Turn The Other Cheek … and other bizarre sayings
based on Matthew 5:38-48
I want to acknowledge that I’m using some notes by David Ewart – who was on staff at Naramata Centre when I attended Winter Session in 1976-77, but I first heard this understanding of this passage from Matthew from a course with Walter Wink in 2001.
Matthew 5:38-41 has a tragic history of poor translations and even worse interpretations. This passage is NOT recommending becoming a doormat; nor does it tolerate domestic violence.
First of all, the translation, “Do not resist an evildoer” fails to convey the full meaning of the underlying Greek. It would be better translated as, “Do not violently resist an evildoer.” Thus the teaching is primarily about non-violence. It is not about acquiescing to evil.
Jesus then goes on to offer three quick examples of how to non-violently resist an evildoer – in fact, of how to publicly shame and mock an evildoer.
These passages are tragically mis-interpreted because we have forgotten the original society in which Jesus gave these teachings.
Please note it is important which translation you read. `The Message’ which can really help simplify and clarify some passages, totally misses the point in these verses in vs 38-41. It mistranslates Jesus’ intention because Eugene Peterson has not examined the middle-eastern culture of Jesus’ world and thus does not understand the subversive nature of Jesus’ words. The Message says:
“Here’s another saying that deserves a second look. `Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose. `Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags to into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
Dear friends, although living generously is noble and right, it is not what Jesus is saying in this passage!
When Jesus says, “If anyone …” he and his listeners knew instantly and exactly who that “anyone” was. The behaviours Jesus describes – slapping the right cheek; suing; forcing to go a mile – were not the kind of things “anyone” could do. They were the kind of things only a privileged few could do – and did – to the crowds who were listening to Jesus.
Slapping the right cheek. This was done by Masters to their servants and slaves. It was always done by hitting with the back of the right hand across the right cheek. The blow was about asserting status and power over the other. This is not about random violence or fighting among friends or enemies. It is about rank, privilege and power.
And to preserve one’s honour – it is crucial everything must be done according to the socially accepted protocols. You must strike only the right cheek; and only with the back of the right hand. Any variation on this would demonstrate that you were not in control; would be a public loss of face.
Now imagine your overlord has just slapped you on your right cheek, and without saying a word you silently turn your head to expose your left cheek. (Jim and I will demonstrate!) It appears that you are becoming doubly subservient; doubly accepting your master’s authority over you. But you are actually rendering your master powerless! To hit now, the master must use a fist – and you only did that to one of equal status.
So you would appear to be meek and servile; obediently waiting for a second blow, but it will not come without the master having to acknowledge you as a person of equal worth.
Sue you. Peasants did not sue one another. Again this is about the privileged abusing the poor. Since peasants quite literally only owned the clothes on their backs, being sued for your coat was being sued for the only thing you owned – except for your underwear! Which is what a “cloak” means. Being seen in your underwear is shameful for you. So why not publicly expose the shame which allows someone with wealth and privilege to take away the only thing a poor person owns by going naked! Give him your underwear. In that culture it was more shameful to see someone naked than to be naked! So, let one who sued you explain why you are naked.
Forced to go a mile. As the occupying forces, Roman soldiers were allowed to conscript civilians to carry their packs, but only for a mile. However, this was no minor inconvenience for anyone who worked and fed their family day by day. Walking a mile with a heavy pack and then back again would mean missing that day’s labour, and therefore that day’s food for the family. Offering to go a second mile publicly exposes the unjust hardship of being forced to go even one mile, but does so in a way that seems to cooperate while at the same time brings shame and ridicule on the ones doing the forcing.
Verse 42 – Begging and Borrowing. Notice that the teaching here is directed to those who have – and not to the have-nots. The effect of this is to break down the customary social barriers between those who have and those who do not. It changes the social relationship to one of kinship. Jesus is telling us to treat beggars and borrowers as if they were our closest family.
At the time of Jesus “love” and “hate” were NOT understood in terms of internal emotional states, feelings, or attitudes. Jesus is not asking us to “feel the love” toward our enemies.
At the time of Jesus, words referring to an internal state always connote a corresponding external expression as well. For example “to covet” always involved the attempt to take what one desired, hence the word is best translated “to steal.”
And so “to love” our enemies does NOT mean to try and feel affection for them. It does means to …join one’s fate with theirs; to seek for their welfare, their fair and just treatment. And to behave outwardly in ways that correspond with our inner attachment.
Yikes. Maybe it would be easier to try and merely like our enemies.
However, as Jesus points out, God treats God’s enemies – the evil and the unrighteous – the same as God’s friends – the good and the righteous. Ought we not to do the same? Jesus shows us now as then, there is no path to love; love is the path.
The last saying… be ye perfect… Oh boy, I remember being preached at by a young woman at some city street corner who was laying this verse on me. That didn’t exactly make me feel good about myself.
So, what do we do with this; what does it mean except that we are setting ourselves up for failure? Author Ann Lamott writes: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”
Just think of it, we are constantly being bombarded with images and attitudes about perfection – think of what we are told is the perfect body (male or female) – none of us here would measure up. Expand that exponentially to expectations about career choices, parenting ability, education, having all the right toys and knowing all the right people and you can see the truth of Anne’s words.
So again, let’s look at scripture scholarship which points out the inaccuracy of the translation. Rather than “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”, the actual text is, “Be whole as God is whole.” Joyce Rupp in her book, “The Cup of our Life”, writes: Wholeness implies a process, a gradual coming together into a `oneness’ in which all the parts are integrated, but not necessarily perfect. Wholeness or holiness takes a life time of ups and downs. It can never be accomplished apart from divine help and guidance or without the interaction of our lives with others…When we get sucked into self-criticism (or criticising others) we lose our perspective and forget our goodness. We also lose sight of the fact that it is God who helps us to grow. When the goal is to be perfect we can thrash around in our flaws and forget about loving others and sharing our gifts with them. p.70 The Cup of our Life – Joyce Rupp
If you did not know all of this before, I hope that you will find it liberating and life-giving. If you already knew it, I hope you will share it with others, for the world is in need of the liberating and life-giving gospel. Amen.