February 12, 2017: 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
MMACC – San Diego, CA
Leviticus: 19:1-2, 11-18, 33-34
Psalm 119: 15-16, 7-20, 33-34, 36-37, 38, 40
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:18, 38-48
The aspect of today’s gospel that is perhaps most well known to us is the exhortation to turn the other cheek. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Now, it may seem strange that the right cheek is specified, but there’s a reason for this. Jesus’ words here aren’t just a blanket statement that if someone punches you on one side, to give them the other side. This isn’t support for being a doormat, rather, it’s a new way of responding to injustice. To understand this, it’s helpful to get some background on the context.
If we remember, Jesus is preaching these words to a people under occupation. Roman soldiers considered the Jewish people their inferiors. The situation here isn’t about a fair fist fight, but of a Roman soldier (or any person with “superior” status) backhanding a Jewish person. Since most Roman soldiers were right handed, if you were to punch someone, you’d hit their left cheek, but if you backhand them, you hit their right cheek. And this topic is one that a few biblical scholars, including Paul Penley and Walter Wink have done some work on. Jesus’ instructions to his followers both recognize the class structures that are at work in the surrounding society but also call for a peaceful subversion. Instead of retaliating in anger or meekly accepting the injustice, Jesus is advocating a response that demands respect from the Romans. A response that affirms the humanity of the Jewish people and their rights. By breaking the cycle of violence, by “taking the high road,” Jesus hopes to trigger the conscience of the perpetrator. Of course, this peaceful subversion isn’t instant. We’ve seen in our own country’s history with the work of civil rights activists just how long it takes to accomplish change. We’ve seen it in the work of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. It takes time. It takes persistence.
One of the soundbytes from the news this past week that has stuck with me is the words Mitch McConnell used in speaking about silencing Elizabeth Warren when she tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King on the floor of the Senate. "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” he said. These words of his have become a sort of rallying cry. She persisted. Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only one who persisted. Rosa Parks: she persisted. Ruby Bridges, one of the first black children in an integrated school; she persisted. Edie Windsor, whose lawsuit against the federal government paved the way for marriage equality; she persisted. Harriet Tubman, a former slave and spy who led hundreds of slaves to freedom; she persisted. Ida B. Wells, iconic writer, activist, and suffragette; she persisted. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black woman of a major party to run for president of United States; she persisted. Ilhan Omar, a former Somali-American refugee elected to congress in 2016; she persisted. Sylvia Rivera, the first 'trans activist' to call for a Gay Liberation movement inclusive of trans identities; she persisted.
Persistence doesn’t always make you popular. Indeed, people might tell you to sit down, shut up, or go away. They might call you annoying. Or worse. But there is something holy about persistence. Something holy about disrupting the system of injustice that exists around us. God does not call us to be complacent. God affirms our holiness – not because of our actions or our worthiness. Leviticus reminds us “You shall be holy, for I your God am holy.” How then do we carry out the exhortations form Leviticus – to be just, to welcome the stranger, to not seek vengeance…? We are, after all, only human.
We persist. We remember our shared humanity. That all of us are children of God – the construction workers waiting in the home depot parking lot, the clerk at the shopping store, the person who cut us off on the freeway, the undocumented worker, the family of refugees who has nothing left to go back to, the Muslim girl worried whether wearing a head scarf to school will cause her to be bullied, the trans child afraid to come out for fear of getting kicked out, the politician whose actions horrify us. Jesus asks us to persist. To persist in loving even those we might view as unlovable. To persist in working for justice in an unjust world. To persist in going the extra mile.