Reading: Matthew 5:38-45a
Having listened to the Old Testament lesson set for today, I am tempted to put my preparation aside and preach on the words, `Do not treat the deaf with contempt`. It`s right up there with the other commandments, and it`s very relevant to some of us who are having difficulty hearing these days.
On second thoughts, however, the gospel passage is so important that it cannot be put on one side. It appears in the lectionary only when Easter is very late and the Epiphany period is extended, which means that it can be that it only appears every four years or so. Whether this is by design or accident I have no idea. All I know is that it this is a passage which shows just how radical is the Christian faith.
Christians for the first two centuries were known as People of the Way - the way of non violence. They were identified by their refusal to engage in war. As a secular writer Celsus put it in 170AD: `If everyone became a Christian there would be no army`. Non violence was an integral part of the Christian Faith and it never ceases to amaze me how little this is recognised today.
The way of non violence as a feature of Jesus` followers came to an end in 313AD when the Emperor Constantine made a successful take over bid for the Church. The troops were baptized and within a short time were fighting `holy` wars, and Augustine was declaring that sometimes the best way to love one`s enemies is to kill them - which is absolute nonsense as far as Jesus is concerned. In this passage Jesus lays out a completely different Way of Life and calls us to be People of the Way.
The metaphors he uses are of course dated. We don`t slap people with the back of the hand as they did in those days, nor by law do we have to carry a soldier`s gear for a mile, and to strip off in court today is not the best way to make a point.
But the point at issue is still of supreme importance, and there are two things about non violence that are important to make:
(a) There is nothing passive about non violence. Non violence is about creative confrontation. Sam Harris saw two men fighting in the street and said to them, `Excuse me but could you tell me the way to West Street?` he fighters were so gob smacked that they stopped fighting and told him the way. Non violence is about acting creatively in the face of violence.
(b) It is not simply a strategy to effect social change. It is not about defeating an enemy, it is about loving a neighbour. Non violence is not a tactic. It is a way of life. It is a way of life lived by Jesus of Nazareth and a way of life to which he calls us.
Non violence lies at the heart of the Christian faith. The crucifixion of Jesus is about non violence being acted out. It is not about some ghastly contract to ensure eternal life in some kind of heaven.
Non violence was the hallmark of the early church. They pointed up the fact that to be a follower of Jesus is to take up the cross of nonviolence. They heard clearly what Jesus said, `If anyone would be my disciple, let them take up their cross and follow me`. You can`t get it much clearer than that!