Jesus said: ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
I’m sure you have heard or read this scripture from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is really on the stretch, really challenging his disciples with these words, in fact, challenging disciples of all times including ours. I would say the best known verse of this section is – Turn the other cheek. So often this has been misused, even contributing to the continuance of domestic violence. It’s important to know more about the setting into which Jesus speaks these words.
There the left hand was the toilet hand. They didn’t have long lines trying to get toilet paper at the market. They may have used sticks or leaves, with the left hand. And they may not have always had water to wash that hand. Hence all eating was done with the right hand. So, if a master was to strike a slave, what hand would he use? The right, because using the left would have shamed the master. That means that if the master is to strike the slave with his right hand, it must mean a back handed slap, a put down slap, a demeaning and diminishing slap. It’s an action not meant to injure, but to humiliate, to put the slave in his or her place. Now if the slave turns his or her cheek, it is not possible for the master with his right hand to do a back handed slap. He would need to use a fist, and that would mean that the slave is now like his equal. The slave would be saying by this action; I’m a fellow human being. And I’m demanding that you treat me like one.
Sometimes this is called the third way – it’s not cowering in submission, and not aggressively hitting back. And this third way upsets the equilibrium, the imbalance of power. It’s there also in the call that if someone takes your coat, give them your cloak as well. Really this is poorly translated. The poor person just had two garments, the outer and the inner. So if the landlord says – “Give me your outer garment”, Jesus says, “Take off your inner one too, take off your underwear, and hand it over”. That means the poor person is there naked, and the landlord or overseer will see them naked, and who will be shamed? The person in power seeing that nakedness. Again it is the third way, taking back power, and humiliating the person in power rather than the powerless.
It would be saying; “See, you have tried to diminish me, but I take back power. You have tried to strip me of dignity, but I won’t have that taken from m.” Ah, and the third example, of going the second mile. Jesus’ audience was made up mainly or completely of people who knew humiliation at the hands of others, especially from Roman soldiers who by law could force a local person to carry their heavy backpack one mile.
Imagine how demeaning that felt, having to carry the backpack of an enemy oppressor, and then being seen carrying that backpack. But what if the local says at the end of one mile; “I choose to carry your pack a second mile.” Can you see the shocked looks on the face of the soldier? “You are choosing to carry my pack?” That’s disempowering to the one in authority. That’s levelling the playing field.
Earlier on in March, I mentioned the book; Don’t Forgive too soon; Extending the Two Hands that Heal; there are many stories of people working at using the Third Way in situations of oppression. One example is from Montana, where people from a neo-Nazi group were intimidating Jewish people. In one instance a brick was thrown through the window of a Jewish home narrowly missing a sleeping child.
Jewish families considered taking down their menorahs, but non-Jews rallied in support of their Jewish neighbors. And started to put up menorahs in their windows. And the local newspaper then printed a large menorah for people to tape to their windows. People also stood by African Americans who were being harassed. Soon that hate group left town. These words from the Sermon on the Mount had a profound impact on a Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi.
It gave him the inspiration and method for working for independence for India from the British overlords. That’s the third way in a large scale. Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr also used this method with his call to civil disobedience. Rosa Parks took back her dignity by taking a seat in the front of the bus, a non-violent action that really had some power, and was part of changing history.
I am really moved by these empowering stories. Where does this scripture speak to you? Do you, do we have enemies, that is some way disempower us? Are there people for you to stand in solidarity with, like the non-Jewish people did with the menorahs? It is very powerful witness when Christians stand up for people of other religions when they are being oppressed. This scripture includes the verse; “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
For the first 300 years of the Christian church, Christans were often an oppressed minority. It would not have been hard for them to think of enemies to prayerful for. In our time, people of various political persuasions have come to see others almost as enemies. How could the third way be applied there?
Sometimes when I am more gracious I try to put myself into the shoes of those who see things very different from me politically. Sometimes I really try to put myself more into the shoes of those who are minorities in this country, listening as they share their pain, their hurts, where they feel discriminated against. This scripture pulls us into the living out of the deep love that Jesus has for each of us and all people. It pulls us beyond being reactive, to being thoughtful and proactive.
The last verse has puzzled many people. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” How can we ever be that perfect? That’s not possible. This Greek word for perfect has the sense of being mature. Jesus is calling us to be grow in maturity as disciples, to think more like he thinks, to more take on his mind, and act from that. That is my prayer for each of us today. Amen.
Let us prayer - Jesus, be with your disciples throughout the world, many of whom are in lockdown because of the coronavirus. Help us in the midst of the frustrations of this time to grow into a deeper maturity as your disciples, sharing your love in deeper ways, and so blessing others and ourselves. Amen.