A Different Path
These are the readings for the Feast of All Saints. For our Gospel lesson today, we have a reading that we usually see in two pieces. The first part we call the Sermon on the Mount, and the second part is the teaching about turning the other cheek and the Golden Rule.
The interesting thing to me about today’s readings is that we start with the Hebrew Scripture reading from Daniel. The Book of Daniel is what we call apocalyptic literature, that is, literature about the end times. This, for me, is in the same realm as what we used to call “soft” science fiction. What do I mean by that? Soft sci fi is not typically concerned about the facts of what might occur if X happens, but it is very concerned about how people will respond, about what the social ramifications would be. So, for instance, an early book I have called “The Disappearance” is based on a virus or something killing off all of the men on the earth, which they are not very technical about. The book is really about what happens then, how do people respond. Or another one is a great story about what happens when aliens come and take over just one section of normal interaction in our society.
In order to think this way, in order to write this kind of book, you have to be willing to suspend the normal. You have to be willing to see around corners, to see what is not there and then go on to play with it and pretend it is growing up. You may, in religious terms, see visions.
In Daniel’s time, it was normal for there to be a group of these people, called seers, who advised the king. They paid attention to their dreams, they courted and welcomed the idea of having visions, which was a good thing, since they were paid to do this.
There’s just one thing about visions and dreams – they are not factual. Please notice that I did not say that they are not real. There is a huge difference between something being factual and being real. The things that we see in visions and dreams are real, but they are representative realities – they stand for something else, which may or may not be factual. So, for instance, every once in a while I will have a dream about a house. I know that this means that I am assessing where I am in life. The things I deal with in this dream house may tell me something about how I am dealing with things in my life, but generally, there is no direct correlation.
Daniel talks about his dreams and visions. They are important, important enough to write down, writing things down then was a big deal, and these dreams were important enough that he decided to go to a trusted advisor to ask for help in interpreting what he has seen. But what does this mean for us today? From a factual standpoint, nothing! Daniel had a dream, it was important to him at the time, that is all. But if we step back, what I get from this is not about Daniel or his dream specifically at all, but rather the concept that we can and perhaps should pay attention to our dreams and visions. These give us access to a different type of reality, not a factual reality, but one that is real in other terms that are often not as valued in our society, but still important.
So hold that as a background when we start listening to Jesus in our Gospel lesson. He is speaking words and they do not make sense – if we try to take them literally. However, if we listen to them as “vision” talk, and if we hear them as the prelude to the second part of the lesson for the day, it is a little different.
So we have the first part that says: Happy are you when… Happy (which is an acceptable translation for “blessed”) happy are you when you are poor, when you are hungry, when you weep, when you are being persecuted. When that happens, rejoice! And how terrible for you when you are full, when you are rich, when people like you – and here’s the kicker, because you are like a false prophet. Vision talk! But what is the message? If you tell the truth, people are not going to be happy with you. That is a pretty clear message.
Then the second part – and look how he starts it off: But I say to you who are willing to hear – he knows this is not easy stuff! And do you hear the difference in the language? This is not hyperbole, this is not vision-talk that needs interpreting. It is the rule of life for his followers, given in light of the first vision section.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, offer the other cheek, give to those who ask and don’t demand things back.
There are several things going on here, so let’s unpack them a little if we can.
First, we have to remember the word “hyperbole.” I have brought this up before. Hyperbole is when you tell someone, “I’ve told you a thousand times…” It has not been a thousand times. It may have been a hundred, and more like twenty if you actually sat down and counted! But you don’t sit down and count. You want them to understand that you have done this so many times that you have lost count. It is a linguistic technique to let people know that this is important and it is on the edge.
Jesus goes over to the edge with is initial sayings. Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied. How terrible for you who have plenty, because you will be hungry.
Next, remember that in another gospel, there are three lessons – we only see two of them here, that actually have to do with shifting power. In the other gospel, it is: turn the other cheek, give up all of your clothing, and walk the second mile. All of these are a way where the powerless become powerful. We listen to what Jesus says here, and it initially sounds like Jesus is inviting us to become a doormat. In fact, he is suggesting just the opposite. By doing what he suggests, we take power into our hands.
How does this work?
When you love your enemies, you take their power away from them. Enemies want you to hate them, it’s how they maintain power. When you refuse to hate them, they lose their power over you, it’s that simple. Not easy, but simple.
Offering the other cheek requires local context. In that society, number one, you only use your right hand to do anything in public. Number two, you have to know that you hit your servant with a backhand, you hit your friend with a forehand. So “offering the other cheek” means that if you are a servant who has just been hit, you respond by offering the cheek of friendship. If you are a friend, then you are offering to serve. It is subtle from our perspective, but it would have seemed quite graphic to them.
Offering to give all your clothing to someone who had demanded your outer garment has to be placed in the context of a society where the person who caused the nakedness was the one who was shamed, not the naked person themselves. So when the powerful person demands your coat, Jesus says, shame them by taking off everything. Who has the power now?
Give to those who ask, and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. This is very hard for us to stomach, isn’t it? But think in terms of power. If someone takes your camera, and instead of demanding it back, you ask them to keep it, then you are in control, they cannot hurt you.
All of this is built on a story from the book of Kings that I love. In that story, the prophet is advising the King of Israel on how to keep safe from the raids of the King of Aram. The King of Aram wants to know who the snitch is, and his men say, no snitch, it’s the prophet! So the next day, the prophet’s servant goes out and there as far as he can see around the hills are the Aramean soldiers. He comes running back in terrified, and the prophet sends him back out again to “see” a different reality – one that includes the angels of God. When the soldiers come for him, instead of sending his servant out, he goes himself, and offers to lead them to him. They obviously cannot “see” what is going on, and he leads the Aramean army into the heart of the camp of the King of Israel. Here is where it gets really interesting. The King of Israel wants to kill them, a normal response, right? But the prophet says no! You will put on a big feast and feed them. So he does, and in the middle of the feast, their eyes are open, and they see that they are in the middle of the enemy camp, the enemy who is feeding them. The result is that they do not fight any more.
The biggest take-away for me from all of these lessons is perspective. Jesus invites us to a new perspective. If we choose to love our enemies, then we are refusing to “see” them as enemies. We see them as friends who are confused, perhaps, and doing things that are not healthy for us and for them, probably. If we are hungry, Jesus calls us to pay attention to whether we are willing to focus on being miserable, or on knowing that in the middle of that hunger, we can choose to know ourselves as blessed, and so on. Can you open your perspective this week? One of the pieces of perspective that we highlight today is that we are not alone in this world or the next. There are the “saints,” which is to say, there are all of those who have led us to where we are today, some of whose names we will read out loud. They are the ones who have taught us to be who we are, and we give thanks for them.
And perhaps they too, from their perspective now, also call us to a bigger perspective, a longer look, a wider arena. Are we willing to do that? What might change for us? Who would we have to quit calling enemy? What happens when we refuse to demonize the “other?”
One thing that happens is that many people will decide that we also have gone crazy, being willing to see the other as “person” rather than “demon.” They will call us enemy. It is much easier to categorize the world as dualistic, demanding that each thing and person be regarded as either good or bad.
Jesus offers us a different path, a different perspective, and a different action, one that transforms both us, and our former enemy. Thanks be to God.