Turn The Other Cheek

Turn the Other CheekThe temptation is to give a polished sermon that glosses over the meaning of all these basic but difficult texts. I am going to offer instead a rough Bible study that I hope will allow Jesus’ challenge to shine through.

First the Gospel. Turn the other cheek and love your enemy. Luke shows this is basic Jesus by including only these two passages and the one on “Do not judge” in his version of the sermon.

From the beginning of Genesis, from the beginning of human history, violence has been our fundamental problem. One solution has been justice, an eye for an eye, using only equal violence to respond to violence. Jesus took the next step, teaching us not to fight violence with violence. Instead he proclaimed we should return good for evil. And from the beginning humans have responded, “but, but, but..” and used their buts to ignore what he is saying.

But Jesus, what are we going to do if someone strikes us on the right cheek? I asked David to help me illustrate this.

Notice the only way to do this is with the back of your hand. A slap is not used to bodily injure but to insult. It is what Romans used to humiliate Jews, soldiers to scorn civilians. Masters used it to degrade slaves, parents to shame children, and husbands to intimidate and abuse wives.

Notice now what happens when I turn the other cheek…. You can no longer slap me. Now you have to make a fist and smash me. In fact, I am challenging you to clobber me. I am not returning violence for violence, but I also am not passively allowing you to beat me. I am challenging you as an equal, asserting my dignity, demonstrating you are not going to control me.

If that seems silly to you, ponder it a while. Jesus causes me to think about the only time when my father spanked me. I was very young, but was determined he would not force me to do anything just because he hurt me. The more he hit me, the more I was determined not to do what he wanted me to do. He thought he was controlling me but I controlled him; and being a wise man he stopped and he never tried that again in my life.

Of course, I did not learn enough myself. When I was a young parent I tried to spank one of my children. As I spanked, she screamed over and over again. “Go ahead, old man, hit me, hit me, hit me.” I never tried it again. Love does not endure violence. It does not allow violence to continue. Love teaches.

I imagine about 90% of us are now thinking, “Oh yeah, turn the other cheek and someone is going to really plaster you.” Lest we think we are clever, remember even the most stupid person in the world knows that and so does Jesus. We are quick to observe it does not always work. But slow to remember how much it does: the women’s movement, civil rights, removing the Iron Curtain, overcoming apartheid in South Africa and Namibia, throwing the English out of India, Christianity overcame the Roman Empire with prayer, the Word of God, social services, and martyrdom, and over and over again on our families. Jesus is not telling us not to give up protecting our families, not telling us to allow abusers to have their way. He is offering a third way that can rescue us from the cycle of violence.

But Jesus, you know those rich foreigners are running us into debt, suing us for even our coats, and then forcing us to sell them our land. What can we do about that? How about telling them to take your shirt as well? I recently read a commenter who suggested considering first century clothing this was a piece of humor. In modern terms it might read If they ask for your pants, give them your underpants as well. Let them see you know what they are doing. Expose their heartlessness for what it is.

But Jesus, what are we supposed to do if we are doing our job so we can feed our family and a blasted Roman soldier forces us to carry his gear for a mile. Well, at the end of the mile, tell him you’ll go an extra mile. There would be laughter again, because military law allowed a soldier to impress someone to carry their load for a mile, but punished them if they forced more. To offer to go another mile would show the soldier they had not intimidated. Of course, they might slap you on the right cheek, but then you turn the other one.

From the beginning, another human problem has been how to handle our money. Jesus taught, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” But Jesus, there are poor people all over the place. If I do that I shall have nothing left to feed my children. Oh, come on you know what I am saying. Nobody here is going to give away so much money he or she cannot feed the family. You are God’s children, made in his image, so you act like God. He sends sun and rain on the good and the evil. If we are going to make a better world, we cannot act like pagans. Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. Luke clarifies this saying, “Be merciful as your heavenly father is merciful.” We no longer know what “mercy” is, so how about “Be generous as God is generous.”

Which brings us to the Old Testament. Notice it makes the same assumption, “Be holy, as the Lord your God is holy.”

The command to eat your thanksgiving sacrifice on the same day or at least in three days so that it does not become an abomination to God might be a bit obscure. You should know temple sacrifice were not all burned on the altar. A small portion was; another small portion was given to the priest, and the rest was returned to the worshiper. A rich person had a problem, because he would have a large sacrifice and the only way he could eat it right away was to share it.

A modern application could be giving thanks every evening in your daily prayer, but never sharing that plenty with the poor. Jesus would say your prayer was profane in God’s ears.

Most of us know about gleaning. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” A modern application here would be noting that your work is never for your own profit alone. It must involve fair pay for fair work, but also always provision for the poor who can not work.

“You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.” Remember they were day laborers. If the employer kept the wage until the next day, he denied his worker the chance to go out and buy his family dinner. He also had use of the money longer. It is like large companies delaying a day to send out what they owe you, so they can make interest on it one more day. Or like credit card companies charging outlandish interest and driving the undisciplined into debt. Or any of the other financial trickery foisted on us daily.

We all are comfortable with “Do not trip a blind man” or “Don’t say bad things about a deaf person”, but “Don’t profit from the blood of your neighbor” makes us shudder as does “Don’t give favors to rich or poor.”

All are children of good and as God’s people we are to treat everyone as if they are made in the image of God.

I think you see what I am trying to do. I went to Bible study, because I did not want you to argue with me. Argue with Moses and Jesus. This is what they say. Indulge me a little longer. Recently I lost a dear friend whose memorial service we celebrated yesterday. He was brilliant, a Harvard lawyer and academic officer. He left a letter to be read at his funeral. He wanted his mourners to know that he had been extremely happy for the last part of his life since he realized he should be taking care of his emotions as well as his rational mind. And he wished we would learn to do this earlier than he did.

It happens I know one of the incidents that brought this home to him. When he was shooting off to his therapist after his second divorce, the guy stopped him. “Bob, did you ever consider it is all right to lose an argument.” And that observation changed his life.

Most of us spend our lives arguing with Jesus. So in memory of Bob, let me tell you, it is all right to lose the argument with Jesus.

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