This Sunday we are presented with a lesson from Matthew’s gospel which is familiar to all of us and many of our members. Some of the language in this lesson has worked its way into our vocabularies; “turn the other cheek,” and “go an extra mile.”
The problem is that what we mean by those phrases bears little or no resemblance to the original meaning, and in fact can completely obscure the lesson Jesus was offering his hearers. I urge you to take this opportunity to set the record straight, and provide a teaching for our members which can help them embrace Jesus’ call to participate in doing justice and mercy.
The scholarly work for what I am offering you here was done by Walter Wink in his series of three books on the ‘powers of this world.’ One volume, entitled Engaging the Powers, gives an explanation of this teaching and what it meant when Jesus said it. I had the privilege of hearing him offer this teaching in person – and it has stayed with me for lots of reasons.
The cultural context for this teaching is crucial to hold in mind; the people who were listening to Jesus took certain things for granted – understandings we do not share, and have completely lost over the centuries.
The passage begins with Jesus saying once again, “you have heard……but I say to you.” In this pattern he routinely tells them something which is more difficult than the original commandment – as in the lesson we had last week.
The lex talionis – “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” was a law which limited the revenge response. It permitted violence, but prohibited escalation of it. No more was to be exacted than had been taken. NO MORE than an eye for an eye, NO MORE than a tooth for a tooth. What Jesus goes on to say to them is that no violence is permitted. They are to be wise, non-violent, and yet effective by using the cultural norms and rules to their advantage.
“Do not resist an evildoer.” The word translated ‘resist’ is also used to describe the violent clash of armies on a battlefield – blood will be shed, and people may die. Jesus is saying not to use violence. “BUT … if someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other cheek also.”
Everyone in that crowd knew that the only hand which could be used for public gesturing is the right hand. The left hand was reserved for unclean purposes. Jesus did not have to explain that to them. They got it. If someone is going to hit you they have to use the right hand. To hit you on the right cheek with the right hand they must back-hand you, and that is the way you hit someone you consider to be your inferior. It’s the way a master would hit a slave – a Roman might hit a Jew. It’s intended to humiliate.
Jesus says, if someone treats you this way don’t get violent – but offer the left cheek to be struck. Again, there is cultural meaning that has been lost to us. To hit someone on the left cheek – and using the right hand this would be an open slap or a punch – is the way you hit an equal. And if you hit an equal you are subject to a fine!
Do not resort to violence; simply do something which will make it clear that if the unjust or demeaning behavior continues there can be negative consequences for the perpetrator.
“If someone compels you to go a mile out of your way, go two miles.” A Roman soldier could compel a civilian to carry his pack (about seventy pounds) for one mile – and no farther. If he was caught making someone go farther his superior could punish him severely. (You remember from your history lessons that the Romans laid out their roads with mile markers – they knew exactly how many miles of road they had built all over the Empire.)
Jesus says that if someone makes this outrageous demand of you, just keep walking. Put the soldier in the ridiculous position of begging you to give the pack back before he gets into trouble!
In other words, as Wink said, “up the ante” on the bad behavior with the goal of getting it to stop.
The same message is in the third example. The Law said that a poor man could borrow money against his own cloak. It also stipulated that a man’s cloak had to be returned to him when the sun went down because the poor may have nothing else to keep them warm. But every morning the creditor could come and make a show of taking the cloak back – making a public spectacle of the poor man’s indebtedness.
What the people listening to Jesus knew – that we do not – is that in that culture there is more shame attached to causing nakedness than to being naked. So - if someone treats you this way, and shames you, just give him your other garment as well – stand there naked, and let the shame of your nakedness fall on him.
Do not get violent – do not shed blood - but do something – up the ante – to call attention to the unjust behavior and make it stop.
Jesus is NOT saying that they are to lie down and take it! He is NOT saying they should overlook unjust behavior and not make an issue of it! He is NOT saying they should put themselves out for people who are behaving badly. And he is definitely NOT saying they should behave like doormats! He is telling them to do something clever – and non-violent – to effect a change in their situation. Mahatma Gandhi once said that he didn’t think Christians understand Jesus….and in this case he was right.
We cannot read translations, ripped out of their historical contexts, and expect to grasp the true meaning! This is why REAL Bible study is so important – scholarly study, which has us seeking what was meant and heard when the teaching was first offered. In this case we have cheated ourselves of the true meaning for nearly two centuries, and often led our people 180 degrees in the wrong direction!
A modern example: a CPA who heard me teach this passage began to think about the way some of his clients would ask him to do things that were not exactly honest. He felt caught I the middle – he didn’t want to lose his clients, but he didn’t want to do anything that would get himself in trouble. He began to think and pray about how he could ‘up the ante’ on those kind of requests.
One day a client came into his office and suggested something a bit shady. The CPA said, “Before I could think of doing that I would need you to put the request in writing and sign it and date it for me.” All of a sudden it didn’t seem like such a good idea to his client, who never made such suggestions again!
Some of us may have had to think of ways to ‘up the ante’ – to turn the other cheek, go a second mile, or give over our second garment as a way to call attention to unjust, unfair or demeaning behavior that we wanted to have stop. Jesus gives us not only permission, but the mandate to do that.
But there is another lesson for us to consider here. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as having any particular power or authority over others; but it is very important for us to pay attention – to notice when someone seems to be trying to ‘up the ante’ on something we need to help bring to an end. Our baptismal covenant commits us to “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” This lesson from Matthew’s gospel is the among the warrants in Scripture for that covenant promise.
Racism is still a reality among us – and from time to time we may be brought up short by people who are calling our attention to that….upping the ante on something which needs to change. It wasn’t all that long ago that women had to struggle for the right to vote, to attend university, to do work that they clearly have the ability – but did not have the right – to do. Some of our brothers and sisters with different sexual orientations tell us of their struggle to be treated with respect. We can probably all think of some other examples as well.
Our culture and society are not perfect – there are inequities and unfairness among us. Our challenge may be not only to find ways to ‘up the ante’ when that injustice touches our own lives, but to respond when others tell us it is touching theirs.
And the part about being perfect? Again we must consider the context; Jesus is talking about the way God loves – perfectly – wholly – completely - blessing the righteous and the unrighteous. The disciples of Jesus are not being told they must BE perfect, but that they must love completely as God does.
Which commandment is the greatest? You shall love God above all else with all that is in you, and your neighbor as yourself. Upping the ante may be one way to do both……