Three Acts of Civil Disobedience
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 5: 38 – 41. Sermon focus is on Jesus’ three lessons on civil disobedience.
Back in seminary I had a wonderful professor of New Testament by the name of Walter Wink and he made the Bible come alive in a way that no one before had ever done. The name of the course was “How Did Jesus Incarnate God Before He Became God Incarnate?”
Great question and because of that question I asked him, “Dr. Wink why would anyone in their right mind follow the advice of Jesus?” And when I asked that question I had this text from Matthew’s Gospel in mind.
Because after reading the Bible you have to ask yourself why would the Jews ever let someone hit them on one cheek and then turn and let that same person hit them again on the other cheek? Why would they willingly give away an essential piece of clothing and walk a mile farther than they had to? It just doesn’t make sense.
It didn’t make sense until I realized that Jesus was doing the same thing that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was doing. He was preaching and practicing civil disobedience.
In our scriptures today Jesus isn’t talking about being a door mat. He’s talking to people who have no power. He’s talking to people who are slaves, or oppressed peasants in an unjust economic system. And what he is advocating here are three specfic acts of civil disobedence.
Now I’m going to need either one or three separate volunteers to demonstrate these lessons.
1) (Cheek) Now the passage about turning the other cheek is based upon this understanding of Jewish law as extrapolated from Leviticus 14: 15-17 where the left hand is the clean hand in dealing with the healing of a leper and the right hand is the unclean hand by which the priest touched the leper in order to perform the healing.
2) (Garment) The 2nd teaching is about being sued for your overcoat and then giving the person who sues you your cloak as well, and it is based upon two texts: Exodus 22: 26-27 where it says “If ever you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; for that is his holy covering it is his mantle for his body, in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”
And the second text is from Genesis 9: 21 –23 the passage that talks about Noah lying naked and drunk upon the floor and his son seeing his father’s nakedness and telling his brother, which provokes this response, “When Noah awoke form his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”
3) (Mile) and this last teaching says, “If anyone forces you to come 1 mile, go with him two.” This is a teaching concerning the laws governing Roman Legions when they were in occupied territories of the Empire.
Now the interpretation most of us probably have heard about this goes something like this: If someone forces you to go one, go the extra mile with him for in so doing you will be blessed and gain favor in God’s eyes.
But in its context, Jesus is teaching Jewish peasants who were living in a time of great injustice and the example that Jesus uses of “going the extra mile” was in regards to the Roman Impressment Law.
Under this law if a Roman Soldier passed you he could tell you to come carry his pack for up to one mile. By law you were forced to go with him, however he could not force you to go further, because if he did then he’d be in trouble with his platoon commander.
Simply put, at the end of the mile when the soldier asks for his pack back, simply say, “it’s ok, I’m good” and keep walking. Eventually this soldier would be pleading with you to get the pack back or else he may get in trouble.
When he commanded you to carry his pack he was in charge; now he’s pleading for it back and you’re in charge.
In the traditional model of a savior we have Jesus portrayed as someone who is perfectly obedient but that is not the picture of Jesus painted by scripture. The picture painted by scripture is of a rebel, which is good for us. If we have an obedient savior, someone who never rocks the boat then he can not save us. He will simply reinforce the status quo.
If, on the other had, our savior is disobedient to injustice we have a chance. Why, because for too long we’ve been told that sin is rebellion againt God, but the fact of the matter is that God loved a rebel and called him, “my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.” And raised him from the dead when as with Dr King they killed him for his disobedience to the power systems of his day.
You see when you are trapped in cycles of abuse, God is the one whispering – rebel! Rebel! When you are pinned under the thumb of an addiction, God is praying – rebel! Rebel! When you are oppressed, when your role in society is tightly prescribed for you, when the guardians of piety wag their disapproving fingers at you, God is saying – Rebel! Rebel! Amen