Today we are continuing on reading from the Sermon on the Mount, from Jesus’ manifesto of the new way of living, the life-style of the community he attracts around himself and who dare to live differently. Nowhere is this difference more evident than in what Jesus is saying today. It comes from a section where Jesus takes the holy sacred law and re-interprets it for the community and those who are prepared to live daily with the consciousness of being the children of God. Jesus in this passage quotes the Law, and then in an extraordinary act of authority follows up with, “But I say to you…” Wow, is he deluded or inspired?
On first glance, and taken in isolation, I’ve got to say today’s verses do not strike me as especially compelling teaching. You are struck on the right cheek, offer your left, you get sued for your second last possession, give them your last possession while you are at it, you get forced into labour for one mile, make it two.
The famous existentialist and atheist philosopher Frederick Nietzche (he of the famous quote, “God is dead”) hated it. He is one of the most famous despisers of the sort of stuff Jesus is saying today. He declared that the Pale Galilean robbed people of their dignity, their will to further themselves, to rise above their station in life. But also it was weak, insipid, turned people into doormats, unable or unwilling to stand up for themselves.
I’ve got to admit I find within myself some squeamishness upon reading Jesus words. They can sound so… what placid, meek in the worst sense of that word, passive, absorb too much of this stuff and it will strip you of any dignity or self respect. Dare we say it to women trapped in domestic violence for instance?
And yet when I read about Jesus in the gospels generally I don’t get the sense of a pale, insipid doormat.
The insipid pale doormat Galilean I never would normally associate with Jesus who never flinched from conflict, who defiantly rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, who teetered on the edge of causing a riot when he cleared the temple of the money changers, who stared down the Pharisees as he declared them morally and spiritually bankrupt, who put the fear of…whatever it was into Herod.
What is going on here in these few verses where we seemed to be directed to suddenly become compliant, subservient? So I have pondered long and hard these few verses, trying to make sense of them for quite a while.
There is a reading of these verses that draws upon the cultural practices of Jesus day and gives this passage a totally different twist. This reading removes it far from being passive and in fact makes it provocative and defiant. A reading that makes of these verses a powerful, confident, sacrificial call to action for the sake of the breaking in reign of God.
Make no mistake the practitioners of Jesus ethic never thought of themselves as passive as in “passive resistance”. Martin Luther King in leading the civil rights movement in the US was not passive, Ghandi in leading the independence movement in India was not passive. On the contrary they intentionally, selectively and strategically chose laws to break that would bring the maximum shame and embarrassment to their oppressors. They took up the position of the high moral ground even while forced into the position of the one who has few legal or economic rights. They brought the force of right, of people power and justice to bear on unjust situations and won out. This is not fantasy land stuff. Look at what happened just a few years ago in the Middle East. This is not passive resistance; it is non- violent resistance that refuses to in any way acknowledge the legitimacy of the oppressor.
So let’s look afresh at these three illustrations Jesus gives us and let’s see if there may be more to what he is saying turning us into passive compliant doormats.
Do not resist evil. This term resist in Hebrew Scriptures nearly always means stand against and with connotations of violence. The standing against is warfare. Jesus is saying do not resist with violence. The eye for the eye and the tooth for a tooth, although actually designed to limit retaliation and keep it proportional, yet still locks us into this ever spiralling cycles of violence. Somehow we have to find ways of breaking that unimaginative and destructive way of living, whether in our homes, schools, workplaces, between nations, religions. I think it was the second greatest practitioner of non violent resistance Ghandi who noted, living by the rule of eye for eye pretty well guarantees we all end up blind. Do not become what you resist or else you have empowered evil and violence and you have lost the struggle. How else then can we break the pay back, the eye for an eye? Let’s look at Jesus three examples.
First, the one about offering the other cheek. But Jesus is more specific. If someone strikes your right cheek offer your left. Is this being so specific more than a literary flourish? Maybe. Middle Eastern people use the right hand for nearly all activities, the left reserved mostly for well rather personal matters. You got to use your right hand in public. Now imagine you are facing someone and going to strike them with your right hand. You are going to have to make contact with the left side of their face. But that is not what Jesus says. He specifically says right side. So what this means is this striking referred to here is a backhander. Which is not a blow intended to inflict physical damage so much as insult, express contempt. It is what a socially superior gives to a lesser.
Jesus says to the no-bodies, the rag tag motley crew of his peasant/fishermen followers, ‘don’t be intimidated; rather, when treated this way, dismissed, face up to this person and instead of cowering, look them in the eye, and turn your head so they cannot strike you again on the right cheek. Not that it would work anyway, mind you. Once you have struck someone on the right cheek and it did not humiliate them a second slap is not going to do the trick. Same principle as telling a joke, you get one and only one shot at it, or else as you are trying to explain the punch line you become the one who looks like an idiot.
Jesus is saying, Invite them as it were to try again. But this time as your left cheek is turned to your social superior they can no longer slap you backhanded with their right hand They will need to swing a proper closed fist punch with their right hand. You are saying, you did not humiliate me, demean me, dehumanise me with your backhander to my cheek. But what would it mean for you knowing that to now strike me, full blow on the other cheek? Who would lose face if you did this?
Second up, the example of the person taking your to court to get your coat is the word the NRSV translates. The situation here is offering a surety against a loan. Usually it would be an animal or land but a poor person could use their outer garment. They were entitled to get it back at night for wrapping themselves in for sleep. In Jesus’ one liner someone is pressuring a poor person in the court to get money back that the poor person does not have. They will lose this case; poor people do not win these sorts of battles. So Jesus says when this happens to you, stand up, take off your coat and do not stop there, just as you shamed someone by offering your left cheek, now offer your final piece of clothing your possess. You will stand naked in court which will be a scandal and and you will leave amid scenes of outrage. And the village comes streaming in to see this outrage, but the shame of nakedness extended not just to the naked person but to those whose eye falls upon them, when all ask where your clothes are, there can only be one answer. My creditor has all my clothes. It is a truly harsh person who will feel no shame in that situation. Resist, yes.
And the third example of the occupying troops forcing someone to carry their pack one mile, you go two. The Roman army was authorised to pressgang civilians to carry their pack, but just one mile. And Roman roads had mileposts every mile. These were not lawless people, the law limited the authority of the soldier to just one mile. Beyond that it was unlawful. So you can imagine you are grabbed by the scruff of the neck, lumbered with a load and ordered to march. You mutter, cursing your luck, after all you had a pretty good party you were heading off to; oh well only one mile. You reach the mile post and the soldier is starting to look around for the next human pack mule. Instead you stride past the marker and the soldier is scurrying after you. Umm, you can put that down now, you have done your mile.” “Oh, its OK, you reply and the soldier is starting to think, “Gees, I’m now responsible for this, this has suddenly become my problem. I’m liable for what is happening here. Hey stop, I insist, I order you to stop carrying my pack.”
So it is not passive, but an imaginative, intentional way of taking the initiative and starting to live even in the midst of this decaying world the values of the reign of God.
Some have declared it impracticable. And it is if you try to live the way of Jesus on your own. And it is if you try to do all this without remembering who said these words. You will grow despairing, both of yourself and the world. But relax it was never meant to be done by each person individually. These are words for the community of Jesus followers and can only be lived through the gift of the Spirit and the gift of our sisters and brothers.