Biblically, wildernesses aren't so much places where we are punished; the wilderness/deserts are places where we are prepared. Frequently, the time of preparation is symbolized by 40 days. As we enter into Lent, which last for 40 days, it would do us well to ask the question, “for what are we being prepared?” Looking at Matthew 4:1-11, the scripture Lent uses as it's foundation, I take a fresh look at what Lent can mean to us.
27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Humans are a race of dominance; a race of power over; a race of violence. As far as I can see we always have been. It is so much a part of us that linguistic idioms that communicate our vindictiveness are common place: “Eye for an Eye and a Tooth for a Tooth,” “Quid Pro Quo,” “Tit for Tat,” “Let the punishment fit the crime.” Retributive justice seems to be an almost primal need.
When the first ever World Report on Violence and Health was released, it said the death and disability caused by violence make violence one of the leading public health issues of our time. Violence is among the leading causes of death for people aged 15-44 years of age, accounting for 14% of deaths among males and 7% of deaths among females. On an average day, over 1400 people are killed in acts of homicide - almost one person every minute. Roughly one person commits suicide every 40 seconds. About 35 people are killed every hour as a direct result of armed conflict. In the 20th century, an estimated 191 million people lost their lives directly or indirectly as a result of conflict.
Even religions are violent. Muslim extremist conceptualized and executed the event of Sept the 11th. In the Spanish Inquisition Christians abused, tortured, or executed more than 300,000 people (including other Christians) - 2,000 of whom were burned at the stake. Then there is violence based on ethnicity. In the holocaust, or the Ha-Shoa, Hitler and the Third Reich killed 9 to 18 million people. In Darfur an internalized genocide has killed more than 400,000 people in graphically gory ways. War, of course, kills too. In the 20th century alone over 35 billion people lost their lives as a direct result of war.
Our human lust for power and as a result violence is so strong we’ve had to event new words to categorize violence of the powerful. Democide is death by government. From government endorsed famine to regime initiated massacres, democide has outpaced even war in deaths in the 20th century brining in a toll of 119 billion people.
One of my favorite authors and theologians, Walter Wink, says “Violence is the ethos of our times. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been accorded the status of a religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to death.” We humans, like it or not, are a violent people. Wink would suggest that, whether we want to admit it or not, we don’t just like it. In our own way, we worship it.
It is not surprising then that religion has historically had segments of its varying bodies that have produced antithetical responses to power, war and violence. Most typically these segments produce some varying form of pacifism. Christian, among others, have been at the forefront of the movement. Pointing to texts such as the one today that reads, “turn the other cheek,” they oppose war and violence as a means to settle disputes. But in its extreme form pacifism can lead to dangerous, even life risking, perspectives. In its extreme form, pacifist have used text from today’s readings to actually encourage women (and sometimes men) to stay in abusive relationships, telling people who have been abused (physically and mentally) to turn the other cheek.
That brings us to today’s text. As some pacifist may suggest, in this text Jesus speaks clearly about the biblical mandate, God’s will, for conflict to be solved without abuse of power and resorting to violence. Unlike they say, it does not in anyway suggest that God wishes for Christians to be doormats, getting stepped on every time someone else wishes to excerpt his or her power or strength over them. To the contrary, these texts suggest that God does not want us to live in the violence of humanity (be it war or social injustices), and at the same time it also suggest that God also does not want us to be doormats for the world to walk all over because of some religiosity that encourages us to avoid conflict. These texts suggest that conflict does not have to be solved by excerpting power or acting out physically, nor does it have to be solved by passively avoiding conflict. These texts suggest there is another, better way. It is what Wink calls Jesus’ Third Way.
To see how it work let’s break down the texts into three directives – turn the other cheek, give your cloak too, and go the extra mile. Jesus was never one to back down from confronting injustices and from defending the oppressed. So, it is likely that he did not mean “turn the other cheek” to be taken at face value (pardon the pun). What else could he have meant?
Walter Wink has a very interesting and very helpful perspective here. First, he considers the words of the often misquoted and misused “turn the other cheek.” The important part of this verse is frequently left out when it is quoted: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek.” This use of the word “right” points to the probability that there is something more here than meets the eye (again, pardon the pun).
Now, if Jesus’ purpose was to advise his disciples to be passive when it comes to resisting violence, the qualification of “right” is not really needed. What then could he be trying to communicate? What would the significance of the right cheek be?
Consider this, if you are right handed (as most of those listening to Jesus would be) and are standing face to face with another person how would you strike them on the right cheek? There is only one reasonable solution to this puzzle. You would have to strike them with the back of your hand. In Jesus’ times, this delivered a clear message. It was a message of place and power. Masters struck slaves backhanded. Husband struck wives backhanded. Parents struck children backhand.
It delivers a very clear message about who has the power. Contrary to this, if you are fighting someone of equal power, you would do so with a closed fist. So, what is Jesus’ teaching on how to handle this aggression from a place of power? He says to level the playing field – nonviolently. “Turn the other also.” Why? Once again, if you are right handed and someone has offered you their left cheek to strike, how would you do it? Could you strike them with backhandedly? No. It's not possible. It would have to be with a closed fist, effectively leveling the power structure.
Wink also looks at, “and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” What good is there in giving more than is asked of you? Well, in thinking about this, it is important to ask why would someone be suing for clothes rather than money or some other substantial asset? Placing the text in its day and age, the Old Testament provides some answers. Exodus, Deuteronomy and Amos all contain examples of people suing for another’s clothing. It always happens when the person being sued is poor.
Once again it is a question of power. What is Jesus’ response? Is it to be a doormat and allow the person bringing the suit against you to not only have their way but also take extra? No. He proposes that they not only give their outer clothing but also all of there inner clothing, which in that day and age would leave them stark naked. What could possibly be the purpose in this?
Once again Jesus has suggested to creatively and nonviolently shift the power structure. Imagine the rich man standing there with the poor person’s clothing carelessly draped over his arm, all of it, while the poor person stands there (willingly at this point) naked. The embarrassment of the rich man is almost palpable, but it doesn’t end there. In Jewish traditions, public nudity is extremely taboo. The interesting point here is that the shame is not on the person who is naked but rather on the one viewing it. Again Jesus has shown an alternative, a third way, to both non-violently solve the conflict and claim the biblical identity of all people being created equally in the image of God.
The final teaching says “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Once again we need to consider this text from within its contexts. The people hearing this would undoubtedly be very aware of the Roman Empire’s limitation of forced labor for its armies. You see, each soldier carried a pack that could weigh as much as eighty-five pounds. The powers that be wanted to allow the soldiers to enlist whatever help was needed but at the same time limit the anger occupied nations have toward the Empire. So, soldiers could “enlist” civilians to carry their packs, but only for one mile.
Now, not adhering to this law entailed severe penalties. If a civilian refuse, they incur the penalty. If a soldier made them go more than one mile, the soldier incurs the penalty. That is the first and obvious reason to offer to carry the pack a second mile – severe penalties for breaking the law. Immediately the power has shifted. Wink suggests that the scene would quite hysterical - a soldier asking, possibly even begging, for his pack back from a civilian. The civilian has taken the initiative away from the soldier.
In terms of contemporary theology, this way of thinking is probably considered pragmatic pacifism. It is the non-violent perspective recognized and practiced by Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Cesar Chaves, Hildegard and others like them. It is Jesus’ Third Way - a way of not backing down, of not resorting to violence, a way that seeks to creatively level the playing field so that no one person ever is greater than or holds a power over another.
The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads “…recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…”
We are to work creatively for solutions that level the playing field. Jesus’ Third Way emphasizes the humanity and dignity of all people. It exposes the injustice in the system and breaks the cycles of oppression and humiliation. In short, Jesus abhors both passivity and violence and gives us a way in which evil can be confronted but not emulated. Let us pray that someday, we as a race, learn this lesson of Jesus’ Third Way so that we might stop the violence and begin to restore heaven on earth.
4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” 7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
ALL Means ALL
I’m not sure what big city it was. It was either Atlanta, San Antonio or Washington, D.C. Admittedly, in my early years of travels they were all just “big cities” to me – places that represented the unknown, places where I felt lost and overwhelmed – a concrete wilderness.
On this particular trip, I had stopped at an ice cream shop just off the city square. The square was encircled with a three-foot stonewall that seemed to hold up the grassy park that was littered with park benches, people and pigeons. Just off one edge of the park a street herald stood perched atop the wall on his stacked stone pulpit. He was dressed in clothes that were tattered and torn. They looked as if they had never been washed. His salt and pepper hair was long, matted and wild. His face bore the badges of a long and difficult life. He held a ragged Bible in his right hand and with his head cocked back he proclaimed to the rooftops, “The time is near. Are you ready for Jesus? Has the blood of Jesus saved you from the fires of hell?”
When I finish my mint-chocolate-chip waffle cone, I got up from the park bench from where I’d been watching him, and I intentionally walked past him. I kept watching him – a fact that did not escape his attention. “Son, do you know Jesus?” I paused for a moment and said, “Yes sir, but I think the Jesus I know and the Jesus you know…aren’t the same Jesus.” I said it with very little thought and I regret it to this day.
I cannot help but think of my experience with this modern-day John when I think about John the Prophet almost 2000 years ago - the one crying in the wilderness. Proclaiming the one yet to come – the one whose sandals John was not fit to untie – setting the foundation and way of Jesus. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness – Prepare the way of the Lord.” Much like Jesus in the temple, in the saying of these scriptures, John fulfils them – he is a voice crying in the wilderness. He is laying the foundation, the path, the highway, in the wilderness. This imagery did not fall on deaf ears. Those listening knew of the highways the Roman Empire were cutting through the desert that sweltered with heat. They were straight-a-ways that cut through the hills and raised up the valleys, giving access to everyone – making the desert a doable thing for everyone.
Luke’s use of Isaiah is foundational in establishing the remainder of his Luke-Acts tale. In the opening declaration of the one yet to come, Luke suggest the Jesus movement is going to be about removing the obstacles in this world, making the paths straight, giving access to every one – making the modern day deserts a doable thing for everyone.
Making modern day deserts a doable thing is a theme that one 20th century prophet carried into the heart of today’s deserts. Dr. Martin Luther King was a voice crying in the deserts of racism and classism. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” Make no mistake, Dr. King knew the significance of John words from Isaiah - “I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
He was a voice that cried out for the millions of voices that still cry out today. They are crying for a higher way – calling for a path that is not so unnecessarily cluttered with the mountains and the pitfalls of the powerful. They are crying out not only for help, but to help. How do we prepare the way for the Lord? How do we begin to usher in the Baseliea, God’s new social order? Level the playing field – Dr. King saw it: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” That’s what happens when we level the playing field, ALL flesh will see the salvation of God. Not white flesh, not male flesh, not rich flesh, not intellectual flesh, not American flesh, not heterosexual flesh – flesh flesh – ALL flesh… not Christian flesh – flesh flesh – ALL flesh.
What then does this highway look like? What should we do? For John it was nothing less than social revolution. Verses 10 through 14 have no parallel in the Gospels. It is not from another source. It is unique. It is here for a very pointed reason. Resounding in it is the rhetorical refrain, “What should we do?” Among those who came to be baptized were at least three social groups each asking “what should we do?” and John speaks to each of them. The wealthy should share their wealth of food and closets of clothing with those in need. “The mountains and the hills will be made low and every valley shall be lifted up.” The tax collectors are to stop their shifty ways. “The crooked will be made straight.” And the solders are to stop taking physical advantage of their social position. The Mesopotamian mafia is to cease and desist. “The rough ways will be made smooth.” It is nothing less than social revolution.
The danger here is allowing it to become about charity rather than social justice. John is not talking solely about the abuse of power, but about the source of power. It is not just about the people, it is about the system of domination. But the axe is at the root of the trees. The systems of domination bear the fruit of domination. The same strange fruit that white supremacists hung from the trees in the South - The same strange fruit that the Nazis baked in the ovens of Auschwitz – The same strange fruit that was diced and sliced with machetes in Rwanda - The same strange fruit that is left to rot to death in Africa because the cost of a cure may undercut someone’s bottom line – The same strange fruit that is pounded to death daily with rocks and bombs in the Middle East - The same strange fruit that are depressed to death because of homophobic bullying. Trees that bear these fruits, systems that bear these fruits are to be cut down and thrown into the fires – they are the chaff that God wills to burn in an “unquenchable fire” - for in this new social order, they will bear fruit of domination no longer.
It is easy to see that in the United States, our entire social system has become an “economy.” Profit is the highest social good. Consumerism is the fruit of our burdens. Consumerism is the only universally available means of participating in this society. The work ethic has been replaced by the consumer ethic – the temple with the skyscraper, the hero with the billionaire – the saint by the executive - and theology by a consumer ideology. This modern replacement can continue no more. Charity tries to fix up people so that the system will work better. Justice tries to fix up the system so that people will work better. The axe is at the root of the system. Claiming to be justified by your social position is not justifiable…for God can rise up socialites from stones.
Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says the domination system is so internalized that the focus is not where it should be. Charity focuses on helping the bourgeois discover the meaning of life while justice assists the dehumanized to recover their humanity. “The mountains and the hills will be made low and every valley shall be lifted up. The crooked will be made straight. The rough ways will be made smooth.”
Much like Jesus in the temple, in the saying of these scriptures, we fulfill them – we are to be voices crying in the wilderness. We are to follow his example, maintaining domination-free relationships in a discipleship of equals that includes all flesh. We are to lord over no one…for God can raise up lords from stones. Look at the life of Jesus. Most scholars agree, Jesus himself rejected the titles people tried to give him. In the very next chapter of Luke the Devil itself insinuates Jesus’ kingly title, “behave like a messiah: be like the great heroes of Israel.” Jesus refused to take the title, for God can raise up great heroes of Israel from stones. We are reminded of a king who’s thrown was a manger, who’s wealth was a cross, who’s crown was made of thorns. His very life confronts the economic inequities that are the basis of domination.
In that peasant society …poverty, taxation and brutality kept the poor in their place. Our modern day sensibilities dress those methods in the clothing of social programs that promise economic and social upward mobility. The problem is, that while individuals are able to rise up above their class, the system itself and the consumer ideology keeps them looking critically at the domination system out of which they operate. It is the system that needs to change not just the people, but the system is built to call your attention away from that undeniable fact. What is needed is an ax at the roots of the system of domination. Breaking with domination means ending the economic exploitation of the many by the few. John the Baptist set the tone “Lower the mountains; raise the valleys; make the crooked straight; who ever has, share; take the ax to an root of the problem.”
A voice was crying in the wilderness and I did not hear it. I mean, I heard that crazy man whose voice was crying out across the sea of people who did not hear him, but I did not hear the voice of the One crying. Thankfully, someone else did. All I had for this modern day John was condemnation. As he looked down from his stone pulpit at me, I looked down my Presbyterian elitism at him – “I think the Jesus I know and the Jesus you know…aren’t the same Jesus.” My heart sank when just after I passed John an elderly man, who was following behind me, did not just walk on by. The man slowly sat down next to John and without saying a word placed his small paper sack between them. He then carefully slit the bag down two sides and pealed the opposing faces back until they lay flat across the stack stone pulpit that was now being transformed into an alter. With a slight nod of his head he invited John to take part in his sandwich and chips. As the rest of the world bustled by busily attending to their lives, the old man and
John ate a feast together on that earthly alter of stones.
Me? I began to realize there was nothing fulfilling about my ice cream indulgence. The real confectionary indulgence that day took place when those two men broke bread together. In that moment, the radical justice of God was realized here on earth in the midst of a concrete wilderness.
A voice crying out in the wilderness, remove the obstacles, live outside of the power structures, be a person of power with not power over – be with people where they are. We too must have a dream that one day even the great nation of the United State, a desert nation that sits on the mountains of superiority, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.