Picture a sponge that has been sitting on a counter for a while. It is dried, hard, the corners are likely twisted a bit, and about this thick. What happens when you put it in a puddle of water? It begins to swell up, little by little. Each area slowly plumping up until it can hold no more water. That tiny piece of porous material can absorb much more than we can imagine. Did you know that a four inch by four inch sponge can absorb two cups of water?
That is what Jesus is asking of us in today’s Gospel. To absorb being treated wrongly by others.
We are called to turn the other cheek, to give not just our cloak but the very shirt off our back, to go twice the distance that is demanded of us.
A simplistic reading of this may cause us to think that Jesus is calling us to be doormats, but that is not what he is saying here. Instead he calls us to something much bigger. He calls us to be like that sponge. To absorb hurt and evil. To not return evil for evil, hurt for hurt, insult for insult, blow for blow, or even an eye for an eye. Rather, Jesus calls us to respond with mercy and love. To respond with forgiveness, even when that is not what we want to do. Jesus is not saying to lay down and let others walk all over you. Instead he is saying, “see me in the other, hold on to your dignity, but love. Love. Love.”
Picture getting cut off in traffic. What about when someone is rude to you for no reason? Dumps their bad attitude all over you? Picks on your child? Takes the last biscuit before you can get to it? What is your first response?
Be honest, you want to strike back, to hurt in the way you have been hurt. Cut me off, I’m gonna ride your tail. Attitude, I’ll give you attitude! When attacked, we want to attack back. The problem with revenge is that it creates more hurt and more revenge. And that is what Jesus is calling us to change. To stop the cycle and respond in love. Not to lay down, but to love.
Rather than to react in kind, Jesus calls us to love that person. To turn the other cheek, give our shirts, go twice the distance.
As western Christians we are not lawless or violent, but watch any court proceeding, watch any playground at school, watch the evening news, or watch how professional athletes (and now even fans) respond to a humiliating loss. The instinct for revenge runs deep in us. It plays out in ways we will never see on the evening news, but it does play out.
Our modern justice system is based on the concept of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. People like Gandhi and Martine Luther King Junior modeled a different way. They taught us about passive resistance or nonviolent response, captured in the verse, "do not return evil for evil." They demonstrated the idea that you are to protect yourself, but not take aggressive action toward the offender. That you can maintain your dignity when others treat you wrongly.
But Jesus us calls us to an even different way of responding. He calls us to a proactive loving response. We are to overcome evil with good. Actively seek out and understand others. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. We do this as we come together to pray and worship, proclaim the Gospel, and promote justice, peace, and love.
This is hard to do. We must first try to see the humanness in the one causing us harm. And then, to see Christ in that person. We must also remember that we are all broken, sinful, and prideful. This can lead to behaviors that are not very loving. Usually these behaviors are not personal, it is that we come into contact with that brokenness in someone else and it is poured out on us. These behaviors that cause pain happen to a wide variety of people, not just to us.
When that brokenness is poured out on you, first do nothing. Stop. Acknowledge the hurt and pain, and call for the Holy Spirit to fill you. To help you see Christ in the person, and to release them to God. If the tears come, let them. They often break that cycle in a way nothing else can.
Resisting our initial instinct to take revenge or even showing love toward our enemies is hard work! It is not natural. That is why we need to come together, to lift one another up, to be refilled, renewed, and strengthened for another day. We cannot be "like Christ" without the support and encouragement of one another. This place must be a place where peace and forgiveness are fostered, practiced, and encouraged. Every time we come together.
We must also stay connected with the one who is also "slow to anger." This allows us to be transformed. As we are transformed we are able to transform the world around us. At the end of the day, it is only by God’s grace that we are able to love our enemies, to be sponges that are filled to overflowing with the brokenness and pain of others. It is that grace that wrings out all that yuck and allows us to absorb more and more and enable us to meet the pain of others.
In the words of Desmond Tutu: "Forgiving is not forgetting; its actually remembering--remembering and not using your right to hit back. Its a second chance for a new beginning.”