Matthew 5:38–48 [Jesus said to the disciples:] 38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so 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. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Very few people have the experience of raising monkeys in their life, but people believe and say, “Monkey see, monkey do.” We mean that people, particularly children, have strong ability to imitate what they see, hear and feel. In God’s creation, animals as well as human beings are reflective and responding creatures. They learn facial expressions, many behaviors and skills for survival through imitation. Humans are on the top of the line when they are influenced and shaped by those who raise them and live around them.
1991 in Uganda, a monkey-boy was found in the jungle near a village. After seeing his mother murdered by his father, this traumatized 4-year-old boy fled into the jungle, where he was raised by monkeys, and lived like a monkey until his discovery. When this feral child was found, he resisted capture by the villagers. He learned from monkeys and survived in the monkey’s lifestyle. Since he was back to human life, he learned how to eat, to speak, and to behave like a human. Now he returned to be human again and could sing songs, too. In fact, he even toured with the Pearl of Africa children’s choir. This monkey-boy’s story tells us that we humans might imitate animals to be animals, and also can imitate civilized humans to be humans.
Imitation is a part of animal instinct. Chicks learn how to find food through imitation of mothers. The cubs of a mama coyote learn hunting skills through imitation. Babies and toddlers learn to smile and to speak through imitation. We have to thank God for the wonderful creation of neuron mirrors in animal and human systems. The neuron mirror, by definition, means that those nerve cells are able to respond to and imitate exterior stimulations like a mirror. Babies are not able to reason, but their neuron mirrors are extremely active to mimic your smiles as they smile back to you. And the sensation of their own smiles gives their body and mind a sense of safety, comfort, and being loved. If someone is mean and angry toward the baby, the baby will imitate to be mean and angry by nature, and the reflection of its body will cause pain and fear. This baby is not going to smile back to the angry face. Children don’t need to study their mother tongue. They all learn the accurate pronunciation and vocabulary through their neuron mirrors. That’s why ESL is so hard for adults because their neuron mirrors are no longer very active and vital. Our neuron mirrors build us up through reflective responses to the love and role model of our parents and the people around us. People pay big bucks to enjoy an opera. Their neuron mirrors cause their vocal cords to vibrate along with the aria singers and give people tremendous pleasure.
Therefore, we can safely say that we humans mutually influence and shape each other, especially young people. People love to join a peaceful and joyful Christian community because they feel welcome, safe and joyful as well. I believe that the best way to grow our church is for us to be who we are, the true followers of Jesus with desirable character traits.
Jesus taught us the golden rule in Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.” He knew that God created us as reflective and responsive beings. We are shaped to a large extent by the input from others. We are to smile back to smiling people. We are humble to humble people, and loving to loving people. We treat people the way we want them to treat us. Our behavior is an input into people’s life, and people will respond accordingly. Human mutual influence can be either a vicious cycle or a mutual buildup.
There is tough teaching by Jesus in today’s gospel lesson. Matthew 5:38-41 “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.” Because of this teaching, two of my friends confronted me, saying that they are not going to be Christians. They believed that this teaching was not practical but was ridiculous for Christians and non-Christians alike. How can a person who is insulted by a spank turns the other side also? My friends preferred to believe the principle of “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” and to reject Jesus’ teaching.
This is the difference between Jesus and the world. Jesus knew that the world tells people to avenge insults as a way to protect oneself and to deter further hurting, but Jesus says “I say to you…” in an unconventional and spiritual way of approaching the problem.
The saying “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” is a legal term for the judge to weigh the punishment for the offender. This ancient law is to remind people that there is a corresponding responsibility for anyone who hurts others intentionally. This law is to make people pay for the damage they have caused. People have to think about the consequence before they hurt anyone. The legal principle helps maintain peace, justice and fairness in society. The possible consequence deters possible offenders from hurting the innocent.
Now Jesus talked to His followers how to handle the insult by evildoers, and how to resist oppression and injustice with a non-violent approach. We all wish that we could live in peace with others. We don’t want enemies or adversaries in life at all. However, life is not necessarily fair and peaceful. It doesn’t matter how nice, rich, influential, and old you are, you have some adversaries in life. Jesus said in Matthew 10:36 “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” No one is able to stay free from rivals in the family and in society. Joseph had ten wicked brothers intentionally against him as an innocent little one. Pope John Paul the Second was assassinated by a young Muslin. Jesus didn’t do anything wrong or hurt anyone, but he was hated and condemned to death on the cross. Every person has to be prepared for some sort of adversary in life. That was what Jesus was talking about.
Striking on one’s cheek does not mean to kill or to injure this person, but an insult. In our modern context, it might mean a hateful or a discriminative trash talk. What are we going to do in such a situation? Are we going to curse back, or to bear with it in order to diminish the tension? It depends on whether we are going to listen to Jesus.
Yes, our natural response according to the reflection of our neuron mirrors drives us to fight back. We all want to make the offender pay and make things even. However, in our anger and frustration, we always forget that our foes are the same carnal creatures as we are. Their neuron mirrors are as alive and active as ours. Our response to fight back will escalate the tension and animosity, leading to unpredictable and even worse results. Here Jesus gives us preventives so that we don’t pour gasoline on fires and further hurt each other. Let us not repay the evil with evil, for hate never ends by itself.
By not striking back, we also can disable the hot button in our life. Some of our sophisticated adversaries know for sure that there is a hot button in our life. If an insult is able to trigger it, they would do it. This means we surrender our self-control to our enemy as long as we respond to evil with evil. In other words, if an exterior evil can make us do evil, we lose our freedom and identity as the children of God under the control of the Holy Spirit. This is a great plot by Satan to lower us down to the level of the evildoer. We are no better than our enemy, since we want to bite back a bad dog because we were bitten. Christians listen to the shots called by the Lord alone, not by our nature, nor by our enemy. Again the golden rule echoes and tells us what to do, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We don’t like to be insulted. That’s why we don’t ever insult others in return in any case. Self-control in truth and love safeguards our identity as the children of God. Joseph didn’t pay back for the evil his ten wicked brothers did against him, so that he could be greatly used in God’s kingdom. David didn’t treat King Saul as the way Saul persecuted him. That’s the way David stayed clear of evildoing. We Christians are called and trained to be Christ-like. We are empowered to be worthy of our faith.
At the same time, we don’t want to lay off God, for God is good at punishing evildoers. God promised in Romans 12:19-21, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Our God takes much better care of our enemy than we can. We continue to be good to our enemy. Feed them with good stuff and we will heap burning fire on their heads. Then hopefully they will reflect on their own wrongdoing and repent.
As the monkey-boy was shaped as a monkey by monkeys, we also can be evildoers by the bad example of evildoers. Also we are God’s children and are able to provide good example for the evildoers to win them back as the monkey-boy imitated the civilized manner to be a human again. That’s why Jesus asks all of us to be good mutual examples as well as we can. John 13:15 “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Our neuron mirrors and the Holy Spirit work together to reshape each other in the will of God. This world needs the good role model, and more importantly, the good imitators to follow the good example. We are called to church to witness as good examples of mature and spiritual Christians to reshape the world. Always remember who we are, the followers of the greatest role model, Jesus Christ, and the role model to the world.
If God’s children continue to live out Jesus’ teachings, and furthermore extend them from individual to a social movement, we will witness more power. As we learn to turn the other cheek, give the cloak as well, and go the extra mile for the sake of Jesus, we grow from personal silent protest to a movement of civil disobedience. America produced a great naturalist thinker, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862). He was tired of the industrialized life in the city. He moved to a forest and lived in a hut near a pond in Concord, MA. There he could pour his attention on the word of God and meditate. He believed that Jesus’ teaching of this non-violent protest is also a peaceful means to resist evil, particularly evil from a bad government. He did not promote anarchy. He provided a thought and an outline for citizens to fight against illegitimate authority. This is the initiation of the principle of civil disobedience. Drawing upon Jesus’ teaching, Thoreau developed the philosophy of civil disobedience which later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy in Russia, Mohandas Gandhi in India, and Martin Luther King, Jr. in America.
Starting with Jesus’ non-violent protest, this peaceful civil disobedience did change the world and this country as well. Leo Tolstoy first saw the power of this approach and published articles to further this ideal. Mohandas Gandhi was the first person to use this ideal and apply it against the colonial rule of Great Britain. At first, the Indian people couldn’t understand how a revolution without gunpowder could end the violent colonial rule, and the British Monarchy couldn’t understand the approach, either. They believed the military power was good enough to maintain the colonial control. On the stage of the Indian Independent movement, the world suddenly saw the irresistible power of this non-violent civil disobedience. The firearms in the hands of soldiers no longer worked as well as they did to the armed resistance. A British horseback sergeant was puzzled why his arms became feeble when he was ready to hit a bear headed Indian civilian with a rod. Thousands upon thousands of Indians filled the prisons voluntarily. Violence and killing by the powerful British soldiers were confronted by a more powerful civil disobedience. Great Britain had to give up its largest colony. The Indian people won, and the world witnessed the power of the collective non-violence protest.
Americans also witnessed racial discrimination and oppression in this country. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King took over the baton of civil disobedience and changed the course of history by leading the civil rights movement for African Americans half a century ago. This civil disobedience movement changed the political landscape of the United States forever. Jesus didn’t come to the world on horseback with a sword in hand. He came to preach peace and peaceful means to handle conflicts among peoples. Unfortunately, China is one of many countries who didn’t have an opportunity to witness the power of Jesus in making a social change in a peaceful way.
If we can treat our adversaries as Jesus teaches us, being non-contending, forgiving and be an intentional role model for them, we are pretty good followers of Jesus. It might take years for us to grow to be spiritually mature. But our Lord still expects more from us. Jesus not only wants us not to imitate the evildoers, but also encourages us to imitate our God, the Father, as we grow in perfection. Jesus says in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” When I read this portion of the Gospel, I always sighed deeply, “Lord, you know that I can never be perfect. How can I?” Yes, the Lord tells us that we can be at least one step closer toward being perfect by loving our enemies and praying for them. It is so easy to love our nice neighbors and hate our enemies, but Jesus wants to make a difference in our lives – to love and pray for our enemies, because in imitation of God’s perfection, we have to love our enemies. God loves us when we are still God’s enemies. The Savior prays for us and pays the price to turn our life around. This is the God we believe and love, a perfect God of love.
As God shines light and showers rains upon all sinners, Jesus prayed and died on the cross for all. When His worst enemies nailed Him on the cross, He prayed for them, “Father, forgive them! They don’t know what they do.” Jesus loved them by welcoming one of His fellow inmates to Paradise. Jesus not only preaches God’s love for the enemies, but also demonstrates His love through praying and rescuing. If we want to see divine perfection, here is Jesus. If we want to learn how to grow in divine perfection, these are the steps: 1. don’t imitate the evildoers, 2. set an example as a follower of Jesus in order to change ourselves, our adversaries and society, 3. love and pray for the unlovable, and 4. be eager imitators of the Lord moving toward perfection.