"The Sun Shines on the Unrighteous," by Zachary Helton
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? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. This is one of our sacred teachings, Thanks be to God.
The following story is an interplay between the teachings of Jesus, Ryōkan, and Ramana Maharshi, crafted to encapsulate the Spirit of nonviolence.
To the extent that it conflicts with last week’s teaching from Walter Wink,
the listener is invited to recognize an invitation to dialogue.
As with any teaching about God,
both are true,
and yet both fall short.
The wandering Rabbi and his disciples, having passed their first night in the new town, gathered the following morning for breakfast, as was their custom.
“Good morning,” Peter greeted in a groggy voice as he stepped through the archway and into the courtyard. Jesus was already preparing a meal of fish and bread over shouldering embers.
“Shalom!” Jesus greeted good-naturedly. “How was your night?”
The Rabbi and his disciples often stayed together while travelling, whether in the home of a generous patron or a nearby hillside, but it did happen from time to time that they had no choice but to split up. One or two would stay in the home of one host, the rest scattered across other homes throughout the village.
“Passed without incident,” Peter replied, reclining opposite Jesus near the fire. “Kind family. I left quietly so as not to wake them up.” It was at that moment that Peter noticed the plum-colored bruise darkening the left side of Jesus’ face. He sat up straight, suddenly at alert. “Rabbi,” he demanded. “What happened?”
Jesus looked up, thrown for a minute, before remembering the bruise.
“Ah, yes” he said, touching the bruise tenderly. “This. Well…”
“Good morning!” interrupted a newcomer. It was Joanna, followed by her companion, Susanna. “How was your… good God, what happened?” She rushed over, inspecting the bruise on her teacher’s face.
“Please,” Jesus laughed, shooing her away, “I’m alright! You’re going to get ash in our breakfast and then we’ll have a real crisis!”
Joanna sat down, hesitantly.
“I was just drifting off,” Jesus began, flipping the fish, “when I heard a noise at the window, and discovered a thief had broken into my room.”
“What did you do?” Peter asked. Though he’d never voiced it aloud, Peter had always suspected that, push come to shove, his teacher could hold his own in a fight.
“Well,” Jesus replied, “I greeted him and asked him his name. He responded, as perhaps one should’ve expected, by striking me on my cheek.” He gestured to his face and shrugged. “I stepped back, of course, and showed him my palms. I assured him that I was unarmed and meant him no harm, and that I understood completely the forces that might drive one to break into a house. Not wanting him to leave empty handed, I offered him my extra robe, and he was off.”
“You…” Peter started, “I’m sorry, you did what?”
“My extra robe,” Jesus repeated slowly as though Peter hadn’t heard him. “I gave it to him. He looked surprised, but I assured him that, unfortunately for him, I had nothing of any more value. I told him, of course, I wish I could’ve given him more, and sent him off in the direction of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in the next village over. I told him that they were always good for a night of shelter and a good meal. With that, he left, right out of the same window.”
Jesus continued to tend to the fish and bread as though he’d just told them he’d run into an old friend at the market. The disciples’ mouths hung open.
“Good morning!” John and James greeted, entering the courtyard. “How was your…”
“Jesus-was-attacked-by-a thief-and-then-just-gave-him-an-extra-robe-and-sent-him-off,” Joanna blurted. It was more a compound word than a sentence.
“He was… what?” James asked, understandably dazed.
“This will not stand,” Peter said, rising. His hands were shaking, steadying themselves only on the hilt of his sword. “We must find this man. You said you directed him to Lazarus. James, John, if we leave now we can cut him off at…”
“No,” Jesus interrupted, firmly. “Leave him be.”
Peter looked as though he’d just been struck himself. “Does the law not demand an eye for an eye?” Peter shot back.
“It does,” Jesus said calmly.
“Then what do you say to that?” Peter demanded.
“I say that should a thief ever break into your home and strike you across your face, you should do what you feel is yours to do.” He gestured for Peter to sit back down. “The law exists to protect you, and ensure you are given the justice you deserve. But Peter, it was not your room. It was mine. And I am far more interested in the recovery of that man’s soul than the recovery of my cloak.”
Peter stood his ground. “If you had struck this man back, then at least he would know…”
“He would know further anger, further violence, further resistance,” Jesus interrupted. “We might’ve spent the night, or indeed the rest of our lives exchanging blows. If one is able, however, to take that anger and absorb it, to see it, to understand it, to refrain from returning it, then the cycle is disrupted…”
“That man is a thief!” Peter yelled, incredulous.
“That man is a thief, it is true,” Jesus said more firmly, “but more than that, he is a child of God, Peter. He has been beaten down and robbed by this this world until he’s forgotten what he really is. He’s forgotten that he is good, beloved even. If a cloak and a bruised face is the price I must pay to remind him of who he is, then I give it without regret or reservation.”
Peter slumped back down by the fire, crossing his arms in defiance.
“I will respect, Rabbi,” he said, “if someone were to strike me on my check, then I couldn’t imagine…”
“And if your teeth were to suddenly bite your tongue, Peter, would it make you feel better to knock them out?” Jesus waited, as though there were a way to answer such a question. When Peter remained silent, he went on. “So it is with the thief and I. He is a misguided man, blinded by ignorance and pain, as we all once were, or could so easily be.”
“But, Rabbi,” Joanna thought perhaps she might be the one to reason with him, “Did God not give us the law to prevent people getting away with such things? For protecting the survivors?”
“This is true,” Jesus nodded. “The Law of the Lord is perfect,” he quoted the psalm, “lighting the eyes, creating justice, and abiding forevermore.”
“Then how can you just disregard it like this?” she asked, reasonably.
Jesus looked up, surprised. “Disregard it?” he replied. “Joanna, I don’t care to disregard anything. I want to fulfill it. The law is perfect and has a perfect role to play, but God is also bigger than the law God wrote, is God not?”
Joanna considered this.
“The law protects people, and this is good, but it is also true that for those willing to go deeper, to those who are able to meet intimately the One who wrote the law, they will find that the same God who commanded an eye for an eye also sends rain to water the crops of the just and unjust alike. They will find that the same God who commanded just recompense for crimes also sends the sun to light the way for the bad man as well as the good, without judgment or discrimination. As far as I can tell, God is a God of infinite chances, loving thieves into saints, and forgiving seventy times seven times the wrongs done. That same law you quote also states that we are to be as God is, does it not?”
Joanna was confused and, to be honest, slightly annoyed. “So, if we are struck on the face, we too are to just… let it go?”
“You are to do,” Jesus said calmly, “what is yours to do.” He served a few pieces of fish into wooden bowls. “I deal, not in guilt or shame, but in wisdom. If you have known God’s Spirit in one place and time and she inspires you to make protest, then make protest. If you have known God’s Spirit in another place and time and she gives you the capacity to take a blow without returning it, then take the blow. You will not find me writing any new laws for any who choose to follow me, save one: Love one another, however is right at the time, with whatever grace you have received.”
He passed the bowls around, followed by the fresh bread, and blessed the food. For a few moments they ate in silence, spiritual tension drowned out by physical hunger.
When someone finally did speak again, it was Peter, between mouthfuls of bread. “Rabbi,” he shook his head, almost playful on a full stomach, “I respect you, but I also worry for you. Such an attitude may one day be your death. By the logic you follow, men could crucify you and you would allow it, forgiving them their ignorance every step of the way, hoping in vain for the redemption of their souls.”
“Who knows?” Jesus said, taking a deep breath. “It may yet be.” Then, he shot back with an equal measure of play. “However, if such grace is vanity, then let me be counted among the most foolish.”
Everyone laughed, except for Joanna, who stared at him. “You joke, but you truly mean that, don’t you?”
Jesus smiled, but before he could answer, Andrew shuffled into the courtyard.
“Good morning,” he said, stifling a yawn. “Any breakfast… good lord!” Andrew stopped short. “Rabbi, what happened to your face?”
“Good grief,” John sighed. “Are we really to do this again?”
Jesus offered Andrew a broken piece of bread.
“As many times as it takes, John,” he said, Jesus replied. “As many times as it takes.”
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
What stands out to you from this story? Something that gave you life or made you feel uncomfortable? Why do you think that is?
Where do you see yourself in this story?
How might God be inviting you to respond?