Training for Sainthood
Robert S. Turner
All Saints Sunday
November 6, 2016
Psalm 149; Luke 6:20–31
Today we celebrate All Saints Day, and our readings present two incompatible visions of what it means to be a saint. In fact, the vision presented in the psalm for today so contradicts that of Jesus, which we get in the passage from Luke, that I was tempted to edit the psalm and cut out the offensive parts.
I’m glad I didn’t do that, however, because we need to see both versions. We need to see the contrast presented in the two Scripture readings because it reflects an undeniable contrast among Christians in our day. The line between the two visions is bold and stark, and it is impossible to straddle. We have to choose sides. And I’m not going to dance around the subject in an effort to pitch a big tent where both visions find a place. I cannot pretend that both visions are legitimate and it’s merely a matter of emphasis or theological subtlety. No, one of them is right and the other is wrong.
A couple of questions present themselves as soon as we begin to consider these two contrasting portrayals of sainthood. First, how do we define a saint, and second, how do we choose between parts of the Bible that contradict one another? I’m not going to spend too much time on these questions, because I have addressed both of them in the past, but I will touch on them briefly so we’re all on the same page as we go forward.
First, sainthood. The Greek word for saint is hagios, which means “holy one.” Over the years we have developed the practice of designating certain people, those we consider especially holy, as saints. Think St. Theresa, St. Francis, St. Augustine, and so forth. But that is a dangerous precedent, because it reinforces an unbiblical understanding of holiness that sets up a “class system” in the realm of the spirit. Holiness in the Bible means simply "set apart for God’s purposes.” The tongs and forks and bowls used in the temple were no different from the ones stored next to the hearth in any Israelite house, except that they were set apart for use in the community’s worship of God. The high priest was no different than any other person, except that he had been set aside to offer the sacrifices and represent the people before God. To be holy was to be set apart.
The tradition tells us, however, that the whole nation of Israel was considered holy; God had set them apart for the purpose of bringing God’s blessing to the world. Exodus 19 reports that God tells the Israelites, “Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5–6). The early church believed this designation applied to them. After Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the entire community of disciples, they began to see that every follower of Jesus is holy, set apart for God’s purposes. That is why Paul addresses several of his letters to “the saints that are in” such-and-such a place. Holiness and sainthood are not reserved for religious superheroes such as Mother Teresa; every baptized person is a saint. Holy. Set apart.
The second question we have to address is how to choose between contradictory parts of the Bible. I grew up in a southern Baptist church and was taught, both implicitly and explicitly, that every word of the Bible was equally true and valid and free of error. It had to be, because it all came from the mouth of God, and God made sure that none of the human writers’ limitations or biases or ignorant opinions managed to seep through and taint the pure message. But that is not a particularly helpful way of looking at things when you actually start to read the Bible and see so many differences of emphasis, theology, and worldview, sometimes within the same book. (Or the same chapter!)
A more helpful way to interpret the Scriptures, to my way of thinking, is to see them as a human product that is to varying degrees faithful to God’s vision for the world. Writers from ancient Israel and the early church produced writings that reflected their understanding of God and their life together as the people of God, and the foibles and predilections of the individual writers were par for the course. Jeremiah had his axes to grind, as did Paul and Luke. Differences and disagreements were unavoidable.
The key for us as Christians is to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ. We must compare what we read with what we know of God’s character and nature as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and as it continues to unfold through the influence of the Holy Spirit. Twenty-some years ago, I was in seminary at the height of the Southern Baptist fight over the interpretation of Scripture, and I remember my theology professor making the declaration, “God has given us a perfect Word. His name is Jesus.” Jesus the Incarnate Word is the key to our understanding and interpreting the written Word of the Bible.
Having laid that groundwork, let us now return to the issue at hand: the two competing versions of sainthood in today’s readings. Psalm 149 uses the terms “faithful” and “faithful ones” to refer to what we are calling saints. Did anybody else feel a twinge of discomfort earlier as we read the psalm? Listen to verses 5 to 9 again:
Let the faithful exult in glory; let them sing for joy on their couches. Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Hold those verses in one part of your mind and listen for the contrast as I read the words of Jesus from Luke 6:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you (vv. 27–31).
Are we to take up two-edged swords to slaughter our enemies, or are we to love them and do good to them? It’s hard to imagine a more stark choice between two less compatible options.
It needs to be said that the choice is not between violence and surrender. Contrary to the way it has been portrayed countless times by even the most well-meaning of people, when Jesus says to turn the other cheek he is not saying we should just roll over and let the powerful and violent have their way. This is not some fraternity ritual, in which the pledge says after each blow from the ceremonial paddle, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” That kind of advice would run counter to Jesus’s whole message and purpose. It’s not what he is saying at all.
“Turn the other cheek,” far from reinforcing the notion that a good disciple is to be a milquetoast, is actually very clever and creative advice for opposing a powerful bully without resorting to violence. Jesus is teaching a form of spiritual jiujitsu in which the violent momentum of the oppressor proves his own undoing.
What Jesus is describing is not a punch but a slap. He is talking to people on the bottom rung of the social ladder; ones who had no clout and no connections and were therefore at the mercy of those who considered themselves their betters. From time immemorial, the backhand slap has been a reliable tool of so-called superiors who want to keep their supposed inferiors in their place. Masters slapped slaves. Husbands slapped wives. Parents slapped children. The strong and dominant slapped the weak and subservient to ensure that they remained weak and subservient. The slap was meant to humiliate, to cow, to reinforce the social order.
Matthew’s version of this saying makes it quite clear. He specifies that it is the right cheek that is being struck, which clearly indicates a backhand slap, because no ancient person would ever use her left hand for any but the most unclean of tasks. To strike with the left hand would bring more shame upon the slapper than upon the intended target.
In fact, that is the key to understanding Jesus’s advice here. He is talking to people who have time after time been in the position of the “slappee.” These are the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled ones he calls blessed in verses 20–23. They know what it’s like to be publicly humiliated. They know the sting of shame that black people in the Jim Crow South felt when they had to step off the sidewalk and stand in the filth of the gutter in their Sunday clothes the moment a white person approached. The people in Jesus’s audience know exactly what this feels like. He knows how desperately they wish they could fight back, knock the snob’s block off, push the arrogant white lady into the mud. But he and they both know the punishment that would follow any such act.
So he tells them a way to resist without fighting back. He says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also” (v. 29). Look him straight in the eye and turn your head for another blow. They want to put you in your place, so you must always remember your real place: you are a beloved child of God, a member of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. You are a saint.
Offering the other cheek to someone who has just slapped your right one turns the tables. His goal was to shame you, but this simple act guards your own honor and threatens his. Presented with this new situation, what will he do? He can’t give you another backhand slap; just try to slap somebody on the left cheek with your right hand —it can’t be done. The slapper now has basically three choices: he can slap with his left hand, which is unthinkable; he can escalate the encounter by hauling off and punching you, which was never his intention; or he can back down. Jesus has just shown his disciples how to assert their dignity and humanity in the face of dehumanizing behavior without resorting to violence.
What he is doing is teaching his disciples—and us, because we too are disciples—how to love our enemies. We are completely mistaken if we think that to love our enemies is to knuckle under and give them whatever they want. Jesus does not tell us to like our enemies, or to think warm thoughts about them, or to let them continue to abuse us. What Jesus, Gandhi, King, and others teach us is that dehumanizing behavior is itself a two-edged sword: it dehumanizes the one wielding it just as much as the one it is used against. To love the enemy is not to be content to let that happen.
Unfortunately, we see in our country today a wholesale rejection of this teaching of Jesus’s by a large segment of the church. Instead of the call to love their enemies, too many people who claim to be Christians choose instead to follow the call of the psalmist: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, / to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples.” Where the praise of God is loudest, watch out! Far too often those praises are accompanied by bigotry, belligerence, and a combative attitude toward anyone who is different.
When we look at the church and find justifications for warfare, torture, police brutality, and homophobia, we see a church that has left the path of discipleship. When we hear venomous attacks against immigrants, adherents of other faiths, and people of color, what hope do we have that the church will ever practice love of enemies? When we hear self-satisfied Christians demonize all who are not like them, we are witnessing the utter perversion of what Jesus intended when he said, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” (v. 22). When those who claim to speak for the church promote ignorance, defend the indefensible, and act as though temporal political power were the ultimate end, we’re seeing those who are more accustomed to slapping than to being slapped.
In these verses from Luke 6, Jesus offers us training for sainthood. In fact, in all of his words and deeds, in his life and in his death, he shows us the path of holiness—setapartness for the purposes of God. But we can choose to reject the lesson. We can take instead the two-edged sword of vengeance and judgment; we can take the path of selfcenteredness, arrogance, and grasping after power as comfortable devotees of the Domination System. We all know Christians who have taken that path.
But the good news today, the gospel, is that we also know Christians who have taken the other path: the narrow path of nonconformity, risk, and nonviolent resistance to evil. We all know those who have either stood up to oppose injustice or dropped to their knees to pray for the reign of God to come. We all know those who have sided with the poor and outcast, wept with the sorrowful, and rejected the temptations and accolades of the world in order to be agents of shalom. We have all known saints.
Let us rejoice and thank God for these saints, some dead and some living, who have modeled for us a life of holiness. Let us honor them by seeking to live lives of holiness ourselves. Let us take seriously Jesus’s call to love our enemies, to return blessings for curses, goodness for hate, prayers for abuse. Let us not sit idly by when our neighbor is being abused or humiliated, but let us rather stand with her and find ways to resist and undermine her oppressor without using violent means. Let us drown out the voices of hatred and intolerance with the sweet music of love, grace, and peace. Let us be saints.