We continue today our series entitled Fight. We’ve been looking at questions revolving around followers of Jesus and violence. Questions like: What does the Bible say about warfare and violence? Can a Christian use violence? Go to war? Kill in self-defense? Why does the Old Testament seem to present violence in a positive light while the New Testament seems more negative? Do we kill our enemies (Joshua) or love them (Jesus)?
We’ve spent the last 3 weeks looking at various texts in the Old Testament and for the next 3 weeks we’ll be looking at texts within the New Testament. Today we are going to take a look at probably one of the most foundational passages in relation to Shalom and non-violence and probably the most misunderstood passage, possibly within Scripture. This passage is part of a larger context, this context that we call the Sermon on the Mount.
We have talked a lot around the idea that violence is a failure of the imagination. That Jesus is calling us to live non-violently, use our imaginations when it comes to responding to violence. You see Jesus hates violence but he also don’t call us to passivity (many people might think that). No Jesus is calling us to a third way, and no more brilliantly and imaginatively than in the passage that we will look at today found in Matthew 5:38-42.
Matthew 5:38-42 says, ““You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
So before we dive too much farther into this text, I want to point out what Jesus is not saying. Jesus is not suggesting that we masochistically let people step all over us. Instead, Jesus is pointing us towards something more imaginative. A way of disarming others without returning evil with evil or fighting fire with fire.
Now let’s look at the greater context of these verses, the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus way of laying out what life lived out in the Kingdom of God looks like. Or how the Kingdom of God is breaking out into the world. The Sermon on the Mount and what lies within are for those who are seeking to live life under the rule and reign of King Jesus. Yes they apply to everyone, but only those who call Jesus King and Lord are expected to live the Kingdom life out in the world.
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is giving 6 anti-thesis of which the text that we just read is the 5th of the 6 anti-thesis. An anti-thesis in Scripture usually contains something like, “You’ve heard it said….., but I say…. and then he fills in an example of what that might looks like. So Jesus in these anti-thesis first cites a rule from the Torah. Secondly, he reinterprets the Torah command in a new and radical way. And thirdly, he provides specific illustrations for following this radical command
So we see this in 5:38-42. The citation from the Torah is found in verse 38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” Jesus is no doubt referencing Leviticus 24:20 which basically says in whatever way you get injured you can respond in kind. If a man takes off your ear, you can take off his but no more. It was a way of getting rid of the cycle of unending violence and stopping people from enacting unlimited revenge. This concept was also spelled out in many other Near Eastern writings, such as the Code of Hammurabi.
But Jesus is spelling out another way. His radical reinterpretation of the Torah is in verse 39 which says, “But I tell you. Do not resist an evil person.” Now is Jesus saying that when evil comes upon us, we are just supposed to lie down and take it? Is he saying that we are just to let evil go uncheck when it comes against us? The word resist could better be understood as “do not respond in kind”. Walter Wink puts it this way, “The Greek word translated "resist" in Matt. 5:39 is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti). What translators have over-looked is that antistenai is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other until their ranks met. Then they would "take a stand," that is, fight. Ephesians 6:13 uses precisely this imagery: "Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand [antistenai] on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm istenai]." The image is not of a punch-drunk boxer somehow managing to stay on his feet, but of soldiers standing their ground, refusing to flee. In short, anti- stenai means more here than simply to "resist" evil. It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection.” Jesus is not saying never do anything about evil. But he is saying that we need to renounce the use of force and violence. Jesus always resisted evil, but in non-violent ways or what we might call nonviolent activism. And in this text he is calling us to do the same, to follow in his nonviolent activism ways.
So once Jesus reinterprets the Torah in a new and radical way, he provides specific illustrations on what it means to not resist an evil person, or not to respond to an evil person in kind. In each of the three instances Jesus points us towards disarming others. Jesu teaches us to refuse to oppose evil on its own terms. He invites us to transcend both passivity on the one hand, and violence on the other by following a radical third way.
The first illustration he uses is found in verse 39 which says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to hi the other also.” Now this text is so often mistaken for laying down and doing nothing. But when we understand the cultural context of what Jesus is saying, we see that it is one of the most radical, subversive, and countercultural things Jesus ever said. And to explain this I need someone to come up here and help me demonstrate. Don’t worry I won’t really slap you.
So one of the first things we need to understand is that in Near Eastern Culture then (and even today) a person would only hit with the right hand. You see the left hand is what is called the dirty hand and is used for dirty things. In some Jewish communities if you hit someone with the left hand you could be banished from that community for 10 days. So a person would have to use a backslap to hit someone on the right cheek with the right hand. This backhand slap is a slap of insult, degradation, and humiliation. This slap was meant for an inferior. Maybe a slave, a child, even a woman. It was to put them in their place.
And so if the person who had just been insulted, been demeaned and humiliated by a back handed slap would turn the left cheek to the person, that person had a few possible options. They couldn’t back hand them with the left hand, and to take the back of the right hand, turn it over and slap them doesn’t make sense. So they either need to slap them with the front of the hand, or punch them outright. But only equals fought with fists. And what the person is saying by turning other cheek is, I'm a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won't take it anymore.
The second example of living the radical third way, resisting violence and passivity is spelled out in verse 40 which says, “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” Jesus envisions a poor person being sued in court for unpaid debt. The person suing the poor man wants his inner garment. The inner garment was made of cotton, linen or wool. It was worn next to the skin, had short sleeves and reached to the knees. The outer garment was blanket-like, used for survival meaning a robe by day, a blanket and pillow by night. Deuteronomy 24:10-13 provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person's long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening so the poor man would have something in which to sleep. So the poor person is taken to court by the rich person that they are in debt to. All they have is the clothes on their back. When brought into court, they not only hand over their inner garment but their outer garment as well. Now do the math. Yep, you guessed it, they are now stark naked. This is what Walter Wink says about nakedness and shame and how this move sends ripples through the justice system of the day, “Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Gen. 9:20-27). By stripping, the debtor has brought shame on the creditor. Imagine the guffaws this saying must have evoked. There stands the creditor, covered with shame, the poor debtor's outer garment in the one hand, his undergarment in the other. The tables have suddenly been turned on the creditor. The debtor had no hope of winning the case; the law was entirely in the creditor's favor. But the poor man has transcended this attempt to humiliate him. He has risen above shame. At the same time, he has registered a stunning protest against the system that created his debt. He has said in effect, "You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you've got all I have except my body. Is that what you'll take next?” Imagine the debtor leaving court naked. His friends and neighbors, aghast, inquire what happened. He explains. They join his growing procession, which now resembles a victory parade. This is guerrilla theater! The entire system by which debtors are oppressed has been publicly unmasked. The creditor is revealed to be not a legitimate moneylender but a party to the reduction of an entire social class to landlessness and destitution. This unmasking is not simply punitive, since it offers the creditor a chance to see, perhaps for the first time in his life, what his practices cause, and to repent.” This was another radical way of exposing the powers that be and not doing it violently, or just sitting by passively and letting injustice happen. The radical third way of non-violent activism.
So Jesus then ratchets up the radical third way non-violent discussion by bringing up what might have been a common occurrence in the life of his hearers. Being that 1st century Israel was an occupied land, occupied by the Roman Empire, there was a rule or practice that allowed the Roman soldiers to enlist the help of the people in the land that they were occupying, and to have these people carry the soldiers packs for 1 mile and no more. They could enlist the help of the oppressed people and have them carry the packs for 1 mile. Going beyond one mile, or going that second mile was an infraction of military code. It would be simply absurd for a Jewish person to be-friend a hated Roman soldier and walk with them an extra mile. And we turn again to Walter Wink to help us understand how this is a radical, subversive, non-violent way of dealing with an “evil person”, “With few exceptions, minor infractions were left to the disciplinary control of the centurion (commander of one hundred men). He might fine the offending soldier, flog him, put him on a ration of barley instead of wheat, make him camp outside the fortifications, force him to stand all day before the general's tent holding a clod of dirt in his hands—or, if the offender was a buddy, issue a mild reprimand. But the point is that the soldier does not know what will happen. It is in this context of Roman military occupation that Jesus speaks. He does not counsel revolt. One does not "befriend" the soldier, draw him aside and drive a knife into his ribs. Jesus was surely aware of the futility of armed insurrection against Roman imperial might; he certainly did nothing to encourage those whose hatred of Rome would soon explode into violence. But why carry the soldier's pack a second mile? Does this not go to the opposite extreme by aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar's, but how one responds to the rules is God's, and Caesar has no power over that. Imagine, then, the soldier's surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack, and the civilian says, "Oh, no, let me carry it another mile." Why would he want to do that? What is he up to? Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop'. Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire's strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will this civilian file a complaint? Create trouble? From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off balance by depriving him of the predictability of his victim's response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus' hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors. Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to be pious, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire. He is not giving a nonpolitical message of spiritual world transcendence. He is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.”
We’ll stop there and let’s spend some time unpacking this radical non-violent activism third way that Jesus is speaking about in this text. If violence is a lack of imagination, then let’s imagine and dream what Jesus might say to us today. What instances from our culture would he use to help us see the same point that he made in these 3 instances? Or what is the modern day equivalent of turning the other cheek, giving your outer cloak, and going a second mile? Let’s talk and discuss how we can live this upside down, radical, subversive, non-violent activism in our world today.
1. What thoughts, comments, insights, questions, push back, etc.. do you have regarding the Scripture and/or the message?
2. If violence is a lack of imagination, then let’s imagine and dream what Jesus might say to us today. What instances from our culture would he use to help us see the same point that he made in these 3 instances? Or what is the modern day equivalent of turning the other cheek, giving your outer cloak, and going a second mile?
3. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?