Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, he ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early so he can eat at his favorite diner. One night, as Diaz stepped off the Number 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn. He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife. The boy demanded his money, and Diaz gave him his wallet, simply saying, “Here you go.” As the teen began to walk away, Diaz shouted out, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” The robber gave Diaz a confused look and asked, “Why are you doing this?” Diaz simply said, “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner. If you want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.”
The teen tentatively followed Diaz to the diner and they sat in a booth together. As they sat there, the manager, the dishwashers, and the waiters came by to say hi. The teen then said, “You know everybody here. Do you own this place?” “No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz replied. “But you’re even nice to the dishwasher,” the teen said incredulously. Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught that you should be nice to everybody?” “Yea,” responded the teen, “But I didn’t think people actually behaved that way.”
Toward the end of dinner, Diaz asked the teen what he wanted out of life. The teen reacted with a sad look on his face, but did not respond. Either he couldn’t answer – or he didn’t want to. When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill because you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.” Without hesitation, the teen returned the wallet. Diaz opened his wallet and gave the teen twenty dollars, figuring the money might help him somehow. However, in return, Diaz asked for the teen’s knife. The teen gave the knife to him.[i]
Today’s gospel lesson is often taken in a couple of ways. The words from Jesus about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies either sound so passive that we dismiss them immediately or they sound admirable, but totally impossible. All we need is the last verse, which says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” before we throw our hands into the air, defeated before we have even begun. In fact, if we are really listening, we can almost become angry with Jesus’ words. All we have to think about is a victim of abuse and we bristle at Jesus’ instructions to simply turn the other cheek or go a second mile. Or maybe we think of a lifetime of pressure to be perfect and all we want to do is angrily add Jesus to the list of people who are perpetually disappointed in us – including ourselves. Of course we would never say those things aloud because this is supposed to be a beautiful text about loving your neighbor as yourself. But really, who among us wants to love our enemies or pray for those who persecute us?
We are really good at hating our enemies. As a country we demonize those with whom we go to war. And depending on which news outlet you prefer, the Democrats, the Republicans, or the Tea Party are enemies of any progress we want to see in our country. I am pretty sure the Republicans and Democrats in Congress have not been praying for each other over this past year. And that does not even compare to the more personal enemies we have. All we have to think about is that bully at school or work, that family member who is always trying to put you down, let alone that teen who looks like he might be ready to pull a knife on you and demand your wallet. We are schooled to be empowered people who do not allow ourselves to be doormats. We are not to turn the other check but to protect ourselves. We are not to offer more of our stuff to someone threatening to take our stuff. And we certainly are not schooled to give to every single person asking for a handout. Surely, in turning the other cheek, we become a victim; in offering our cloak, we are enabling bad behavior; and in giving to beggars, we are simply perpetuating social problems. We build strong, fortified walls around ourselves in the name of safety, protection, or wisdom.
The challenge for us is seeing what Jesus is really trying to do. Our way of being demonizes others and simplifies quite complicated relationships. Jesus way of being invites us to see with God’s loving eyes. That is what Jesus means when he says to be perfect as God is perfect. He does not mean for us to achieve some sort of moral or even everyday perfection; Jesus means for us to love as God loves.[ii] God’s love does not allow us to use labels like “us” and “them.” God’s love means looking at that enemy who hurts us, threatens us, or even scares us, and seeing the humanity lying beneath those ugly layers. God’s love means transformation through the simple act of praying for our enemies. Perhaps your prayer begins without words – just the mental image of the person. But you may find that as you continue to pray for that individual, slowly you begin to see with God’s eyes. What should you pray for? What is redeeming in them? What could God do to soften them and our relationship with them?
I think of Julio Diaz on that fateful night in the Bronx. When Diaz told his mom what had happened that night, she said, “Well, you’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.” Clearly Diaz had this “loving your enemies” thing down. In fact, maybe Diaz saw what Jesus could see – that in God, there are no enemies. There are just people for us to love. Diaz does not use Christian language to describe his philosophy. He simply explains about his story, “I figure if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.” Of course we would say, love your neighbor as yourself or do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Today, Jesus says, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
What is not obvious in either Diaz or Jesus’ stories is the subtext of what is happening. In neither story is passivity the theme. Instead, both are advocating for active transformation. What Jesus is talking about is quietly resisting evil. When he says to turn the other cheek, he is saying startle the person into the decision of whether to hit again. When someone sues you for your coat, you giving them your cloak actually embarrasses them instead of you. Though the person suing may have had a right to the coat, your offering your cloak too, being stripped down in front of everyone, humiliates the one suing more than being stripped down humiliates you. And by walking that second mile, you claim ownership of your own being. The one forcing you to walk a mile loses her power when you walk the second mile.[iii] Diaz understood this. By offering his coat and by inviting the teen to a meal, he shifted the power in the encounter. By engaging that teen in conversation, and by probing further with him, he began to unravel the mystique of the thief, and found a vulnerable, desperate young man underneath.
The work that Jesus invites us into this week is not easy. Shouting after a thief on an empty platform, trying to give him your coat and a meal is probably not that instinctive for most of us. Quiet resistance is a lot harder than passive acceptance or violent retaliation. Loving your enemies will not feel natural. So maybe you start with prayer this week. Maybe you simply start by praying for an enemy and see where the spiritual practice leads you. That first step will begin the journey to seeing as God sees: with eyes of love – difficult, radical, transforming love. Amen.
[i] Story, slightly edited, as told in “A Victim Treats His Mugger Right,” March 28, 2008. Found at http://www.npr.org/2008/03/28/89164759/a-victim-treats-his-mugger-right on February 21, 2014.
[ii] Barbara J. Essex, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A., Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 384.