Thursday, February 16, 2017
Amidst the familiar, over-the-top statements we read in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 5:38-38) like "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" is a little line that Jesus says that could be a throwaway but I think deserves a little more attention: "Do not resist an evildoer." In the context of this passage, it serves as a summary explanation for the rest of the counter-intuitive instructions, but, on its surface, that seems to be a particularly ridiculous statement. Do not resist an evildoer? Then what are you supposed to do?
In this case, the Greek word rendered as "evildoer" is "πονηρῷ" which is the noun form of a word more often used in the New Testament as an adjective. The noun means "evil," but it implies an evil thing or person and not necessarily evil itself. (One might wonder whether they were different after all.) The King James Version tells us "resist not evil," and versions like the CEV and CEB take the evil out and tell us not to "get even with a person who has done something to you" or to "oppose those who want to hurt you" respectively. In those cases, I lament the loss of "evil" from the text altogether. On the whole, it seems that "evildoer" is a good translation, but it's worth remembering that, in this case, that evildoer is specifically targeting you. I don't think Jesus is asking us to lie down in front of evil itself. We are to stand up against those who stand against the people of God. But we are not to resist evil for our own sake.
Passages like the Sermon on the Mount were particularly important to those first Christians who risked their lives for the sake of the gospel. Getting slapped or robbed or tortured or killed was part of what it meant to be a disciple. Nowadays, those of us who live in the west risk so little culturally to follow Jesus. Imagine, though, what it is like to be a Christian in Iraq or Pakistan or Egypt or Somalia. What is it like to be a powerless minority that is constantly persecuted for its faith? How do you remain encouraged when you have no ability to appeal to a higher earthly power for justice?
"Do not resist an evildoer," Jesus says. Notice that he identifies the one who would strike you on the cheek or take your cloak or make you walk a mile as an evildoer. Isn't there comfort in knowing that the one who opposes us is also one who opposes God? Haven't God's people understood that the forces that seek to destroy them also seek to destroy God--a futile effort that will always, always lead to God's vindication of God's people? Also, in a system in which there is no appeal for earthly justice, Jesus defines faithfulness as enduring the persecution for Jesus' sake. For those persecuted Christians, there is no hope for vindication in this life, but there is a clear and definite promise of vindication in the next. God is on their side. Those who can do nothing are told to turn the other cheek as a means of embracing God's promise of redemption in the future.
"Do not resist an evildoer," Jesus tells us. That does not mean to give up. Turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile are not acts of resignation. They are acts of defiance. Through them, we defy those who think that they can defeat by persecuting us. By following Jesus' example, we claim a promise that is to be fulfilled in the next life. By letting God be our resistance, we proclaim our faith in God's power to give us what we cannot achieve on our own: vindication for God's people.