The wheel of fortune is actually very old. Manuscripts from the Middle Ages show the wheel of fortune, except there, the wheel of fortune doesn’t have money on it. It has people. On one side of the wheel, the side that is turning upward, nobles and knights and princes battle it out to see who will get on top, who will be most powerful. Who will be the best.
At the top of the wheel, the king and queen, or emperor and empress sit on their thrones with their crowns and scepters, not seeing the downside of the wheel, from which nobles and kings and queens fall as it turns, scattering their crowns and scepters into space and plunging down into oblivion.
In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus is calls us to a different wheel, a different game, a different and infinitely more true reality.
Jesus says some of the most challenging and controversial passages in all of Scripture. He says, “You have heard that it was said in old times, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other. If someone forces you to walk a mile, walk a second mile. If someone sues you and takes your shirt, give them your coat also. You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If you love the people who like you, how different are you from anybody else? Even the tax collectors do that. If you greet only those who are nice to you, how does that help anything, even the gentiles do that. Be perfect, complete, oriented to your purpose as God is perfect.”
Many people have problems with this passage because it has been interpreted to mean that Christians should be doormats, let other people walk all over them. I think it means something very different.
What I am about to share with you comes from a Biblical scholar and theologian named Walter Wink. It’s not the only way to read these passages, nor is it absolutely complete, but I want you to hear it.
In Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers struck each other with the palm of their hand or with a fist. When they did so, they were striking each other as equals. If they wanted to demean you or humiliate you, they would strike with the back of their right hand, to put you in your place. That would hit your right cheek. If you turned the other cheek, the soldier could not hit you with the back of his hand again. If he was going to hit you again, he would have to hit you with his palm, as an equal.
People might say, “Why didn’t the Palestinians rise up and throw the Romans out, kill them, show them who’s boss.” Well, they tried in 65-70 AD. They were crushed. But even if they had succeeded, would it not have been just another turn of the wheel, another turn in the game? The Judeans would be on top for a while, but sooner or later, someone else would come along and the wheel would turn again. That someone else would be superior. Then someone else again would come along after that. It’s the same game. It’s the same infernal game. Aren’t you tired of this hellish game?
No. Jesus calls us to a different game. Jesus insists on honoring the dignity of God in the Romans too. Even in the Romans, even in an enemy.
In Jesus’s day, a Roman soldier could force you to carry his backpack for one mile, no further. And they did. Some accounts suggest that whole villages ran and hid so they would not have to carry the Roman’s baggage. Now if you know how these things go, you will understand that if a Roman made you carry his backpack, you would probably do it. After all, you wouldn’t want to suffer the consequences. But you would put that pack down in a mile and not carry it an inch further. And you would hate that soldier. So the game goes. They force you, you hate them but you do it. They probably get a bit of a rush, a bit of a surge from making you do something you don’t want to do. It probably felt good that you hated them but could do nothing about it. The game is like that.
So Jesus says “Mess up the game. Choose to carry the pack two miles. Take a situation where you had no choice, in which your lack of choice means your lack of dignity, and make that game a game in which you choose.”
In Jesus’ day, everyone was being eaten alive by debt. If someone in your family got sick and you borrowed some money to make it through, and the crop failed that year so you couldn’t pay back, then your creditors could come and take some of your clothes as payment. Legally, they could take your shirt, but not your coat. So if your creditor takes your shirt, give them your cloak also. Strip naked, stand there in the courtroom without any clothes on. Shame the judges. Show how insane the system really is.
Jesus is insisting on a new game, a new reality in which everyone is of equal value, whether Roman or not, soldier or not, debtor or not. This is God’s reality, God’s realm.
Jesus says “You have heard it said, ‘you will love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ Actually the Old Testament never says “hate your enemy,” though I can see how people would interpret it that way. “But I say to you,” says Jesus, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Okay, so we are going to try a little spiritual exercise. You may remember a couple of weeks ago I talked about spiritual discipline, how it’s like playing scales on a piano or running laps at football practice. It makes us better at the game. Spiritual exercise makes us better at God’s game. So here it is. First, call into your mind an enemy.
If your enemy is someone that has done something really horrible to you, like raped you, or beaten you or humiliated you again and again and again, then I’m gonna give you a pass today. Please don’t feel like you have to do this unless you want to. It may not be time yet. You decide. It’s between you and God. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. I’d like you simply to sit here in the room, hold the dignity of God in yourself. Because that’s what you have, the dignity of God, can never be taken away. Even if people do things to us that make us feel like we have no dignity, God’s dignity is still there. Nothing can take it away. So simply be here with us, holding your dignity. You bless everyone else by doing this.
Now, for the rest of us, call your enemy into mind. Image the look on her or his face, how you would love to wipe that look away. Think about the sound of their voice, how it sets your teeth on edge, like fingernails scraping against a blackboard. Reflect upon how truly despicable this person is, how this person has hurt or now threatens you, your loved ones, the things that are important to you. Savor the taste of that loathing. It’s a kind of pleasure, isn’t it, to have somebody to hate.
Now, you ready? Okay. Fold your hands, bow your heads, close your eyes like your Sunday School teacher taught you a long time ago. We are going to pray.
Almighty God, we cry out to you in outrage and anguish over what this person has done or might do to us, our loved ones and the things that we hold dear. We ask for your wisdom and courage in standing up to whatever evil this person has done or might do, and in standing up to all evil. Also, oh God, we pray that you would bless this person. Give them healthy bodies, free of pain. Give them loving friendships and family relationships. Give them prosperous and fulfilling work, and accompany them on their journey, guiding them to wisdom and in the end, bring them into your eternal life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Now, how do you feel? Was that easy? Nobody ever said that following Jesus, following the way of the cross would be easy. It’s beautiful. It’s a wonderful adventure. Not easy.
It’s a different game. It is based on this absolute foundation. Goodness is stronger than evil. Love is stronger than hate. Light is stronger than darkness. Life is stronger than death.
We play this game in which our dignity comes from God and nowhere else. Unlike the wheel of fortune, this foundation does not turn. Our dignity does not fall out from beneath us. No. God’s game, God’s reality, God’s realm, God’s kingdom, God’s love wins. And God loves you. That’s the game we play, the truth we live.