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“The Other Cheek?”

Luke 6:27-38
Matt. 5:38-48

Jesus said, "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you..." Well, I like what he said if I feel like I am the enemy or the hated, but if I am the one who has an enemy or if I'm the one who is supposed to do good to the one who hates me, I'm not too keen on the idea!

And this "turn the other cheek" bit - it is a nice quote to offer someone else or to use if I am in a tight spot - but when someone messes with me, I want revenge! If you want my honest, gut opinion of Jesus' advice in this passage, I will have to tell you he had a nice theory, but that the real world simply does not work the way it once did. I would have to tell Jesus to look out on the school playground and find out what happens to nice kids who turn the other cheek".  I would tell him that we live in a violent society and that his advice almost enables people to be mean and violent.

It sounds to me as if Jesus is advising passivity to the point of submission. It sounds like Jesus is asking people to continue being victims.  And since I do not like that kind of theology, I had to dig deeper into this passage to ascertain if Jesus might have been trying to tell us something other than this. Thankfully, a theologian named Walter Wink did some heavy lifting on the social world of Jesus’s time and learned more about this text.  It is his work that I am working with this morning.

The Greek word used in this passage is "antistenai", which means to resist. That surprised me, because when I read this scripture before, resistance was not what I heard.  "Antistenai" means to stand up again and fight. In fact, it is also related to the word which is translated "resurrection".  So, what Jesus is really saying is:

  • stand up for what you believe
  • do not flee, stand up and fight
  • do not mirror evil or oppression
  • do not act like the one you are opposing
  • do not turn into what you hate
  • resist other’s wrongdoing

Yet, he also tells us to love our enemies and to do as we want others to do to us. Are you as confused as I am? There is another Gospel passage which shows Jesus expounding on these concepts:

"If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with hm two miles.” (Matt. 5: 39-41)

Jesus gives three examples of what to do when someone treats us wrongly. Is he telling us to passively sit back and take abuse, to fight back, or what? Let us look at each one separately to find out what these examples meant to the people of Jesus' day.  I will need 2 volunteers to help me demonstrate the first of Jesus’s examples.

Jesus said, "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also".

Have volunteer pretend to hit 2nd volunteer on right cheek. The only way you could hit someone on the right cheek is with the left fist or with a backhanded slap of the right hand.  But in Hebrew culture, the left hand was dirty. That was the hand you used to wipe - and it would shame you to use it.  So, the slapper would have to use the right hand to hit in a backhanded slap. And a backhand was how you treated slaves, or women, because they were beneath you. If you were fighting with an equal, you slapped that person with an open hand. The Hebrews were usually people who were slaves to the ruling party. It would follow, then that Jesus was talking to Hebrews who were accustomed to being backhanded by their rulers. So, the slapper uses a backhand hit on the right cheek.

Have Volunteer #1 pretend to hit volunteer #2 with right backhand on right cheek. Now, after he has been hit, if he does what Jesus says, and turns the left cheek also, how can the slapper hit him again? The only options are to hit with an open-handed slap, which would elevate the Hebrew person to equal status or to use the left hand, which would demean the slapper.

What Jesus is telling the people that if someone puts you down by backhanding them, that you should not fight, but that you should also not submit. Ask them to sit down.  A person who "turns the other cheek" is a person who says, "I'm your equal".  This takes the power away from the slapper and gives power to the one who was hit.  Jesus is not suggesting passive submission to abuse, but defiance for abusive authority.

Let us look at the second example. Jesus said, "If someone wants to sue you and take your outer tunic, let him have your inner cloak as well." The problem was one of what a person put up for collateral for a loan. (Reference Duet. 24. l-3) Normal collateral would be cattle or land. But, in ancient Israel, the poor did not own land or livestock. They did not have realtors and land was not free. Society was set up so that the rich got richer, and the poor became poorer. So, a poor person who had no land or livestock could put up their coat for collateral. However, the law said that the creditor had to give the coat back at nightfall so that the debtor would not freeze. Then, the next morning, the creditor could come back and embarrass the debtor by taking the coat again in front of people, morning after morning.

I need two volunteers.  We have volunteer #1 taking Volunteer #2 to court to sue for his outer coat. He has nothing else to give her and he cannot pay back the debt, so he is looking at having the wealthier person shame him daily by coming to take his coat away in front of people each day and he cannot do anything to stop her. This will continue for an indefinite period, and he has already lost everything else. Also, you should know what the Hebrew men wore - an outer tunic, and an inner tunic. No underwear, nothing else.

R: "Why are you bringing this man to court?"
#1: "He owes me money and he say he can't pay. So, I want his coat."
R: "Do you owe her money?"
#2: "Yes, but I don't have anything to give her. I can't pay her back."
R: "Then give her your coat."
(to #1: "You'll have to bring it back to him at nightfall.")
#2 takes off his other clothes too and hands them to #1. She is embarrassed.

They leave.

We are laughing, and that is how the people who heard Jesus say this responded. Can you imagine the havoc it would cause if everyone who was sued for their coats stripped down naked in the court? Remember, in the Hebrew tradition, the person who saw nakedness was the one who was shamed, not the one who was naked.  Remember Noah? When he got drunk and lay naked in his tent, he was not shamed. It was his son, Ham, when Ham saw Noah's nakedness, who was banished from the country. It was Ham who was shamed.

Jesus was saying that when you try to be honest, when you try to pay your bills
But the system of economics and justice works against you so that society has a problem.  He is demonstrating that the shame for this kind of situation is on the creditors, the ruling party and that their power should be challenged.

Let us look at the third example Jesus gave. "If someone forces you to go one mile, go two miles with him." Now, this was not just a figure of speech, this was a humiliating thing the Hebrew people had to put up with because of the Roman soldiers in the area. It was within Roman law that a soldier could ask a slave (a Hebrew person) to carry their military pack, which was 60-80 lbs. But the law stated that the soldier could only ask the slave to carry the pack one mile. The Romans wanted to be friendly rulers, that way they did not have trouble with the slaves. Roman roads had mile markers. If a Roman soldier asked a slave to carry the pack more than one mile, he broke the military code (and we all know that military code is always stricter than civilian code).

Again, I need two volunteers. #1 is a Roman soldier.  #2 is a Jew.  I will be the military supervisor.
#1 : (to #2) "Carry my pack."
#2: "No, no. I don't want to."
#1: "I said to carry my pack."
#2: "Well, okay."
Walk around.
#1: "Here's the mile marker. Put my pack down."
#2: "It's not so bad, I think I'll keep carrying it."
#1: "You can't do that. I'm the soldier, you're the peasant."
#2: "That's okay."
#1: "Hey, come back here, I want my pack back. This isn't the way you do this."
Robin: (Sergeant) (to #1) "What are you doing?"
#1: "Well, he wouldn't give me my pack back."
Robin: "You mean a slave wanted to carry the pack farther than necessary?"
#2: "Here's your pack back!"

You see, Jesus did not want people to be oppressed any more than they already were. By using these examples, Jesus was teaching them to take power over personal and systemic oppression.

The morals of these stories as Jesus tells them are:

* Do not accept society as it is when the rules are set up to oppress people.

* Victims can begin living meaningful lives by taking the power and turning it upside down. Today we call it solidarity.

* Jesus was not prescribing non-action; he was prescribing active resistance.

For centuries, women have been told to "turn the other cheek" about spousal abuse. If we really understand the spirit of what Jesus was saying, this will mean that women would be encouraged to turn abusers into authorities.

Jesus says that you can find power in many situations, but you must think about power in a whole new way.  You do not have to wait for some Christ to come in the clouds at the end of time to find your time to escape heartache, poverty, oppression, or hopelessness.  You can begin living in the kindom of God now by actively resisting the so-called power of oppression and bullying right now.  Thanks be to God for this new understanding!