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A broom, some bread and a pinch of salt

Thomas J Parlette

“A broom, some bread, and a pinch of salt”

Matt. 5: 38-48

2/19/17

Victor Hugo begins Les Miserables with the story of Jean Valjean. He is an ex-convict who has just been released from 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sisters children. As he re-enters society, no one will house him or give him work because of his criminal record – that is until he stumbles into the bishop’s house. Much to Valjean’s bewilderment, the bishop treats him with kindness and hospitality. Seizing the moment, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver plates, and then, flees into the night.

The bishop’s reaction to Valjean’s treachery is not what we might expect. Instead of being angry and offering condemnation, the bishop examines his own behavior and finds himself lacking in charity. “I have for a long time wrongfully withheld this silver, it belonged to the poor. Who was this man? A poor man evidently,” he reasons to himself. So when the police arrive with the captured Valjean, the bishop’s silver in his possession, the bishop calmly greets the thief and says, “But I gave you the candlesticks also… why did you not take them along with the plates?” The police, surprised and confused, reluctantly let the thief go.

Jean Valjean expects blame and condemnation for his actions. Instead, he receives forgiveness and mercy. He expects hatred, and, instead, he receives love, and at that moment evil is transformed into good.(1)

In this passage today, we have perhaps one of the most difficult lessons Jesus teaches. Think about it:

Don’t resist an evildoer…turn the other cheek…if you get sued, give them your coat and your cloak as well…go an extra mile…give to beggars, loan money to people on every request…love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…Oh, and by the way – Be perfect!

This would seem impossible, almost too much to believe.

Theologian Greg Carey tells about the time he got a voice mail from his 10 year old daughter, who was living with her mother at the time: “Dad, I’m the reader at church on Sunday, and I have that passage where says Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek.” You know that passage right? Do the other gospels have that same passage? Is it different in the other Gospels? Could you let me know, because…no offense, Dad, but I think Jesus was wrong.”(2)

It’s easy to think that. Many people would agree with that idea – this can’t be what Jesus actually wants us to do, can it? If we lived our lives this way in the real world we would be taken advantage of left and right. We’d be beaten, bruised, sore and broke! No, this can’t be right. There has to be something else going here.

Over the years, interpreters of the Bible have indeed tried to soften Jesus words here – or at least make them a little more palatable – by saying:

–         Jesus was putting forth a set of values that his disciples should aspire to, knowing that they were impossible to fully achieve. But, by striving toward them, we would live better than we would otherwise.

–         Or, Jesus words throughout the Sermon on the Mount reveal the impossibility of human righteousness, so it actually prepares us to receive God’s grace and forgiveness.

–         Some have said that Jesus was speaking to his disciples as individuals – but in our modern world, his advice simply doesn’t hold water.

–         And finally some have framed these hard words as Jesus advice to empower oppressed people. When you can’t force people to treat you justly, you expose the injustice. When striking back will just make it worse, confront without aggression, turn the other cheek. When someone is taking advantage of you, or abusing you – do more than they ask, forgive beyond expectation.(3)

All of these explanations make some sense, they all hold some truth. But the fact is, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says what he means and he means what he says. Jesus is being quite literal here.

These are concrete examples of a new way of living. A way of life that offers grace instead of grief. A way of life that offers blessing, instead of blame. A way of life that offers comfort instead of condemnation. Indeed, this is the kind of life that God offers us. Here, Jesus calls us to offer this way of life to others.(4)

No easy task, I know. It’s one thing for God to be gracious to us – it’s quite another for us to do the same. After all, we live in the real world. We must be practical, we must be cautious, we must be sensible. Loving your enemies is dangerous business. Eventually, you’re going to get burned – eventually you will be taken advantage of. Yes – hate, resentment, retaliation, revenge, judgment and blame are tightly woven into the fabric of our human nature. This kind of reaction to the bad things in life is learned behavior in a world where “self-interest” comes first. It is part of the original sin of seeing ourselves as the center of the universe. And it is this disease of the soul that Jesus comes to heal.

One of my favorite writers, Phillip Gulley, has a few words to say about hate. In his book For Everything a Season, he writes: “Now I want to tell you a lie. Hate is an emotion we can’t help. Hate is a feeling we cannot overcome. If we hate someone, it is because we just can’t help ourselves. We’re human. We have no choice but to hate.”

This is a lie. Unfortunately, it is a lie that many believe. They believe this lie in order to excuse their hatred. After all, if we can’t help but hate, if hate is a feeling we simply cannot help, then hatred is never our fault, is it?

But we can help it, Hatred is a choice. We choose to hate, just as we choose to love…Love is a matter of the will – something we decide to do. Love is a choice.”(5)

Case in point – the writer and surgeon Bernie Siegel tells the story of Wild Bill, an inmate of a concentration camp, who after six years of serving the enemy as an interpreter, was still full of energy and physical health and a gentle spirit. To the other prisoners, he was a beacon of hope, an agent of reconciliation, one who was constantly urging them to forgive each other and the enemy. This man’s positive spirit was all the more amazing because of the horror he himself had experienced at the beginning of the war – watching his own family, wife, two daughters, three little boys, shot before his eyes by Nazi soldiers in Warsaw.

When asked to explain his lack of bitterness, Wild Bill responded, “I had to decide right then whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer, and in my practice, I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who mattered to me most. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life – whether it was a few days or many years – loving every person I came in contact with.”(6)

To love is a choice. This is the choice Jesus asks us to make. This is the new ethic Jesus lays out – to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive and love, no matter what.

When we do this – when we love our enemy, we take charge of the situation, we refrain from just reacting as a victim to their behavior. To love our enemy is to change the situation, to take the initiative to relate to our victimizers in a new way – literally to take the power out of their hands and to put it in ours in a positive way. To love the enemies does not mean to like the enemy, or condone their actions and behaviors. Instead, it means to understand them as human beings – troubled and sinful human beings who have hurt us because they themselves hurt inside. It means to make a decision to respond to them in ways which will benefit them and perhaps lead to healing.

This is not to suggest that we passively sit back and ask for more abuse. It does not mean that the abused wife continues to live with the husband who beats her. No, the loving thing to do, the thing that is in the best interests of the one who is doing the hurting, may be to blow the whistle, to press charges, to get help for a sickness that is out of control. You see, to do good, to love and forgive those who offend us, is to refrain from hurting them in the same way they have hurt us. It is to initiate a new form of confrontation and healing that will lead to the well-being of all the parties involved. An ethic of grace is an invitation to go on offense, to live positively instead of negatively, to stop playing the role of victim, and to start living a life of proactive discipleship.(7)

Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship…We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.”

King concludes that when Jesus asks us to love our enemies, he is pleading with us to offer understanding and creative good will to all people. This is the only way we can truly be children of a loving God.(8)

Presbyterian Pastor Susan Andrews talks about a time when she benefited from such an offering of love and good will. She says: “Years ago, when my husband and I were called to be co-pastors of a church in New Jersey, the pastoral nominating committee was split. Seven wanted to call us, and four were opposed. Though it is usually a bad idea to accept a call to a church when there is that kind of split, we were assured that the committee itself was so conflicted that no candidate could have fared better. One of the members who was opposed to us was Pearl – a strong-minded, fairly conservative elder who also happened to be the clerk of session. She didn’t like our theology, she didn’t like the idea of a clergy couple, and she definitely didn’t like the idea of a clergy woman. Fortunately, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to call us as their co-pastors. But that still didn’t convince Pearl. She just didn’t like us, and she wasn’t about to accept us, especially me, as her pastor.

A few weeks after we moved in and started our ministry, I was feeling particularly low. Though the congregation had been welcoming, I was still feeling like a stranger, still feeling like people were suspicious, still feeling like my husband was the more acceptable pastor. In fact, I was feeling like we had made a terrible mistake, when all of sudden the doorbell rang. I went to open the door, and there stood Pearl, holding a broom, a loaf of bread, and a shaker of salt. She smiled and said, “I come from German stock, and there is an old tradition in my family. Whenever someone moves into a new home they are given three gifts. A broom to sweep away the evil spirits, a loaf of bread to make their house a home, and a pinch of salt to bring good luck. I want to welcome you to your new home – and to welcome you as my new pastor.”

Well, Pearl and I never saw eye to eye on theology. But that day, Pearl went on offense and changed a relationship of hostility into a relationship of grace. That day she decided to love her enemy, and I felt like I had finally come home.(9)

These are tough words from Jesus today. Some say they are impossible to live by. Nevertheless, Jesus says what he means, and means what he says. He speaks these words to his disciples, to believers who have decided to follow Jesus. These words are spoken to us, people who have chosen to be the yeast in a world that needs the fullness of grace, now more than ever.

Let those with ears to hear – listen.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Susan Andrews, The Offense of Grace, CSS Publishing Company Inc., 2004, p.89

2.    Greg Carey, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p.381.

3.    Ibid…p.381, 383.

4.    Susan Andrews, The Offense of Grace, CSS Publishing Company Inc. 2004, p.90.

5.    Homiletics, Vol. 29, No.1, p.67.

6.    Susan Andrews, The Offense of Grace, CSS Publishing Company Inc., p.91.

7.    Ibid…p.92.

8.    Ibid…p.92-93.

9.    Ibid…p.93-94.