Friday, January 10, 2014

The Power of the Imaginative Story: Matthew (part 7)

I wonder if, during certain parts of Jesus’ words that are reported in Matthew chapter five, his listeners thought that he had gone off the rails, that some of his mental circuits had gotten sizzled by the heat of the sun. He says things that violate basic wisdom, not to mention the logic of justice.

He reminds them of a familiar saying, one that is found in Exodus 21 but was also a common statement in the ancient near east regarding appropriate retaliation:

“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

It seems to make sense, really. It’s certainly better than the possibility of violent overreactions (as in, you steal my chicken, then I burn down your house, steal your children, and send you off to live with the scorpions). If offenses are addressed with like treatment, if the punishment is in proportion to the crime, then perhaps true justice—the restoration of balance—can be administered.

But that form of logic seems to be lost on Jesus. His “But I say to you” response is stunning in its reckless disregard for parity and fairness:

Do not resist an evildoer.

If someone sues you, give more than what was demanded.

If you are forced into servitude, serve beyond the requirements.

Be generous toward those who can never repay you.

These very unrealistic responses completely ignore the ongoing realities of the world. In order to keep the inevitability of injustice and violence at bay, responses that limit the effects of human violation are necessary. Otherwise, injustice will reign supreme, and the powerful will oppress and even destroy the weak.

So, how’s that working out for us today? Is justice or injustice the dominant theme in the world?

Jesus orients his listeners—including us—toward responses that do not seek to balance the scales of justice (sometimes thinly disguised forms of vengeance), but rather to break the cycles of injustice by refusing to keep the fires of violation blazing. Not responding in kind to violence and offense exposes those actions for the distortions that they are, allowing the twisted face of evil to reveal its true nature. Jesus suggests that his followers—like him—maintain a loose hold on what others hold dear, recognizing that the real treasures of life lie within God and not in the temporality of human life.

Poor Jesus. He’s just not a very practical man.

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