A Slap in the Face
This Sunday is the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. The Gospel reading is from Matthew 5:38-48. Included among these verses is a phrase uttered by our Lord that has been popularly summarized as “turn the other cheek.”
This post is a little long, but if you read through it, it may bring a fresh interpretation to what you’ll be hearing in a few days. Promise.
As always, it is best to read Scripture in context. Here is the beginning of this Sunday’s Gospel:
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.'” –Matthew 5:38-41
Many have interpreted these verses to mean that we must take all that is thrown at us. To endure all suffering–even if unjust. That we must strive for peace at any price. In short, that we should let people walk all over us. In essence, be a doormat. For many years, that’s how I too understood Jesus’ words.
But then I read a book by Walter Wink “Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination”. Wink asks the question “How can we oppose evil without creating new evils and being made evil ourselves?” His answer–nonviolent resistance. And he uses these very passages as examples. Jesus gives three specific illustrations:
1. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well.
2. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.
3. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles.
These three illustrations, Wink asserts, are blueprints for the nonviolent resistance Jesus want us to exercise. Wink supports this by offering historical context.
1. Jesus is quite specific as to which cheek he is referring. In his illustration, someone has been struck on the right cheek. Jesus demands that he or she now offer the left. Why? In ancient Middle eastern societies, the left hand was used for hygienic purposes (read bathroom) and hardly ever used for anything else. Eating, shaking hands, etc was done with the right. Assuming you cannot use your left hand, the only way you could stand in front of someone and strike their right cheek is by slapping them with the back of your right hand.
This type of buffet is not intended to injure, but to humiliate. This is how a master would reprimand a slave. Slaves made a large part of Jesus’ audience and he directs them to offer their left cheek so that the aggressor (their master) would treat them as a peer–an equal–and realize that they are abusing their power.
This makes the master cognizant of his sins. Slaves and masters are the same in God’s eyes–there is no class distinction. A perfect example of loving your enemy into repentance.
2. If anyone wants to go to law with you (sues you) over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. The person being sued in this vignette is poor. Typically someone would be sued for their land, cattle or other valuable possessions. Being sued for the very clothes you are wearing is a testament to your poverty.
As for the clothes, a tunic is the under-garment worn next to the skin while the cloak is the outer garment or robe that is worn over the tunic. Jesus says that if someone sues you to take away your undergarment, hand over your outer garment as well. This will render you naked before them. Why?
In modern society, if someone runs around naked, the shame is on the streaker. In the Old Testament, if someone is naked, the shame belongs to the naked party as well as the one who beholds the nudity. Wink uses the story of Noah as an example:
“Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. Shem and Japheth, however, took a robe, and holding it on their shoulders, they walked backward and covered their father’s nakedness; since their faces were turned the other way, they did not see their father’s nakedness. –Genesis 9:22-23
By handing over both your garments, you sit naked before your accuser, the judge and the entire court. Even back then, I hardly think a robe and tunic would pay the court costs, much less the attorney fees! No, the point of this litigation is not restitution but humiliation. And like the first example, the point is to lovingly point out the absurdity of disparity–the suer is made aware of his abuse and moved towards repentance. In God’s eyes there are no economic classes.
3. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. This passage is where we get popular idiom to “go the extra mile.” But what would this mean to Jesus’ audience. Well, it sure isn’t that if someone’s camel has broken down alongside the road to Damascus that you should travel with them the two miles to the oasis to help them fetch some water. To Jesus’ listeners, the phrase “press you into service” has a very special meaning. It’s what the Roman army would do to civilians as they occupied conquered lands. Simon the Cyrenian was “pressed into service” as Jesus walked towards Golgotha:
“They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.’–Mark 15:21
According to Wink, it was a common practice for the Roman army, as they traveled across conquered lands to the fringes of battle, to press subjects into carrying their heavy gear which often weighed 60 to 80 pounds. It seems that some soldiers abused this practice and forced the subjects to carry the packs great distances which enraged the locals. Wanting to keep the Pax Romana, laws were put in place—with dire consequences—that limited the distance to one mile.
Jesus urges his listeners to travel a second mile. Why? Isn’t this helping the enemy? Wink says no. What would go through a Roman soldiers mind when the Hebrew says “Please, let me carry it another mile”?
What’s he up to? Why would he do that? Is he mocking my strength? Is he trying to get me disciplined for breaking the laws of impressment? Will he file a civil complaint?
According to Wink:
“From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off balance by depriving him of the predictability of his victim’s response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.”
What do you think? Have you heard this before or is this new? Will this effect how you reflect on Sunday’s Gospel? Can you share a different interpretation of these passages? I’d love to know what you have to say! Please comment below and feel free to share this post! Let’s learn together!
Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.
Thank you very much for that perspective. I honestly don’t think i ever heard that explanation before. I love your comments and explanations. Keep them coming please and I will gladly share them.
You’re welcome, Martin. All this info is from Walter Wink’s “Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination.” Should you have time to read it, you won’t be disappointed! Thanks for taking the time to write!
Very interesting reading. Thanks for this rich and though-provoking interpretation.