Does Jesus want us to be wimps? – Matt. 5: 38-42
When someone stole little 12 year old Mark’s bike he complained to his parents. “I just want to get back at whoever stole my bike. I want them to fall off the bike and really hurt themselves”. He felt hurt and he wanted the thief to hurt too, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I think we understand, but I wonder what we might say as Mark’s parents. What would we suggest Mark do with his feelings of anger and wanting to get even. Would we quote the passage for today about turning the other cheek. Would we quote the eighth of the ten commandments, do not steal….
As followers of Jesus we surely want to hold on to the idea that we do not repay evil with evil. But what does that look like?
An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth – no says Jesus there is another way. If someone hits you on the right cheek offer the left as well. We need to understand a couple of things. Firstly this is humiliation slapping not out and out violence. The second thing is that in middle eastern society you differentiate between right and left hand. The right hand is always extended in welcome, the right hand is always used in eating, because the left hand is used for other things. I won’t go into detail but your left hand is unclean. The right hand is also used for striking. Did you notice that our passage specifies the right cheek so let’s have a practical demo of striking with my right hand on your right cheek. The blow has to be a back hander. In Jesus’ culture a back-hander had a very specific meaning. It was used by people in power to humiliate someone. Masters back-handed slaves, Romans back-handed Jews, husbands back-handed wives, and parents would back-hand children. The message was simple – “I’m putting you in your place”. But notice what happens when you offer the left cheek. The striker must still use his right hand but no longer can he back-hand you. It’s got to be a hit with the open hand, and that’s a hit reserved for equals. By turning the other cheek, you are actually refusing to hit back, but you are also refusing to be submissive and humiliated. You are saying something very powerful. Hit me if you like but I refuse to submit. I wonder where this little encounter goes next. There is I believe a real possibility that a new bridge will be crossed as the bully finds someone stands up to them.
The next image has a similar theme. If anyone takes your coat, give him your cloak as well. It sounds a bit strange to us but in the poverty ridden times of Jesus, garments were often the only thing people in poverty owned. The scene is probably set in a courtroom and the defendant who has lost everything is being asked to turn over their coat or outer garment to help repay a debt to someone we would call a loan shark. It’s the epitome of screwing someone for every last cent. The scene was depressingly common in Jesus’ time, but Jesus’ advice is dramatic and stunning. Offer your “chiton” as well. This is usually translated as undergarment, but your “chiton” in effect is your underwear. The result is startling as you give your outer cloak and then proceed to strip naked. The greedy creditor suddenly finds himself in an embarrassing situation because public nudity was shocking. Instead of taking the garments, the creditor will now be giving them back and urging the loan defaulter to cover up again. The power of public humiliation has been used to expose the greed and hopefully educate the creditor. The encounter hasn’t been about getting even, but about establishing real justice.
The third image concerns another practice known at the time. “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also a second mile”. In Palestine at the time the Roman occupying soldiers were allowed to ask locals to carry their packs. It was a form of forced labour, but the Romans were very careful not to push things too far. One mile of pack carrying was the limit. So, imagine the scenario.
You’ve just carried the heavy pack of the hated soldier for a mile along the Roman road where there are markers every mile. The solider, knowing the rules says, “OK I’ll find someone else, you can get lost now”. But you say, “no. no, it’s OK, I’ll continue to carry your pack. Very happy to be of service!”. Suddenly the Roman solider is worried. The rules are clear and he could get into serious trouble if his superiors discover someone has carried his pack for more than a mile. He’s now begging for his pack back. Again injustice is exposed, and maybe just maybe the soldier will see you as a real person rather than a resentful Palestinian. Maybe just maybe a plank of the bridge building that needed to occur between Roman soldier and Palestinian peasant has been put in place.
Jesus talked of forgiveness that renounced vengeance and getting even. No more an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but he doesn’t want us to be wimps either. We need to find creative ways Jesus doesn’t want us to be doormats who simply roll over when people put the boot into us or treat us as rubbish. Jesus asks us to find creative ways to expose the injustices and really make things right again.
Six-year-old Sam had agreed with Diane, his mother, that his chore would be to set the table each evening in time for dinner at 6 o’clock. Two evenings in a row the table was not set on time. Each time Diane discussed the situation with Sam. On the third evening, at 6.15 the table was still not set. Sam’s hungry sister and father impatiently offered to do it so Diane could serve dinner. Diane said, “If you help Sam by letting him take advantage of us, you won’t really be helping him or us”. Finally Sam arrived. Before he could trot out a story about why he was late Diane cheerfully asked the whole family to sit down at the table. She brought a pot of spaghetti from the kitchen and plopped a pile of it down on the bare wooden table in front of each person. Then she piled spaghetti sauce on top, and salad dressing on top of that. Maintaining a calm, friendly and non-shaming attitude, Dianne finally brought out the frozen yogurt dessert and put some on top of each person’s spaghetti. As astonished Sam experienced the logical consequence of his failure to set the table. From then on, Sam set the table on time!
A wealthy slum landlord had exploited his tenants for many years by charging them excessive rent for substandard housing. Finally he was arrested for numerous violations of the housing code. The judge sentenced him to live for one month in one of his own rat-infested smelly rooms with broken pipes and no heat, and the man became a responsible landlord. What would our justice system look like if we practiced restorative justice instead of the current punitive justice system.
Forgiveness is not about being a wimp. Forgiveness requires courage and creativity as we see those who hurt us not as enemies to be punished, but as God’s children who need to grow and find another way. Forgiveness is hard work, and sometimes we simply won’t have the energy. It sometimes takes a long time. Invariably it will take prayer. We need the creative spirit to guide us and encourage us. The result however is worth it as we make new friends, and we all draw a little closer to the kingdom of heaven.
AS many of you know I have a little project along the Heathcote River not far from where we live. We’ve formed a little group to look after the Laura Kent Reserve which was an overgrown wilderness beside the river. We’ve removed poplar and blackberry and planted lots of natives. It looks great. But earlier this week on my morning walk I discovered some of the larger trees that we had planted had been snapped off and just left. I was angry and sad. Who would do such a thing. There was part of me that wanted to inflict damage on the people involved. I imagined a group laughing as some of them tried to snap the trees. I had to catch myself and ask so how should I respond as a follower of Jesus. I prayed about it. As I reflected with God I sensed I should be asking how can I help those involved grow towards God. Killing these trees was certainly not a godly activity. I have no idea who is responsible but I held them in prayer before God and asked God to work in their hearts. Specifically I asked that they would grow to realise life in all forms is sacred. I am concerned that if they break trees they may also inflict violence on others. I also wrote a little sign which I hope might unlock some goodness that I believe will be inside them. I didn’t want to put them down but I did want to say it wasn’t OK, and I wanted to evoke compassion for the trees that had been killed. Will it work… I don’t know but I trust a door has been open opened for God to move.
The way of Jesus means:
- Giving up the desire to get even.
- Confronting the evil.
- Building bridges of (re-)connection.
There are no guarantees, but this is the way of Jesus that I believe will true peace into the world.
Dugald Wilson February 2020