Pleading for Love

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18
Matthew 5:38–48

I had intended to preach a sermon today called “The Meaning of Holiness." That was my intention all week long, and so you see that title in the bulletin. I had not written anything yet, but I had a number of ideas rolling around inside my head that I meant to explore.

I was going to compare the injunction in Leviticus 19, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2), with Jesus’s line that brings chapter 5 of Matthew to a close: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48). I was going to say that by using the word “perfect,” or telos in Greek, Jesus meant something quite different from how we commonly understand the term. He was talking about wholeness or all-inclusiveness, whereas we think of perfection as flawlessness. I then hoped to tease out some of the implications of that difference for how we live our lives as disciples.

I thought I would then focus on the Leviticus passage for a bit, and talk about the way the writers tie holiness to ethical behavior in much the same way that the prophet did in the passage from Isaiah 58 that we read a couple of weeks ago. I would have mentioned that most of Leviticus has to do with the requirements of ritual purity, especially for the priests, but also for the Israelite laypeople. A lot of the instructions have to do with physical maladies such as leprosy or oozing sores and other such gross stuff. They go into unsettling detail about mildew and animal sacrifice and menstruation and bodily emissions. I would have noted that chapter 19 puts ethical impurity on the same level as ritual uncleanness.

At this point I might have quoted Cameron B. R. Howard, who writes, “Achieving holiness requires ethical behavior, not only ritual precision…. Defrauding your neighbor invites impurity just like contracting a leprous disease renders you unclean. You must keep your body in check, but you must also do what is right in the eyes of God” (Howard, “Commentary,” n.p.). I would have observed that despite the meticulous requirements, maintaining bodily purity is generally much easier than having ethical integrity. I toyed with the idea of quoting a song by the Swirling Eddies, “Hide the Beer, the Pastor’s Here,” an incisive and hilarious indictment of hypocrisy, in which the self-righteous “Scripture Man” goes after the person drinking beer in his dorm room and has him expelled from the Christian college. Scripture Man, it turns out, harbors sins in his heart that are arguably worse than having the occasional can of beer, but he doesn’t get found out because "his minty-fresh breath ain’t reeking” (Swirling Eddies, “Hide the Beer”).

I then would have turned to the gospel passage from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus counsels his disciples to eschew retaliation but rather to practice nonviolent resistance to evil and in fact to love their enemies. I would have noted that the justification Jesus provides for these outrageous suggestions is that God “makes [the] sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (v. 45). Then I would have brought it back around to that line about being perfect as God is perfect, and offered an alternative translation: “Be all-inclusive in love, therefore, as God is all-inclusive in love.”

These are the ideas that were rattling around in my brainpan this week like a nickel in a mason jar, but then something happened that led me to change the direction of my sermon, so now you’ll never get to hear any of those things. Sorry.

What happened is that Friday night Sarah and I watched a movie on Netflix. We watched Compulsion.

The movie was made in 1959, but it is set in Chicago in 1924. Orson Welles plays a fictionalized version of the great defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, defending fictionalized versions of the infamous teenage murderers Leopold and Loeb. Dubbed “The Trial of the Century,” the Leopold and Loeb case captured the horrified fascination of the country as it came to light that the suspects had committed a murder out of sheer intellectual curiosity. Leopold was obsessed with Nietzsche’s idea of a superman who would not be subject to the laws and mores that govern ordinary people. Loeb was an aficionado of dime detective novels and had become obsessed with planning and committing the perfect crime. Together they kidnapped and murdered a fourteen-year-old boy and were only caught after Leopold accidentally dropped his glasses at the scene of the crime.

Darrow knew he had no chance to get the boys acquitted, since they had already confessed and the state’s case against them was airtight. He could have sought to have them found not guilty by reason of insanity, but that would have involved a jury, and he did not want to leave his clients’ fate in the hands of twelve individuals who might be swayed by emotion and too readily give in to the popular cry for revenge. Above all else, Darrow, an intractable opponent of capital punishment, wanted to save the teenagers from hanging. So he chose to enter a guilty plea, but with mitigating factors. That meant that the judge alone would have the burden of deciding the boys’ fate, and the subsequent “trial” was really just a sentencing hearing.

The reason this movie changed my mind about my sermon was the summation scene—Darrow’s final argument that the defendants receive life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. In the actual case, the summation lasted a staggering twelve hours; the film version was not quite that long, but it was the longest monologue in movie history to that point. That means it was right up the self-important Orson Welles’s alley, but to his credit he does not ham it up, but rather offers a restrained and powerful performance.

Much of Welles’s speech is taken verbatim from Darrow’s actual summation in 1924, and the rest is faithful to the spirit of the original. As I watched the scene, it occurred to me that Welles could have been offering a commentary on today’s gospel lesson from Matthew 5. It could also be heard as a commentary on the historical moment in which we find ourselves in this country ninety-three years after the original trial.

First, let’s look at what Jesus has to say in the passage from Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile…. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? … Be [all-inclusive in love], therefore, as your heavenly Father is [all-inclusive in love] (vv. 38–41, 43–46, 48).

A couple of explanations are in order. First, “Do not resist an evildoer” is a terrible translation. The Greek word, antistenai, is a military term that refers to armed resistance. Jesus is not telling his disciples to give in to bullies, letting them walk all over them. On the contrary, the advice he gives in the next couple of verses shows that he meant for them to stand up for themselves, just not violently. To turn the left cheek to one who has slapped you on the right is to assert your dignity in the face of one who wants to put you in your place, and to turn the tables on that person. Jesus is talking about a backhanded slap from someone who considers himself your superior. The intention is to insult, not to start a fistfight. To offer the other cheek is to put the bully on the spot. A second backhand slap would require him to use his left hand, which simply is not done. (The left hand is reserved for unclean tasks.) So his choices are to escalate the confrontation with an open-handed slap or a punch, or to back down. With this advice, and in the similar examples of the lawsuit and the second mile, Jesus shows his disciples how to declare their own dignity while gently shaming those who try to deny it. Creative, surprising, and done without resorting to violence.

A second thing we should note about this passage is that it is a continuation of what we saw last week, when Jesus warned about the vicious cycles in which we so easily get trapped, and gave practical suggestions on how to break the cycle and prevent the escalation of conflict or sin. Jesus would endorse unreservedly the famous saying attributed to Gandhi, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” By not responding in kind, but rather responding to violence with nonviolent resistance and to hatred and enmity with love, we can stop the downward spiral that leads inevitably to wounding, killing, vendettas, and war.

As we return to the Leopold and Loeb case and the movie Compulsion, we should note that Clarence Darrow was perhaps the most famous agnostic of the early twentieth century. He was known for his skepticism, his often biting ridicule of leading Christians of the day, and his insistence that religion was more of an obstacle to enlightenment than a help. He gave a speech in 1929 right here in Columbus, titled “Why I Am an Agnostic,” in which he said that “the fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom. The fear of God is the death of wisdom. Skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom” (Darrow, Why I Am, 40). A year after the Leopold and Loeb case he would take on William Jennings Bryan and fundamentalism, and defend the theory of evolution, in the famous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee. He was used to being vilified by the religious and morally upright; in the film Welles shrugs off the burning cross that hooded figures leave outside his home.

In his summation of the case, this proud skeptic, this notorious doubter, stands against the Christian forces of law and order and the howling mob crying for blood, and speaks a more Christlike word than any of them. The state’s attorney, played by E. G. Marshall, professes to be a Christian, then seeks with all his might to put the two teenagers to death to avenge their victim.

But Welles pokes holes in his arguments by appealing to the one Marshall’s character claims as his Lord. He says:

It’s been proven that if the penalties are less barbarous, the crimes are less frequent. Do I need to argue with your Honor that cruelty breeds only cruelty? That every religious leader who’s held up as an example has taught us that if there’s any way to kill evil, it’s not by killing [people], and if there’s any way of destroying hatred, and all that goes with it, it’s not through evil and hatred and cruelty. It’s through charity, love, understanding. This is a Christian community—so-called. Is there any doubt that these boys would be safe in the hands of the founder of the Christian religion? (Murphy, “Summation,” n.p.).

I hear in these words echoes of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and echoes of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Welles goes on:

This court is told to give [the defendants] the same mercy that they gave their victim. Your Honor, if our state is not kinder, more humane, more considerate, more intelligent than the mad act of these two sick boys, then I’m sorry that I’ve lived so long. … [The State’s Attorney] says that if we hang [these boys], there’ll be no more killing. The world has been one long slaughterhouse from the beginning until today, and the killing goes on and on and on. Why not read something, why not think, instead of blindly shouting for death? … I’m pleading, not for these two lives, but for life itself, for a time when we can learn to overcome hatred with love, when we can learn that all life is worth saving, and that mercy is the highest attribute of [humanity]. Yes, I’m pleading for the future. In this court of law, I’m pleading for love (Murphy, "Summation," n.p.).

He says he’s looking forward to a day “when we can learn that all life is worth saving.” When we will remember, as Jesus puts it, that God “makes [the] sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

Have we learned that truth? Do we believe that all life is worth saving? Do we hold the conviction that every person is intrinsically worthy of respect and justice, simply by virtue of being made in the image of God? Do we even believe that everyone is made in the image of God? Or are some lives less valuable, less essential to the grand web of being, than others?

Jesus says for us to love our enemies, to pray for our persecutors, to be all-inclusive in love, just as God is all-inclusive in love. How are we doing with that? Whether we perceive of our enemy as a “radical Islamic terrorist” or a member of the President’s cabinet, an agnostic like Clarence Darrow or a dogmatist like William Jennings Bryan, a pair of arrogant teenage killers or those who wish to put their necks in a noose and release the trap door, how are we making out with that love thing? Could we do better?

Of course, we need to remember that love does not mean submitting to injustice. In fact, as Jess tells us, true love resists evil, but always without violence and with grace. True love goes the extra mile to defend the defenseless and save the bullies from their own destructive tendencies.

We cannot do it on our own. So let us resolve this day, by the power of the Spirit of Christ, to help one another be all-inclusive in love just as God is all-inclusive in love—no exceptions, no reservations. Let us plead for the future. Let us plead for love.


References

Darrow, Clarence. 1929. Why I Am an Agnostic. Little Blue Book No. 1500, ed. E. Haldeman-Julius. Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius Publications. Online: http://darrow.law.umn.edu/documents/why_I_am_an_agnostic.pdf

Howard, Cameron B. R. 2017. “Commentary on Leviticus 19:1–2, 9–18.” Working Preacher. Online. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3165

Murphy, Richard. 1959. “Summation.” Compulsion (screenplay). Online. http://speakola.com/movie/orson-welles-compulsion-1959

Swirling Eddies, The. 1989. “Hide the Beer, the Pastor’s Here.” Outdoor Elvis. Alarma Records.

Robert Turner