an eye’ and ‘A tooth for a tooth.’  But I tell you, don’t react violently against the one who is evil; when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.  If someone is determined to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat along with it.  Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go along an extra mile.  Give to those who beg from you; and don’t turn away those who want to borrow from you.

As you know, we once were told, ‘You shall love your neighbor’ and ‘You shall hate your enemy.’   But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.  You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens, for God makes the sun rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust.  Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded for that?  Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they?  And if you greet only your friends, what have you done that is exceptional?  Even the pagans do as much don’t they?  To sum up, you shall be perfect in the same way your heavenly Father is perfect.

First some critical reflections.

When we read the Sermon on the Mount we are not reading the words of the historical Jesus as presented to us.  Some of his words are in there to be sure.  Overall, we are reading a portrait of Jesus as painted by the author that the tradition calls Matthew.   This Matthew is not an eyewitness of Jesus.  It was a name placed on this anonymous collection many decades after the gospels were written, perhaps into the second century.    

For convenience we call the author Matthew as tradition has done so.   But we should know I am not talking about the disciple of Jesus.   It is not likely that any followers of Jesus wrote any gospels.    To gain authority for particular texts, apostolic names or names of others involved in the movement were attached to these texts.   Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Thomas, Mary, Peter and so on.  

Matthew created this portrait of Jesus who is like a new Moses.   Matthew’s birth story of Jesus is a retelling of the birth of Moses.   In both cases a ruthless bad guy kills all the children but Moses and Jesus both escape because they are destined heroes. 

As Moses received the Law from Mount Sinai, so Jesus climbs a mountain and reveals a new teaching, the Sermon on the Mount.   One of the ways in which Matthew creates this portrait of authority is to have Jesus say things like, “As you know, we once were told…but I say to you….”   That is not the historical Jesus.  That is Matthew.

As we read or hear the Sermon on the Mount, we are not reading or hearing the historical Jesus.  We are hearing or reading Matthew’s embellishment of the historical Jesus.   This is Jesus idealized by Matthew, framed by Matthew, and created by Matthew.    By the time we get to Matthew’s gospel Jesus is more of a literary figure than an historical person.  He is even godlike.  The historical person is buried in there.  You can get a glimpse of the historical person out of the corner of your eye, or faintly hear his voice amidst the music of Matthew’s symphony, but mostly the historical preacher and prophet has been crowded out by a miracle worker who speaks with the authority of God.     

I take pains to point this out because I think there is confusion between the historical Jesus and the various literary and theological portraits of Jesus.  They are not the same thing.    Because we place authority on these texts and on the person of Jesus it becomes important I think to separate this out.   

Last week I talked about divorce and remarriage.  Think of all the pain and suffering because of what Jesus supposedly said that he probably didn’t even say, or if he said something about it, it was in a completely different context. 

Then even when we go back to something we think the historical Jesus said, we are now talking about a human being who had an opinion.  We can debate whether what he said is interesting or not.   We can look at it from the viewpoint of Matthew’s point of view and see if it is interesting or not.

The question is one of authority.  It isn’t so much the authority of these old books or of a guy who said things 2000 years ago.  The problem with authority is contemporary people using these texts and figures to boss people around.    You can’t get married and you can get married because it says so in the Bible. You are a sinner or your behavior is bad because Jesus says this and that in the Bible.   Not only external rules, but even more powerful are the internal rules that authority dictates.  People take all this to heart. 

That is why critical thinking regarding texts is crucial.  Critical thinking liberates.   Critical thinking liberates you from the authority of a text or a figure painted by an ancient author or a contemporary preacher who is using this text over you.    You are liberated from the authority of the text and are able as an adult subject to evaluate what is written on its own terms.    It doesn’t matter whether Jesus or Matthew said it or not.  What matters is whether it is true or not.    Critical thinking liberates.

Now there is another movement.   Once you are liberated from the text’s authority you can as an autonomous subject enter the text again.   Marcus Borg calls this post-critical naiveté.  It is like suspending disbelief when you enter the movie theater.   You know who you are.  You know you are watching actors recreate a script.  But you enter it and allow it to speak to you.  

People might be thinking something along these lines,

“John, you talk about God as a human construction and you talk about the historical Jesus and how the miraculous and divine is legend and myth and yet in worship you say, ‘Let us worship God’ and we sing hymns about Jesus walking with us, how does this work?” 

We acknowledge our critical thinking and suspend, not give it up, not leave it at the door, but allow for the poetry of Jesus to touch the heart.   I move in between the Jesuses (Matthew, historical, Nicene Creed), and allow each of them to speak.   I am always the one moving.   What matters is not what the text says, but what I do with it.   Good poetry, good scripture, and wise words, transcend the speaker and the hearer.    When we say, “Let us worship God” we are opening minds and hearts to something beyond us and beneath us, that is perhaps within us and among us, to be open to beauty, truth, love whatever might be what we need.     But it is still us.  

Today’s section on the Sermon on the Mount contains the reddest words of Jesus.    The Jesus Seminar scholars were in consensus about the following words more than any other.    They ranked as red the following:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil:  when someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.  When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it.  Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile.  Give to the one who begs from you.

That was red, and then this was red:

Love your enemies.  

The scholars were in consensus about that collection of sayings echoing the voiceprint of the historical Jesus.     They also voted as pink:

Don’t turn away the one who tries to borrow from you.


God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust.  Tell me, if you love those who love you, why should you be commended for that?  Even the toll collectors do as much, don’t they?

The scholars were saying that we can’t be sure of much regarding Jesus.  But if he said anything, he said something like this:

Don’t react violently to evil. 
When struck, turn the other cheek. 
When sued for your shirt, give your coat too. 
When forced to carry a pack for a mile, go an extra mile.
Give to the one who begs from you.

They are exaggerated sayings, aren’t they?   They are tough to institutionalize.   You can’t take them literally.  How many times do you turn the cheek?   If you give to everyone who begs from you, you would have nothing.  Then again, maybe that is the point?  

Biblical scholar, Walter Wink suggested that these passages were not passive, but reflected the creative and assertive third way.   Wink was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.   His interpretation of these texts and the experience of South African liberation struggle helped him to see both in a new light.  He saw in these passages not passivity but assertive non-violent resistance.     He saw these texts as empowering texts spoken to the oppressed.  

When the oppressor gives the oppressed a backhanded slap on the right cheek, what do you do?  If you strike back you will be killed.   Or you cower in humiliation.   The third way, is to stand your ground, and turn the other cheek.  You show that you are a human being.    This isn’t a manual of operations.  Jesus was providing hyperbolic examples of creative responses to those who are violent. 

If someone sues you for your outer garment, take off your inner garment too.  What will happen?  You will be naked and the shame will be on the oppressor.

If a Roman soldier makes you carry his pack for one mile, which was the limit that soldiers could require someone to carry a pack, don’t stop after one mile.  Carry it another and watch the soldier try to take it back from you.   

In all three cases, do not let the oppressor define your humanity.  Find a creative way to resist humiliation but do not give in to the violence of the oppressor.    You are turning the tables on behavior that is designed to humiliate.

Don’t think of those who beg from you as the problem.  The system that creates the humiliation of begging is the problem.  Let’s mess it all up by giving it all away.   Recognize the humanity of all.

Sandra found an example of this.  On the cover of the bulletin you can see the “Love” paper sculpture created by hateful emails.   Honey Maid in an advertisement with the theme “This is Wholesome” depicted among various families a family with two dads and a mixed race family.   The company received a large number of hateful emails.    Some creative folks printed out the hateful emails and created this sculpture spelling the word “Love.”  That is turning the other cheek. 

It isn’t returning hate for hate, or violence for violence, nor is it allowing the haters to continue to humiliate.  The non-violent way of the historical Jesus is to love enemies.   You love them by insisting on the humanity of all.      You create something beautiful out of something ugly.

This collection of sayings have been inspirational texts for non-violent struggles such as the Civil Rights movement and the movement against apartheid.   They have also been interpreted as reinforcing passivity among those who are abused.   It depends on how they are interpreted.   I think understanding that the historical Jesus was speaking to occupied people in attempt to strengthen their resolve and inspire creativity helps us to interpret these texts in healthy ways that can foster transformation.    Even when it does not result external transformation at least it provides human dignity, and that is the crucial and important first step.

I printed in the bulletin those paragraphs from Emmet Fox because I think he interpreted this section masterfully.    He understood the resist not evil as not feeding the drama.   He wrote:

“Refuse to feed your own soul-substance into it.”

When people do the hating, they want you to enter their drama at their pace and with their rules.   Refuse to play.   Turn the tables.  Change the game.  Don’t get caught up in it.    Those who do the hating are likely caught up in someone else’s drama not of their making.  

When Jesus says, “Pray for your persecutors,” in this context it is recognizing the deeper humanity that binds all.    This hate, this violence, this anxiety is not our true nature, but is magnified fear and pain that spirals out of control.  We can recognize that and step out of that violent drama.    It is a trust that even though we cannot see it and are not in any position to see it, we are all broken people.    We all want love, acceptance, and understanding.  

The Dalai Lama in his wonderful book How to Expand Love advises starting in your mind with friends, those who are advantageous to you, then to those who you see as neutral, then to those who you regard as disadvantageous or enemy.     In each case, imagine and wish them well.  His is a very practical approach to expanding kindness, compassion, and peace.      

At the end of the day, it isn’t about texts or authoritative teachers.  It isn’t about rules or external circumstances.  It is about what is in our minds and our hearts and how to expand love. 

This isn’t easy.   I am in no way pretending that it is.  These are the hardest sayings of Jesus.  I think because they are the hardest, they have the potential to be the most transforming and life changing.     

As they say, we seek not spiritual perfection but spiritual progress.


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