Sunday, October 8, 2023

HOMILY: "Jesus and the Third Way"

Sunday, October 8, 2023 

‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be consistently compassionate, therefore, as your heavenly Father is consistently compassionate.'

MATTHEW 5:38-48


It may have been a hundred years ago, and it may have been Gandhi in India who said: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  But it’s painfully and obviously true again this morning, as friends in Israel and Palestine wake up to scarred landscapes and frightened children, hundreds dead and thousands wounded, in what seems to be an inevitable chain of Hamas attacks and Israeli retaliation.  Inevitably, the logic of apartheid nurtures contempt, incites despair, inspires a warrior spirit in Gaza.  Some argue that it’s understandable—given the decades-long occupation and the years-long blockade of Gaza itself.  But I’d argue this morning that it’s tragically misguided and even cruel in an all-inclusive kind of way.  

Tragically, it seems, the warriors out of Gaza and retaliators in Israel believe the very same thing, the very same thing: that violence and only violence will drive the other to…to what…to new visions of coexistence…to new appetites for compromise and peace…to justice?  What in their history, what in any history, would possibly make them entertain that possibility? 

So the only thing that seems sure this morning, the only thing is that Gandhi was right.  And “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  We’ve seen it in our own American misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”  We’ve seen it play out in American cities and streets—as police brutality and mass incarceration ruin lives, demoralize families and perpetuate despair.  “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

If we’re honest and awake, history tells us that violence simply fans the flames of despair and distrust.  Vengeance simply corrupts human imagination and kindness.  And so the grim cycle of this conflict, this conflict in the Holy Land, is repeated; and dear people, wonderful people, children of Abraham all, are chained to the habits and blindness of their leaders.  Who are more than happy to promise that this war, that this attack, that this barrage will make all the difference


The late scholar and activist Walter Wink used to say that the radical purpose of the Christian story is to unmask the power and mythology of violence.  That’s exactly how he’d put it.  That the story of Jesus—from beginning to end, from the Sermon on the Mount to his death on the cross—is God’s way of unmasking the power and mythology of violence.  

You see, over and over again, throughout human history, great statesmen (and some stateswomen) have promised that the next attack, the next war, the next weapon will make all the difference.  Over and again, across human cultures, religious leaders have promised that subjugating this group or isolating that one, or crucifying that one rebellious dreamer, will order the world once and for all.  Hey, we see it happening even today—where the high priests of American fundamentalism promise (right?) that purging society of trans kids and drag queens will make America great again, or that keeping immigrants out at the border will stabilize American morality again.  It’s a story as old as time.

And against these promises, against history’s temptations, stands the Gospel, our Gospel, the story of the nonviolent Christ who reveals over and again that only the power of Love—which is the power of God—transforms violence and distrust into communion and possibility.  It is that same nonviolent Christ who reveals even on the empire’s terrible cross—when the whole world cries, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!”—that Love and not violence brings hope out of darkness and peace out of despair.

And this brings us to Matthew 5, verse 38, and these ten difficult, provocative, essential verses of the Sermon on the Mount.  We can’t change what happened yesterday in the Holy Land.  Or what happened 20 years ago in Iraq.  Or three summers ago in Louisville and Minneapolis.  But we have choices, Jesus says: we always have choices about how we move forward, how we choose to love, how we resist the logic and power and mythology of violence in our lives.  It’s a matter of faith.  It’s a matter of belief.  And it’s more crucial now than any creed or doctrine is—for Christians at least.  To love nonviolently, to live nonviolently, to organize nonviolently is belief.

It’s important to our understanding of these verses—and to everything we make of them in our own lives—that we begin with a couple of 1st century realities, a couple of 1st century givens.  

First, a first century person—at least in the ancient semitic cultures of the Holy Land—would never hit with the left hand, always, always with the right.  To even gesture with the left was forbidden by the elders and shamed in their communities.  Just wasn’t done.  To hit the right cheek with the right hand, then, meant a backhanded blow.  Like this.  That’s how you’d get the right cheek with the right hand.  A backhanded blow.  So Jesus is talking about a backhanded blow to the right cheek.  He’s talking about getting slapped, hard, by the back of the right hand.  

Second, then, that backhanded blow was almost always intended not to injure, but to insult; not to wound, but to humiliate; to visibly and emotionally demoralize the one struck.  It was intended to reinforce the status of one against the status of the other.  Routinely delivered not to equals, but to subordinates; to those considered inferior, of lesser value and weaker standing in the community.  In Roman occupied Palestine, this kind of violence was all too common: masters backhanded servants; husbands backhanded wives; parents backhanded children; Roman soldiers backhanded Jewish upstarts.  

What Jesus is getting at here is the way systems of inequity and even abuse are perpetuated in community life.  He’s unmasking, if you will, the ways human beings enforce bigotry and misogyny, racism and classism, all of it.  This is a teaching about power.  About control.  About enforcement.


And traditionally, not just in semitic culture, but across all human cultures, there are two ways—two primary ways—of responding to that backhanded blow, to the perpetuation of violence and inequity in human community.  It’s fight or it’s flight.  You fight back, or you scamper the heck out of there.  You marshal your anger and swing hard, or you figure out the fastest way home.  It’s fight or it’s flight.

And here’s where Jesus provokes, maybe inspires, another way, a third way.  Let’s call it “a third way.”  Not fight, not flight, but a third way.  

You see, when that first century Jew turns to his attacker with the left cheek; remember he’s been hit by the backhanded slap on his right. When he turns to his attacker with his left cheek, the attacker can’t strike with the backhand again.  It’s impossible because his nose is in the way.  Now he could haul off and hit him with his fist, that’s obviously an option.  But custom was that only equals fought with their fists.  And the last thing a master wanted to do was establish his servant’s equality, his servant’s equal standing in the eyes of their community.  

So you see, this act of defiance, the strategy of resistance Jesus preaches here, renders the master, the superior, the racist incapable of asserting dominance in the relationship.  That violence is now unmasked.  The master can choose to have the servant beaten, of course, and often did.  But he will not intimidate the believer.  He will not humiliate the believer.  He will not demoralize him.  Because by turning the “other cheek,” the believer is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you.  I refuse to be humiliated any longer.  I am your equal, and I am a child of God.”  You see how it goes?  The old order is passing.  Violence no longer rules.  “I am a child of God,” he’s saying, “and I won’t take this abuse anymore.”

Gandhi used to say that “the first principle of nonviolent action is that of noncooperation with everything humiliating.”  And that is indeed what Jesus is suggesting, not only in his teaching, but in the very ways he lives his life and practices his faith in a dangerous world.  “Noncooperation with everything humiliating.”  So—no to fight, and no to flight.  And—yes to bravely stripping the bully, the blowhard, the tough guy of his power to dehumanize and degrade the Children of God.  It’s not pacifism that Jesus is counseling here: it’s active, disciplined, creative nonviolence.

And how different this is from the usual take on this passage that seems to suggest turning the other cheek only so the bully can clobber us again and again?  It was never, ever what Jesus intended.  To those abused by the powerful, to those oppressed by authority, to those shackled to second class citizenship, Jesus says: “Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don’t answer the oppressor, the bully, the warrior in kind.  Ours is a new way, a third way: it's not pacifism and it’s not violence either.  It’s the way of the Children of God!” 


Now I’ve got to finish with a story that I know I’ve told here before.   But it leaps to mind, this story, every time I read this text, every time I hear Jesus counseling creativity and loving resistance to systems of oppression.  And today, of all days, it seems like the right way to bring this idea home.  This idea of “the third way.”

Fifteen years ago, during my first visit to Israel, and then to the West Bank, I found my way to Hebron, one of Palestine’s most divided and dispirited cities.  In communities attached to the biblical tradition, Hebron’s known as the resting place of ancestors: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah—they’re all said to be buried right there, in the city’s center.  These days though, it’s an anxious city, and a fractured city, where occupying Jewish settlers on the upper floors of settlements toss garbage and sometimes even scalding water at Palestinians in the streets below.  Whole markets are shuttered and vacant, buffer zones between small Jewish settlements and larger West Bank neighborhoods.  It’s apartheid, and has been for decades.  Where two peoples live separate and very unequal realities.

I was greeted that first afternoon by Tareq Natsheh, a 21-year-old engineering student—a friend of a friend—who’d invited me to stay with him and his Palestinian family for a few days.  He led me on a tour of the city that had raised him and inspired him and broken his heart several times over.  

He pointed out security towers, where young Israeli soldiers—some even younger than he—kept watch, sometimes laughing as teens do, sometimes sneering and pointing their American rifles at Palestinian elders and families below.  We ducked into one of Hebron’s few open shops and wolfed down a couple of yummy falafel sandwiches.  Talking about conflict and peace, and hope as a lifestyle.

Tareq was raised by a storied Muslim family of civil servants and academics.  Back then, in 2008, he was a leader in a youth movement dedicated to nonviolence and coexistence in his city.  And even though I was disoriented by my first visit to the Middle East—unnervingly so—I felt a remarkable sense of safety in Tareq’s presence.  Certainly he knew his away around the city.  But even more, he carried himself, everywhere, with confidence and hopefulness.  Like he expected the best from people, all people, and from himself.  I was twice his age, but I remember thinking that I had so much to learn from him.

Leaving the falafel shop, we turned a corner and headed for home.  Tareq was excited to introduce his new American friend to his mother, and his cousins, and his Palestinian brothers.  

But just then, on our way home, a young Israeli solider called out from a protected shelter across the street: “Hey you!”

Tareq turned to me, discreetly, and said: “Gotta go over.  No choice here.”  And then he led me over to that shelter—where the young soldier slumped against a gated shop.  And he asked Tareq: “You from here?”  And Tareq said: “I’ve lived here all my life.”  

The boy asked him: “You got friends?”  I remember thinking that he seemed strangely disinterested.  But obligated.

Tareq answered calmly and carefully.  “I’ve got lots of friends,” he said.  The boy with the gun nodded toward me.  “This, one of your friends?”  And Tareq said: “Sure, he’s one of my friends.  I have a lot of friends.”  And I realized then, in that moment, that I’d never seen anything like this before, any conversation remotely similar.  Tareq was so remarkably composed, so at home in his own skin.  The other boy had the gun, but Tareq was powerful.  And I was glad to be with him.

The soldier said: “How old are you?”  And Tareq answered: “I’m twenty-one.”  And then, for the first time, he asked a question, Tareq asked a question: “And how old are you?”

At this, the young Israeli smiled, a little awkwardly, and Tareq smiled too, for the first time.  “I just turned twenty,” the boy said.  “I’m twenty.”  The soldier was a year younger than the activist.  

And then Tareq asked: “What do you think about what’s going on here?”  And suddenly, the dynamics of their conversation in the street had shifted.  It was, suddenly, a whole new world.  And the two of them were at the center of it.

And the boy said: “To tell you the truth, I’m bored.”  And he fidgeted then, with this gun, and he picked at his adolescent stubble.  “Honestly,” he said, “this is the worst place in the world.”  And it was just amazing.  I remember thinking: This is just amazing.  Two young men, two very young men, were talking, out in the open, a public conversation at one of the Middle East’s most contested intersections.  And the soldier said to Tareq: “I can’t wait to get out of this place.”

Tareq nodded, and then he asked another question: “Do you realize that your government makes it this way?”  The boy answered: “I don’t know.  I think religion just screws it all up.”

My friend Tareq had done this before.  Had had this conversation before.  He was—and still is—decent and daring.  In his eyes that afternoon I saw a kind of fierce kindness, a faith that refused despair and resisted violence.  He believed in his city, and in his family, and in his friends; and he projected that faith in the way he spoke, in the way he moved through his city’s ravaged streets.  

I’m not sure that back then Tareq knew much about the Sermon on the Mount.  He was a Muslim after all, but that hardly seemed important to me as I watched him, as I listened to him, as he looked the young soldier in the eye.  He was offering me a first-class lesson in noncooperation with evil, noncooperation with everything humiliating, a primer in what it means to turn the other cheek.  My new friend, 21 years old in the West Bank, was showing me the “third way” in action.

And then, right then, he did the most amazing thing.  He took a step toward the young Israeli soldier and laid his hand on the boy’s wrist.  Can you imagine?  Tareq said: “We need to get going, but I want to ask you to think about leaving all this.  There’s a group of Israeli soldiers who are doing that.  They’re just like you.  You can find them.  []  You don’t have to do this.  This isn’t all there is.  And you can choose another life.”

It was a stunning moment.  Maybe one of the most stunning I’ve ever witnessed.  A young Palestinian encouraging a young Israeli, conscripted into an occupier’s army, to choose peace, to study war no more, to risk humiliation (and maybe worse) for a higher purpose.  Tareq took a brutal situation, another demeaning encounter, and he transformed it into an invitation.  You don’t have to do this.  You can choose another life.  And the Israeli boy said: “I’ll think about that.”  And then Tareq and I walked away.  To meet his family.  Just like that.


My heart’s breaking this morning for my beautiful Palestinian friends in the West Bank who are, as we speak, enduring yet another day of sirens, tanks and armies in their streets.  And my heart’s breaking this morning for my beautiful Israeli friends in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem who are, as we speak, huddled in bomb shelters—because they’re quite sure the bombs are soon to fall again and violence is soon to shatter any sliver of peace in their lives.  My heart breaks for these proud peoples, children of Abraham all.  I’m personally persuaded, with human rights groups around the world, that the racialized oppression of the Palestinian people is indeed a system of apartheid; and until that system is undone, until human rights are protected and justice is done for all God’s children in the Holy Land, violence will be a unbroken cycle of raids and bombings and despair and impoverishment.  Peace begins with the dismantling of Israeli apartheid.  That’s the work ahead of them, and the project they’re asking us to support through action and solidarity.

And my prayer, then, is that you and I and somehow they will take Jesus to heart and devote ourselves to his “third way.”  Not yielding to hatred and violence.  Not giving in to cynicism and warmongering.  That’s why I’m so determined to promote and expand the excellent witness of the Apartheid Free Movement.  It’s the third way.  We don’t yield to hatred and violence.  We don’t give in to cynicism and warmongering.  And we don’t give up and sit this one out, either.

My prayer is that we in the American church will devote ourselves to creative, disciplined, risky nonviolence.  Unmasking the power and mythology of violence in our own land, and choosing instead the radical, vulnerable, powerful Love that has always been the true alternative.  The third way.  It’s the Love Jesus offers in every word of the Sermon on the Mount.  The third way.  It’s the Love he offers in every breath and every prayer and every tear he weeps on the cross.  The third way.  It’s the Love is our true hope, our only freedom, and the measure of our humanity.  Always.  As Children of God.

Amen and Ashe.


More Resources for You and Your Community:

The Daily Brief:


Apartheid Free:

Movie: "Israelism" on Changing Views in American Judaism