There are times when I wish that I could stop while reading the appointed gospel for the given Sunday and give a breakdown on what’s really going on in the text to the congregation. This past Sunday’s reading from Matthew 5:38-48 was particularly challenging for me in that regard. I felt like Dwight Schrute having to remain silent when Jim Halbert inaccurately explained Battlestar Galactica to Andy Bernard.
There are texts that are often fodder for the justification of unhealthy and sinful behaviors. This is definitely one of them. Such texts easily play into upholding the Ned Flanders image of Christians that many have grown to despise. On the other extreme is the belief that Jesus is upping the ante of the law so as to show us our depravity so that we might more quickly and ferociously cling to him for our salvation. Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, give up one’s cloak, and go the extra mile can easily be understood as Jesus’ encouragement for Christians to become passive doormats.
Nonetheless, it’s easy to see how such understandings can lead to a pseudo-martyr complex where one never sticks up for one’s self because that’s what Jesus would do, right? It can also lead to a lot of resentment and unhappiness because one is never honest with others and how they make them feel because Christians are called to be nice. Hence, the passive aggressive approach to life that allows one to appear good as they spew forth venom in subtle ways. There’s a reason why Church institutions are often a hotbed for such behaviors and dysfunction. Being a Christian can often translate into going along to get along, playing nice, and not being honest or direct. This is often bound up with our fear of confrontation and of not being liked. No one wants to be “that guy” who may upset people and cause problems.
Here’s the thing, though. In regards to the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 5:38-48, Jesus is most likely speaking to a crowd of peasants under the oppressive occupation of the Roman Empire. Life is hard for them, getting by is challenging, and unbearable debt has become a normal way of life. Jesus is offering them (and us) a Third Way that does not resort to passivity or violence but upholds the humanity of all those involved. It’s love in action.
“But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer (Probably better translated as “do not repay the evildoer in kind”). But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
Backhanding was a form of humiliation in the ancient world and it was often the way in which superiors humiliated inferiors. For the victim to turn the other cheek would be for him or her to force the evildoer to face him as an equal. It’s a way of saying, “you cannot demean me, I am human being just like you.” To smack with an open hand is to treat the person as an equal.
“and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
It happened often that the debtors were taken to court for being unable to pay. Jesus tells the people to take it to its extreme so as to expose the injustice at work. Indebtedness was often the result of Roman imperial policy i.e. taxation. Giving the one who is suing your cloak would make you naked. This would bring shame upon him and also reveal to him where his practices led. All of sudden the oppressed has the power.
“and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
Roman soldiers were allowed to levy the people for one mile but no more. If they went beyond the one mile they could get in serious trouble for doing so (i.e. they could be flogged). By going the second mile this puts the Roman soldier in a bad spot and turns the power dynamic around. Now the Roman Soldier has to beg the peasant to not do so and the peasant has regained his dignity and control.
Do you notice how such factors suddenly bring what Jesus said into a different, sharper, and better light? Jesus is encouraging his listeners to stand up for themselves in healthy and constructive ways that respect the humanity of the oppressor. Such teachings do not validate complicity on the part of Christians rather they encourage creative and constructive approaches to dehumanizing situations. It provides a way out of the cycle of violence and of ‘the eye for an eye’ approach that has come to dominate civilization up until this point in time. It’s a way out of aggression and for Christians today (even in the First World) it’s a way out of passive aggression. While we may not be oppressed or poor like Jesus’ first century audience there’s much for us to ponder and take away from these words of his.
In fact, standing up for yourself could be the most Christ-like thing you could do. It may make some very unhappy, it may even cause more problems and discomfort. Yet, it can also lead to self-empowerment, self-confidence, and better relationships with others.