Today’s passage from Matthew, like many others in the Gospels,
can too easily come across as hopelessly idealistic. Maybe Jesus
could do what He’s telling us to do; maybe some really holy
men and women; but not the ordinary Christian. We couldn’t
Maybe “that” is not quite what we think it is.
If ever there was a Gospel passage that required knowledge of Jesus’
culture, this is surely it. Jesus is most certainly not asking his
followers simply to be doormats. But Jesus is overwhelmingly concerned
about the salvation of those who brutalize, exploit, or cheat. In
fact, He cares as much for the person who strikes me as he does
for me. As his follower, that’s what my concern has to be,
too. Not, how do I get back at my attacker? How do I teach him a
lesson? Our instinctive lashing back only hardens the attacker and
perpetuates the cycle of violence – draws us into the attacker’s
mode of relating.
How can I “reach” the person who has just attacked me?
Talking to him isn’t likely to help. What Jesus suggests is
calculated (not guaranteed) to cause the attacker to step back and
reflect. The responses described have been characterized as “creative
non-violence”. Here’s why.
In first century Palestine, the right hand was for external relations,
and the left for personal hygiene – a useful custom, as a
moment’s reflection will indicate. So, when you slapped someone,
you used your right hand and struck the other person’s left
cheek. The other cheek, the right one, if struck, would require
the left hand – an action that would break cultural taboos
and bring shame on the attacker. So he wouldn’t do it. At
very least, turning the other cheek may stop the fight. Also, it
might even lead the attacker to reflect that, if it is shameful
to hit me with his left hand, maybe it’s shameful to hit me
Similarly, with the extra mile. The Roman occupation force in Palestine
could randomly impound Jewish civilians to do labor for them –
but there was a limit. One mile was about it. More might get the
legionnaire in trouble with his centurion. Maybe, if that happened,
he might think twice about abusing his position.
Finally, within Jewish law, there was a provision that, if a man
pledged his overcoat as security for a loan, the lender had to give
it back to him at night; he would need it to keep warm. Here, a
lender breaks his own laws and demands to keep the overcoat. Jesus
says, give him your underclothes as well. There you stand, naked
or nearly so, with a fellow child of Abraham holding back all your
protection from the night’s cold. He would be shamed in the
eyes of all. Maybe he would realize how wrong he was to demand the
overcoat in the first place.
Cultural issues aside, in all three instances the cycle of violence
is broken by the victim with the intent to save the abuser. Each
is a parable, in its way, of Jesus’ own saving death.
A contemporary example, showing clearly that we can do what Jesus
asks of us, comes from the experience a few years ago of a British
soldier in Yemen, on a tour of duty with his battalion much like
our own involvement in Afghanistan today. His commander gave orders
not to shoot back in response to grenade attacks unless the troops
were absolutely certain who threw the grenade. When people threw
rocks or grenades, the soldiers were to stand their ground and not
retaliate. Their response was not what the terrorists or the locals
expected, and it did succeed in breaking the cycle of violence.
The people of the immediate region themselves told the terrorists
to go somewhere else. By not retaliating, the solders accomplished
their peace-keeping mission where force could not have done it.
It took great restraint, but it could be done; it was done.
The life we have received in baptism empowers us to do the same.
Not a doormat, no, but creative concern for the eternal wellbeing
of those who have given themselves over to selfishness, hatred,