Are You Sure, Jesus?
 — Rev. Phil Hobson

February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
Matthew 5:38-48

Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.

The big story of the Old Testament is people slaving away, literally, in Pharaoh’s brickyards. Their life is making bricks from sunup to sundown. And the reward for making lots of bricks is a higher quota of bricks to make. From the lowliest brickmaker all the way up to Pharaoh, king of Egypt,this is a life of anxiety.

But God hears their cry. And God sends Moses. And God leads the people out of slavery and into the wilderness, and through the wilderness to a land of good soil and good water and plenty.

And unlike Pharaoh, God is not anxious. Or, as Chip Hastings’s sign on his desk used to say, “The Lord does not panic.”

The rest of the first five books of the Bible describe and prescribe a life that is lived under the leadership and sovereignty of this non-anxious God who brought them out.

We often here these as a whole bunch of thou shalts and thou shalt nots, but something important is going on. Some of them we expect: no stealing, no lying, no dealing falsely, no misuse of God’s name.

You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him.
The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with
you all night until the morning.

(Did you catch that? Treating your workers badly is oppressing your neighbor and robbing them…)

You shall not curse the deaf
or put a stumbling block before the blind,
but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.

In God’s covenant, unlike Pharaoh’s brickyard, it is about caring for people: people who are disabled, people who work for us, each other. God is on their side. Pharaoh does not care about people, he cares about their productivity, and the deaf and the blind are seen as not helpful in a brickyard.

The two verses right before this are so important:

When you reap the harvest of your land,
you shall not reap your field to its very border,
neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest.

And you shall not strip your vineyard bare,
neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard;
you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner:
I am the LORD your God.

Farming is hard work. Farming has always been hard work.

And when we work hard, we want to get the full benefit of that work. We don’t want to leave any money on the table. In God’s covenant however, you should work hard, but when it is time to gain the benefit of that hard work, leave the corners and the edges. When you gather all your profits, leave some for those in need: specifically the poor and the sojourner, the foreigner, the alien in your land.

In Pharaoh’s brickyard, every single brick is counted: they all better be there! But in God’s covenant, there is plenty. There is so much so that you can leave some behind for those in need and you will still have enough.

Which brings us to Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said,
‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

You hit me, I hit you back. You break my arm, I get to break yours. Now, an eye for an eye is better than what came before it. But not by much. He goes on to say:

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.

Are you sure, Jesus?!? This sounds like being a doormat, like not taking care of ourselves.

I am going to need a volunteer.

The Roman world was right handed. To be left handed was to be seen as deficient and less than. So if you want to strike someone’s right cheek, you have to hit them backhanded. This is how someone higher up the social ladder hit someone lower than them. Turning the other cheek means that if I am going to hit you, I have to do it swinging the way you do to hit an equal.

If I follow through with my act of violence I have just shown everyone watching that you are my equal, not the result I was aiming for.

In those days, people usually wore two garments, a coat and a cloak. If someone borrows money from someone else, the lender can take their outer garment as collateral. As we just heard in Leviticus, you are not to keep someone’s outer garment overnight, because it may be the only blanket they have.

But Jesus takes it a step further. If someone sues you for your outer garment for collateral, take off your other piece of clothing and give it to them as well. How many items of clothing do you have? If you have given your lender both, what are you?

Lending and credit so easily become traps that people cannot get out of, and it strips people of their humanity and their dignity. Lending can quickly become a way of developing haves and have nots. And Jesus tells them to witness to this system in no uncertain terms.

Under Roman law, a soldier could force a person who was not a Roman citizen to carry their stuff while they were on the march: about 70 pounds of weapons and tools and equipment. But by law, they were only allowed to force you to carry it one mile. Probably because the landowners raised a stink if all of their field hands get marched off never to return.

and if anyone forces you to go one mile,
go also the second mile.

This is not merely “Do more than is expected,” although that is a fine idea. This is “after you have gone as far as he is legally allowed to force you, don’t give him his stuff back. Keep marching.” Because if you keep marching, the one who is in trouble is the one forcing you to carry his stuff!

So, yes, Jesus is sure that these are good ways of witnessing to the ways Pharaoh’s brickyard is endlessly seduction (as Uncle Walt would say). But these seemingly harmless practices turn the situation around, change how we understand power and people, demand that we see one another not as commodities or helpful for our own agendas, but see each other as human beings, children of God.

Thanks be to God.