That’s right, Steven Seagal. He brings something to what Jesus is talking about this week in Matthew 5:38-48. Jesus is tackling a rule that most of us are pretty familiar with: “an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth.” Seagal knows all about that. A majority of his films deal with some sort of vengeance, or the losing of teeth by his enemies, but that’s not what I want him for here.
Because the point of Jesus’ teaching is clearly that the old rule of retribution isn’t good enough, isn’t fitting for his kingdom. So he says famous things here like, “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies.” He tells us to “go the extra mile” when somebody asks us to go one, and so on. But it’s a hard idea to deal with for different reasons. When it sounds like Jesus just wants us to give in to everybody, all the time, no matter how evil, most of just don’t want to do it. Then, some of us want to but don’t think we can, we don’t know how to love those who harm us. And then, plenty of us want to, and maybe even can do it, but we’re not sure if it’s right or not. After all, elsewhere Jesus seems like he’s good at drawing boundaries, and not being walked over…and he seems to teach us likewise. But, here, not so much.
What’s Jesus after? Some will say he’s really just teaching his followers a silent defiance. We turn the other cheek as if to say, “Is that all you got?” We go the extra mile to say, “Puh, I can do a marathon, you can’t hurt me.” As if the goal is to “kill with kindness,” to be passive-aggressive almost, to get our revenge by putting up with people’s junk. It’s a style of Christian jujitsu, I’ve heard. Jujitsu being the martial arts that focus on turning your opponent’s speed, strength, and momentum against him/her. The worse the attack, the better you can turn the tables and get the upper hand. Much like Mr. Seagal, with his arms flying around and kicks and hip-tosses. Take a look:
I’m down with that a little bit, because it seems nearer to the silent strength that Jesus exuded. His way to defy evil and oppression without lifting a finger, and to turn people’s accusations on their heads. But “killing with kindness” just for the sake of getting the upperhand or stealthily besting our opponents still seems vengeful, and might still overwhelm the ultimate goal of loving the persecutor, right?
I mean, think about it and to me the “eye for an eye” idea is pretty innate to most of us. Somebody knocks you down, you knock them down (or maybe you don’t but you want to). It’s the most natural thing in the world. And why is that? A friend of mine says maybe it’s just been a long-standing guideline for humanity since near the beginning. At some point very early on, somebody decided this would be a ground-rule: you hurt me, I hurt you. And not in a malicious way, but as a teaching tool. After all, how do you teach a kid who bites all the other kids not to bite anymore? Usually somebody bites that kid good to say, “hey, this is what biting feels like,” in hopes it sinks in and the kid learns. So, if someone steals or kills, they would receive it right back to experience things firsthand and maybe learn to empathize and stop doing it. Or where empathy didn’t work, an eye for an eye provided a consequence, the threat of punishment to prevent the behavior out of fear or retribution. It makes some sense, I guess.
Because think what the world would look like without empathy or the fear of retribution. How would humans fare? Lives would be on the line. That sounds scary to some of us, and it’s probably part of why Jesus’ words against “an eye for an eye” can be freaky. Because if we followed Jesus’ teaching far enough here, it becomes a life-and-death thing: if we let everybody who ever just felt like slapping us in the face get away with it, anytime they wanted, eventually we’ll be beaten to death; if we let people take from us whatever they want whenever they want, even our basic necessities, we’re putting ourselves in harm’s way; if we let others order our lives for us any way they want, and we bend to their every whim, we risk mortal danger. Jesus’ teaching flies in the face of “an eye for an eye” because it contradicts self-preservation, that instinct for us to try to stay alive and well.
And rightly so, since an eye for an eye falls so short of actually preserving us or keeping us safe. It gives us retribution, but can we ever get back some things that have been taken from us? Can we on our own ever heal some hurts, or undo some experiences? By no means! An eye for an eye doesn’t begin to deal with the heart-damage that comes with the evil that befalls us. And it doesn’t satisfy, we know that when we see the cycles of violence around the world, and the escalation that usually comes with conflict. Like, “You took my eye? Well it was so valuable to me, I’m taking your two arms.” And so the story goes. No wonder Jesus teaches another way, one that is totally contrary to simple retribution.
So what exactly does Jesus teach, and how are we to be about it? He says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Now, does perfect here mean be perfectionists? Like we should constantly fret over whether or not we’re doing everything right? Negative. In the Greek, this perfect gives us a sense of a goal, an endpoint, an ultimate wholeness or fulfillment. Like the way Eugene Peterson translates Jesus (v. 48): “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
It sounds to me that what enables our ability to forgive and love those who strike us is realizing that our deep value and perspective should be shaped by the kingdom of heaven, and Christ Jesus’ love for us — a love that cannot be broken or unmade or assailed by any force, ever. We can pipe up and say, “Okay, Jesus, but that’s easier said than done…sure, I’ll just be perfect all of a sudden.” To that I say, don’t forget that it’s God himself in person, in front of the people, saying this to them. And he journeyed with the people to show them what that perfection looked like. And he entered into death, and rendered sin powerless, to lead them and us through to the other side safely.
It’s like Jesus giving the invitation, “Be like me, follow me where I go, I’ll show you how. Come on. Into your deepest, fullest self.”