“You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Vince Lombardi, coach of the Green Bay Packers back 50 years ago, is known to have said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” He’s kind of right. We orient everything toward winning. You feel better about yourself when you find something you can win at. So we strive to find areas where we can be the biggest, the fastest, the brightest, the best. Whether it’s getting an Olympic medal or being picked first at recess for kickball; whether it’s having a perfect 4.0 or just getting a better grade than an older sibling who took the same class; we all want to find some area where we can win, have the advantage, gain some power.
Because winning lifts you up above the losers. It gives you an advantage. It gives you power. There’s nothing so debilitating as losing. It’s a helpless, powerless feeling. So we struggle to find areas in which we can win and have power.
For centuries, this is how the church has operated too. We’ve struggled for power—whether the reasons were good or not are debatable, but power has often been the way the church operates. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, The Salem Witch Trials, the Moral Majority, and even today with the extreme right wing of Christianity fighting its own interpretation of evil, it’s about power—defeating some enemy. Overpowering them and bringing them into submission. For a good cause, of course…
Jesus has something specific to say exactly about that. Jesus knows all about those who struggle for power.
In Jesus’ day, it was blatantly obvious who had power and who did not. The Roman government did, Israel did not. Rome decided the legal system, culture, art, money, who was good and who was evil.
Not everyone was able to win in the Roman government. In Israel you were completely without power. Any Roman soldier could conscript anyone or anything to assist them in carrying their weapons. This power was often abused, as soldiers forced Jews to simply carry their weapons for up to a mile. It was a continuous reminder of the order of power: Rome had it all, Israel had none.
This is what Jesus is addressing in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. How do you deal with those in power when others are absolutely powerless? As church, we’ve often figured that we should just try to gain more power.
Jesus tells his disciples that you can’t begin by looking at power. In the reign of God, it’s not about power or winning, but about revealing God’s character. Instead of struggling for power, Jesus says struggle for compassion. The government deals in power; God deals in love.
The followers of Jesus are called to something different—something that short-circuits power and advantage. We are called as God’s people to reveal God’s love, whether people have power or not. Power doesn’t enter into the picture at all.
That’s what Christ’s church may be starting to figure out again in these recent days. It’s becoming more obvious that we are called to live differently than those who seek power or winning. If we’re struggling for political power, we by definition are not living as Christ calls. We are not being the church Jesus envisions. Anyone who claims to be a Christian but seeks positions of power, strength, intimidation, is the opposite of a follower of Jesus.
This is hard for us, because for centuries—including most of our lifetimes—we as church were included among the ones with the power and with the advantages. Because the church and our culture have been power partners for a long time.
In our current American context, texts like the Sermon on the Mount are beginning to make clear that disciples of Jesus cannot follow Jesus from positions of power. Turning the other cheek is the opposite of power. Walking a second mile isn’t like power in any way we know. Giving to everyone who asks gives power to the poor. Loving your enemies contradicts power.
Individually, sometimes we can identify with the powerless. Everyone who’s had surgery knows the feeling of absolute helplessness. Everyone who’s gone through the death of a loved one has experienced complete powerlessness. We actually get embarrassed if we can’t handle even these things with strength. We’ve been trained and rewarded for thinking in terms of power—both in the church and in the culture. But sometimes, as individuals, we don’t have any. So the Sermon on the Mount can have meaning for us personally. Grab hold of that when you are powerless.
But most of the time, we have been among the ones seeking power. But Jesus is being extremely clear on this. His disciples are called to something other than victory, power, and control. Everyone, he says, loves those who already love them. Everyone is good to their own friends. But Jesus is teaching that the way of God is different than what everyone else does. Life with God is about love and compassion and care for all. Those who follow Jesus don’t do so from the ways of power, but from living the ways of God.
That’s what the church is called to reveal to the world. That happens not in struggles for power and control, but in loving enemies and praying for those who wish you harm.
I hate to say it, but Vince Lombardi was wrong. You see, winning isn’t the only thing. Not for followers of Jesus. Loving is the only thing. It’s the only thing for God, which means it’s the only thing for God’s church.