February 24, 2019
What’s So Good About the News: Tough News
Love your enemies
Do good to those who hate you
Bless those who curse you
Pray for those who abuse you
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
If anyone takes your coat, give them your shirt too!
Lend your money and don’t expect it back!
Hear then the good news!
Good news?? How is this good news? It sounds to me like really difficult advice. When Nancy said last week that she was going to be talking to us about the blessings and the woes in her reflection, but this week I was going to be sharing all the advice on how to live, I wasn’t expecting the advice to be so difficult! This advice at first read, appears to suggest that Jesus is asking his disciples to become doormats, by loving our enemies, turning the other cheek or handing over a shirt when your coat is taken away.
My mind immediately went to thinking about the passage ‘if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one also’ and knowing that this passage has been used to keep women from leaving abusive relationships – suggesting that they should just leave it alone and allow the abuse to continue to happen.
Remaining in that abusive situation, setting aside their personal well-being, and allowing it to continue does not sound like a situation that Jesus would encourage. How is this good news or good advice?
This passage is often shortened to the cliché “turn the other cheek.” It sounds like a convenient excuse for inaction; a rationalization for being passive and accepting whatever injustices or unfair treatment we witness or experience. It’s the equivalent of saying “just ignore them” with the naïve hope that whatever or whoever it is will just go away. But then often at worst, it ends up leading to ‘just ignore them, and let them continue to abuse you.’
This doesn’t sound like the advice that the Jesus we have come to know was giving – the advice of standing with the marginalized and outcast in society, loving your neighbour, feeding the hungry.
To better understand this advice, we have to look at it in its context because it turns the apparent meaning upside down. First let’s take a look at offering of your shirt when your coat is taken away. In Jesus’ time, if someone demanded another’s coat, and then the coatless person offered their shirt as well, they’d be naked. Being naked in front of the one who took your coat, the one that was in the position of power over you, brings shame upon the abuser. So this simple act of offering your shirt is not what it appears – giving up or giving in – instead it is an act of resistance.
And what about loving our enemies? I read an article this week by Nora Sanders, the General Secretary of the United Church of Canada reflecting on this passage. She writes… Enemies is a pretty strong word. How many of us have enemies anyway? Well, maybe not open hostility or gunfire kinds of enemies, but I suspect that we can all admit that there are some people who we just don’t agree with, some people whose behaviour we don’t admire, some people perhaps who always seem to give us a hard time or present barriers to the things we want to do. Maybe not many, but most of us will have people who we find hard to like.
I am not sure if Jesus is telling us to LIKE our enemies, but he is quite clear that we are to LOVE them.
How are we to love the people about whom we don’t feel a warm emotional response when we think of them? The ones who get our backs up. I think what Jesus is directing us towards is a different kind of love, something that we might demonstrate through respect, compassion, and openness to different points of view, and a general assumption that the other person means well. Or maybe the act of loving our enemies is to point out to them the injustices that they are perpetrating, which is keeping them as our enemies. These may be difficult things to do, but they are the kind of practical things that we can work on. And like we heard this morning in our story with the children, the irony of loving our enemies is that they just might no longer be enemies, and transformation can happen, freeing us from the negative hold that they may have had on us.
Another piece of Jesus’ advice – If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
The background for the context of this one is best explained by the theologian Walter Wink. It seems odd to us now to even talk about this, when hitting is not an acceptable behaviour, and one that is frowned upon and carries consequences no matter what the situation, but it is important in understanding this passage that in Jesus’ time, there were rules about who could hit whom and where you were allowed to hit which type of person.
This passage in Luke is also referenced in Matthew, where it specifies the right cheek. Walter Wink examines this phrase “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Why, Wink asks, does Jesus reference the right cheek specifically? Jesus lived in a right-handed world where left hands were reserved only for unclean tasks. Therefore, we can assume that the person doing the hitting would have used their right hand. The only way to strike someone on the right cheek with your right hand is a backhanded slap. Such a slap was a normal way to reprimand someone over whom you had power like a master to slave. To strike your equal in such a manner was socially and legally unacceptable, carrying with it a huge fine.
With this new understanding of the context Jesus was speaking in, just for the sake of an uncomfortable role play, let’s picture this scenario with yourself as the oppressor. You are a wealthy, powerful person whose slave has displeased you in some way. You reprimand your slave with a backhanded slap. The response you expect is the response you have always received from your slaves – the response you yourself would give if someone higher than you treated you the same way. You expect your slave to cower, submit, and slink away. Instead, your slave defiantly turns their other cheek and challenges you to hit them again. What can you do?
You would like to give your slave another backhanded slap to show them their place, but to do that you would have to use your left hand which would admit that your action is unclean. You could hit them on their left cheek, instead, but it would be embarrassing to hit your slave the way you should hit your equal. You’re confused. You don’t know what to do. Flustered, you could order the slave be flogged, but the slave has already made their point. They have shown you that they are a human person with dignity and worth. You don’t own them, you cannot control them, and they do not submit to your rule.
And so, in light of Walter Wink’s insights, Jesus’ instruction to give your shirt as well as your coat and to turn the other cheek and to love your enemies transforms these words. This is the kind of advice that we are used to from Jesus. Shaking things up – turning things upside down. So what appeared at first glance an instruction from Jesus to his disciples to become doormats, an instruction to accept injustice – is actually a challenge to resist systems of domination and oppression without the use of violence. Rather than ignoring an evil situation and hoping it will go away, Jesus is telling his followers to find creative, active, and nonviolent ways to assert their humanity and God’s love in the world. He gives them advice on how the poor and the powerless can act from positions of power and strength – to take an initiative that confronts opponents and leaves the wrong where it belongs.
In both of these examples, the one committing the abuse of power is forced to face that wrong in an unexpected and jarring way, resulting in exposing their wrongdoing and in a way taking some of their power away.
As the recipients of Jesus’ advice and followers of his ways of peace and justice, we are challenged then to embody this understanding of what it means to “turn the other cheek” and ‘give up our shirt, too’ in our lives and our work. We can do that by always looking for new ways to creatively, actively, and nonviolently challenge systems of exploitation and oppression that cause poverty, inequality, and environmental destruction. We can do this by standing up for someone when we witness unfair treatment.
This is in no way an easy option, but a radical alternative. Again Jesus turns upside down the typical ways of behaviour and challenges us to act differently. As Jesus’ example demonstrates, even when we may feel that we have no social, political, or economic power, we can still find ways to stand our ground, take control of the power dynamic, and cause people in power to see us in a new light without using violence.
As the passage goes on to say, after the advice we are given, it is easy enough to be kind to those who love us and are good to us; the challenge for us as Christians is to go further and to cultivate qualities of compassion, tolerance and forgiveness even when we are far from feeling these things. Easier said than done—but the good news today is that we are not alone in this. This difficult advice given to the disciples and now interpreted for us today was given to a community of followers. If one person’s act of turning the other cheek can effect change – imagine what we can do together to make our world more like the world that Jesus was trying to create, where God’s love and compassion for all is the standard, not the exception.