One of my favorite books as a kid—and still today—is the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Toward the beginning, we encounter a character named Ford Prefect who works for said Hitchhiker’s Guide and who has come to Earth to update Earth’s entry in the Guide. The entry had been exactly one word long; it read simply: “Harmless.” After years of extensive research, Ford edited the entry so that it now reads: “Mostly harmless.”
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
February 19, 2023
Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18; Matthew 5:38–48
Talk about damning with faint praise.
Every once in a while, when I worked on campus, I’d get asked about the United Methodist community by someone who is clearly suspicious of religion. They’d say something like, “So, what are the Methodists like?” Clergy develop an ear for this kind of thing; we can read the subtext of a question like that. What they’re often asking is: “Are you guys one of those whack-job sects that don’t believe in evolution and hate gay people?”
And so, when I get a question like that, I’ll often respond with something like, “We’re a very open-minded and inclusive community committed to hospitality and justice.” And in my head, and perhaps in the questioner’s mind, what I’m really saying is something like, “We’re harmless.”
And I think of that entry in the Hitchhiker’s Guide and wonder whether, in the grand record of human history, the entry for The United Methodist Church will be something like, “Mostly harmless.”
That’d be disappointing. Because, to tell you the truth, Old School Methodists were anything but harmless. In case you are in need of a reminder, we were instrumental in getting the 18th Amendment ratified. You know, the one that banned alcohol for the entire country. Boy, those were the days, eh?
We haven’t been troublemakers like that in a long time. Today, we’re… harmless.
II. THE HARMLESS CHRIST
Of course, that should hardly be surprising. The Jesus we often talk about is likewise kind of harmless. Those of us who are liberal Christians are fond of talking about Jesus if he were a warm fuzzy prophet of love and peace and happiness. “Turn the other cheek.” Love. Forgiveness. Peace. All we need are some flowers and a Volkswagen bus and the image of the Hippy Jesus is complete.
But here’s the thing: Jesus was dangerous. He was a troublemaker. And the two criminals crucified next to him were not the only insurrectionists on Golgotha that morning.
Even when we look at Jesus’ “Turn the other cheek,” is not quite so passive as it sounds. In the ancient world, you slapped someone with the back of the hand if they were an inferior; you slapped them with the open palm of your hand if they were an equal or a superior. (Actually, this is still the rule—next time you’re watching a movie, take note of how men slap women and women slap men.) So, here’s the thing, if you get slapped with the back of someone’s hand and you turn the other cheek, they have no choice but to slap you open palmed—as an equal. Jesus is not telling his disciples to be submissive and passive, he is telling them to claim dignity and status. It’s subversive.
Likewise, the command to give someone who asks for your cloak your shirt as well is to take advantage of the fact that to cause another person to become naked was a shameful thing. And the one who demanded the cloak is all but begging the other to take his shirt back so that the first person does not incur shame.
And while a Roman legionary could compel you to carry his pack one mile, it was unlawful for him to compel you to carry it for him two miles. So when Jesus says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile,” he’s not telling you to be a doormat. He’s telling you to turn the tables, creating the comical scene of the Roman soldier chasing you down the road, begging you to drop the pack, lest he get in trouble.
This “Turn the Other Cheek” ethic is nonviolent, but it would be a mistake to say that it’s passive. It is deeply subversive. And far from harmless.
New Testament scholar Craig Hill points out any theology of Jesus that doesn’t account for why he was crucified is no theology of Jesus at all. Jesus and the prophets before and after him were not happy hippies with nice ideas who talked about God, they were, a friend of mine likes to put it “dissident intellectuals” contesting the power of empire.
It is worth noting that when Jesus was crucified, they hung a sign over him saying, “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.”
Jesus was not crucified because he went around saying, “Be nice to each other.” It was not because he did the occasional healing on the Sabbath. Jesus was crucified as an insurrectionist, as one who claimed a title of kingship, and who frequently announced that the Kingdom of God was on its way, and thereby threatened the security of the state.
According to John’s gospel, the sign that held the charge was in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. John is not reminding us how cosmopolitan first-century Jerusalem was he is making a point: Jesus was condemned in the language of the religious establishment (Hebrew), the political establishment (Latin), and the cultural establishment (Greek).
You don’t get crucified for being a warm, fuzzy, peace-loving hippie. You don’t get crucified when you’re “harmless” or even “mostly harmless.”
III. RENDERING TO CAESAR
So, here’s the thing: if Jesus was such a troublemaker, then why is Christianity so often a part of the establishment? And why are Christians so vocal about maintaining the status quo?
There is, of course, a strong desire to make faith compatible with the status quo. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has said that there are a great many Christians for whom the central message of Christianity is “Support your local sheriff.”
After Christianity was decriminalized by the Emperor Constantine, Christians, now legitimate, began to adopt the outward appearances of the legitimate authority. Now able to move out of house churches and build church buildings, we adopted the basilica—the Roman courthouse—as the model for our church design. Our clergy began to wear vestments, robes, chasubles, and stoles—all of which had been vestments of the Roman magisterium. Where once we had been a renegade, outlaw sect, whose leader had been crucified as a enemy of the state, now we were respectable. Official. Imperial. Status quo.
And we certainly have become part of the establishment. There is a reason why Methodists named their national university “American” University—the two words used to be near synonyms.
But can Christian faith be authentic and part of the establishment? Can we maintain both the Gospel and the status quo? Do we have to be cultural radicals?
Jesus was an insurrectionist. A troublemaker. Subverting the established order.
So, here’s the awkward question: if Jesus was this way and if an essential part of Christian faith is to be countercultural and resist the structures of authority and power, the why don’t we do that?
IV. THE SITE OF RESISTANCE
See, here’s the problem: we think we are doing that. We gather on Sundays in worship, we meet at prayer meetings, or in the social justice actions and service projects. These places are the site of resistance for us. But what if it’s really something else?
You know, there’s something I should confess. I’ve never confessed this before in public, but we’re in church so it’s appropriate, I guess, for me to confess my sins to you. And what I want to confess is that I am a dangerous lawbreaker. Sometimes, as I am driving home down Massachusetts Avenue… I exceed the speed limit. By sometimes as much as five to seven miles an hour. I know. You’re scandalized. It’s a wonder they let me into this pulpit.
And I’m just not a lawbreaker—I am a brazen, dangerous lawbreaker. While, sometimes on the highway, I’ll break the speed limit and drive right past the police. Yup. I’ll be going 69 miles an hour in a 65-mile-an-hour zone, and I don’t care who knows it. I’ll drive right past the police without even slowing down to so much as 68 miles an hour.
Of course, I never get a ticket. But on reflection, no one does. Isn’t that strange? Why don’t the police write tickets for driving a few miles over the speed limit? In fact, on a 65 miles-an-hour road, you can probably push 75 before anyone will even notice. Don’t you wonder why they do that? I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with traffic flow.
It’s a pressure valve. By giving us the space to rebel against the system. But interestingly, it’s a rebellion that takes place within the context of the system itself. That is, the system has a built in rebellion zone. We all know that we can speed a little bit. It makes us feel like we’re getting away with something, but we all know that there is a limit to that. When we speed by five miles an hour, we think we’re resisting the system, but in reality, we’re participating in it.
It’s the same reason your boss doesn’t care if you gather in the break room with your coworkers and talk about him behind his back. Because as long as you show up at 9 a.m. and punch out at 5 p.m., then you’re still participating in the system. In fact, the talking behind your boss’ back may be necessary to keep the system functioning smoothly. 
They let us drive 71 miles an hour so that we won’t drive 90 miles an hour on the sidewalk. They let us talk about them behind their backs so that we’ll still show up for work. They’ll let up protest on the sidewalks in permit-approved areas so that we don’t storm the White House grounds. And all the while, the machine keeps on going.
A. The System
What it if turns out that what we think of as resistance by the Church isn’t really resistance, but is just the pressure valve that allows the system to keep functioning? That is, what if Church just helps us to assuage our consciences on a Sunday morning so that we can go be dutiful parts of the system the other six days of the week? What if far from standing outside the system, the church is part of the system, enabling it to keep functioning? What if Sunday worship is nothing more than our gathering in the employee lounge and griping about our bosses, but then Monday comes, and we go right back to work, supporting the very thing we oppose? What if we’re part of the problem?
The clergy robes I’ve worn are no simple vestige of imperial entanglement. In addition to being a reminder that the church is never at the forefront of fashion, they are a reminder that the church is often complicit in the very things we claim we oppose. Because while we talk about opposition and resistance, our behavior betrays our participation in the system.
B. Picking the Wrong Fight
The tragic irony is that we often imagine we’re fighting back when we’re being used to perpetuate the interests of the powerful.
See, it’s easy to look at Jesus’ teachings as teachings about kindness and niceness. And the powerful are always happy to have religions that are about niceness. See, niceness makes for good and obedient citizens. Niceness makes it impolite to try to upend things. Niceness makes you more likely to keep the status quo and maintain good civic order. It’d be rude to do otherwise.
But Jesus’ teachings aren’t about being nice—they’re about being righteous and not the kind of self-righteousness that we see on display too often—but a righteousness that places the powerless first and the powerful last.
Jesus did not come to teach a manners class; he came to herald the coming of the kingdom of God—a reality that upends the current status quo.
V. FULFILLING THE LAW
You get a sense of this in Jesus’ own teaching style. In each section of the teaching he prefaces it with something like, “You have heard it said…” and then continues, “But I say to you…” Biblical scholars refer to these constructions as the “antitheses” because what he says second is in stark contrast to what has come before.
Except that it isn’t.
See, much of early Biblical scholarship was done by Germans and they were huge fans of the Hegelian Dialectic, a philosophical framework by Georg Hegel who saw history as a series of unfolding conflicts and resolutions: the thesis (the original idea), the antithesis (its opposite), and the synthesis (the blending of the two into one). This idea was so prevalent that these interpreters didn’t even realize they were using it. And so, they tended to see the thesis as Judaism, Jesus as the antithesis, and Christianity as the Synthesis. That’s a great interpretation, except for the part that it’s not at all supported by the facts.
See, it’s difficult to view Jesus as an antithesis to the law he’s referencing when he doesn’t contradict it—he amplifies it. And this is an important point because when we realize what the law was trying to do, we get a whole new understanding of what Jesus is doing.
The Jewish law found in the books of the Torah was a covenantal arrangement between God and the people Israel. In this arrangement, God agreed to provide steadfast faithfulness and love, and Israel agreed to provide justice and righteousness. Together, this contract would produce shalom or wholeness.
One of the hallmarks of this covenant was that Israel was supposed to model an alternative society compared to the nations around them. Whereas the surrounding nations would put their trust in idols and material wealth, in royal power and military might, Israel was supposed to place its trust in God. It was supposed to provide for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. You get a sense of this from the passage we read earlier from Leviticus: passages that require orchard owners to leave fallen fruit for the poor, farmers to leave fallen grain for the poor along with the unharvested edges of the field. Provision was made in the Law to ensure that those who were frequently marginalized were shown compassion and justice. It was a way of turning the established world on its head.
When Jesus says, “But I say to you…” he is not contradicting that approach—he’s amplifying it.
He’s not just critiquing the power structures of the world, he’s challenging his followers to make those structures irrelevant.
See, it might be a perfectly acceptable response to say, “Whenever the powerful strike you upon the cheek, punch them back extra hard; that’ll teach them!” This is not unlike the advice that Sean Connery gives to Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness in The Untouchables: “When one of them draws a knife; you draw a gun. When they put one of your guys in the hospital, you put two of his in the morgue. That’s the Chicago Way.”
That’s viscerally satisfying, to be sure. As satisfying as it is when nerdy George McFly finally hauls off and decks the bully Biff Tannen in Back to the Future. But as satisfying as those responses are, they still play by the system’s rules. In effect, they legitimize the violence of the oppressor by saying that violence is right if used by the right people.
Jesus wants us to do something else. His instructions not only resist validating the structures of violence, they turn those structures on their heads.
Suddenly now, the wielder of violence must treat his victim as an equal. Suddenly, now the wealthy exploiter has become the one ashamed. Suddenly now, the military occupier is at the mercy of the occupied.
These things are non-violent—but they’re not passive, and they certainly challenge the status quo. They turn the world upside-down.
This is such an important part of faith to remember. So often we view our faith as a bunch of instructions on how to be nice or how to be good citizens. But Christ was crucified for leading an insurrection as a testimony to the Kingdom of God. It was non-violent, not a single building was stormed not a single piece of property threatened or public official lynched—but it was an insurrection no less disruptive for the ways that it called the legitimacy of the Empire into question and turned the world on its head.
The Resurrection is God’s vindication of the insurrection that Christ began. It is a sign that the world is being changed, turned upside-down. In light of the Resurrection, we can no longer afford to ignore the ways in which we are a part of the problem. If we would live out the Gospel, we can no longer afford to be harmless.
We are called to be the staging ground for an insurrection grounded in the love and justice of God that can turn the world itself upside down.
Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18
The Lord said to Moses, Say to the whole community of the Israelites: You must be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy.
When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather up every remaining bit of your harvest. Also do not pick your vineyard clean or gather up all the grapes that have fallen there. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.
You must not steal nor deceive nor lie to each other. You must not swear falsely by my name, desecrating your God’s name in doing so; I am the Lord. You must not oppress your neighbors or rob them. Do not withhold a hired laborer’s pay overnight. You must not insult a deaf person or put some obstacle in front of a blind person that would cause them to trip. Instead, fear your God; I am the Lord.
You must not act unjustly in a legal case. Do not show favoritism to the poor or deference to the great; you must judge your fellow Israelites fairly. Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord. You must not hate your fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your fellow Israelite strongly, so you don’t become responsible for his sin. You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.
“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.
“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
 This illustration and the foregoing one are taken from Peter Rollins.