February 23, 2020
Disruption. That’s the word that came to me as I reflected on our readings. A disruption is a break or interruption in the normal course of events. On a personal level, we know the disruption caused by illness… or the death of a loved one…. or by an unexpected turn of events like what we are experiencing here at the Motherhouse. Sometimes disruptions are pleasant like when life is turn upside down by falling in love or the birth of a baby. On a larger scale, some have started referring to climate change as “climate disruption” because normal weather patterns have been interrupted. And disruption is a strategy used by activists as a way of interrupting the status quo and making an issue visible.
Jesus was a disruptor. He interrupted normal life with surprises like miracles and with strong words calling out religious leaders for their hypocrisy. And he expected his followers to embrace disruption. When he said, “Come and follow me”, he meant immediately!
In our Gospel reading, Jesus disrupts the worldview of the times regarding status, wealth and power. Far from encouraging passivity like many of us have been taught, Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek, give up a cloak and go the second mile are actually powerfully subversive. I’m drawing on the work theologian, Walter Wink, for this reflection and grateful for his interpretation.
First “turning the other cheek”. Status and social order were everything in that context and everyone knew where they were in the pecking order. Because Jesus specifically said, “if someone strikes you on the right cheek”, the crowds would have immediately pictured a scenario in which someone who believed themselves to be superior was using a backhanded slap to strike someone beneath them. Picture me as the person of wealth who is hitting another. I have to use my right hand because the left hand was for unclean tasks but how can I hit another’s right cheek with my right hand? I would really have to contort my arm to give an open handed slap or strike their right cheek with my fist. It would only be feasible to use a backhand slap which is how someone high on the pecking order would hit someone beneath them.
Jesus brought to mind a common humiliating occurrence and then made a surprising statement. “Turn your other cheek.” Everyone in the crowd knew that peers would fight each other with a right fist to the left cheek. When Jesus tells someone who has just been humiliated with a backhand slap to turn the other cheek, he’s offering a powerful way for them to say, in effect, “I have dignity and worth so hit me as a peer.” Jesus disrupted the assumption that social status was important and revealed the truth that all are equal in the eyes of God. Can you imagine how confusing that would have been to the one who felt superior and how liberating to the one who had been demeaned?
Jesus then gives a second example, this time the setting is a court of law. When he mentioned a court of law and a tunic, his followers would have known that the situation had to do with a debt collector demanding collateral from a peasant farmer caught in the unjust economic system. With that familiar picture in their minds, they would have been shocked with Jesus’ next words, “Give your cloak as well.” Actually, they would have guffawed because they understood that Jesus was saying to literally strip themselves naked right there in court! The wealthy were stripping the poor of their land, their rights and their dignity so Jesus was suggesting that they expose the truth of an oppressive economic system by stripping off their clothes!
Jesus goes on to give yet another example. “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.” Roman foot soldiers routinely forced people to carry their heavy packs but they were only allowed to force someone to carry their pack for a mile. If their commanding officer found that they had pressed someone into service for more than a mile, they could face punishment. So now, picture a Jewish peasant who has been forced to carry soldier’s pack. They have walked a mile and the soldier reaches for his load but the peasant ignores him and just keeps on walking. Fearful of punishment, the soldier hurries after him now literally begging for his pack. The assumption that the solider held the power and the Jewish peasant was powerless was disrupted!
The poor listening to Jesus’ teachings would have welcomed the disruptions he offered. We aren’t told how the wealthy responded to Jesus’ teaching but we can guess that most would have reacted with anger or blame. They probably would have shut down, withdrawing into the safety of conventional wisdom which our second reading declares to be “foolishness in the eyes of God.”
As I prepared this homily, I found myself unusually sympathetic to the powerful and wealthy because I’m starkly aware of the challenge of staying open to the pain and confusion that arise when confronted with situations that reveal that things are not as we thought them to be. It’s tempting to shut down and try to get on with “normal” life and “business as usual”. But Jesus disrupted the lives and assumptions of all he encountered in order to call forth truth and freedom. As his followers, may we open to disruptions as opportunities for growth and may our longing for truth carry us through the pain and confusion so that wisdom and humility may be fostered in our lives and in our world.