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Most Misunderstood Teachings
July 8, 2001

MATHEW 5:38-41

Turning the other cheek, giving your cloak as well as your coat, and going the second mile are, what I call, the Most Misunderstood Teachings. The passage begins with Jesus saying, "Do not resist," Why? Because resistance is usually futile. Resisting and attempting to fight a bully who is bigger than you is futile because you are responding on his terms and using his methods. Jesus said, "Do not resist," and then he proceeded to teach his followers what to do. Jesus did not say, "Do nothing." We are not to be passive doormats and let people walk all over us. Jesus does not teach us to let people take advantage of us. Maintain your self-respect and dignity. Jesus expects us to stand up for ourselves and for others. But, how we stand up is critical. Rather than resisting, be ingenious, clever, creative, innovative and courageous. Jesus teaches us how by giving examples. Jesus taught strategies on how to turn the tables, take the initiative, and keep the initiative.

What did Jesus mean by turning the other cheek, giving your cloak as well as your coat and going the second mile? In order to understand Jesus, we have to understand the culture of Jesus' day. Bible study must begin with the times in which the passage is written. When we look at the environment in which Jesus taught, we discover an entirely different meaning to these teachings. I am indebted to Walter Wink who taught a weekend seminar. His interpretations also appear in one of his books that is either back in Merced or I gave away when I retired!

What does Matthew 5:39 mean, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also?" It is significant that Jesus specified the right cheek. How do you strike someone on the right cheek? Backhand, not by the fist. To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand. In the Middle East, the left hand is used for unclean tasks. The left hand is never used in eating. The Dead Sea scrolls tell us that even to gesture with the left hand was punished with ten days penance. Therefore, when striking someone, the right hand would be used. And, the only way to strike someone on the right cheek is by using the back of the right hand.

What we are dealing with here is not a fistfight, but an insult. The intention is to humiliate someone, to put someone in his or her place. A backhand slap was the normal way of reprimanding inferiors. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands backhanded wives; parents backhanded children. You would never backhand a peer, an equal. In fact, there was a stiff penalty for backhanding your equal, but no penalty to backhand an inferior.

Therefore, Jesus is teaching his followers what to do when they are backhanded by a so-called superior. You can't resist. You can't hit back. It would be suicidal to hit back, using either the right hand or the left! What Jesus cleverly taught was to turn the left cheek to the striker as well. How would he strike the left cheek? He cannot backhand your left cheek with his right hand. Remember, he cannot use his left hand. The only option left is for him to use his fist, and hitting you with his fist is to make you his equal! Fistfights are between equals. Backhands are for inferiors. By turning the cheek, the victim is saying to the perpetrator, "I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being. You cannot take away my self-respect." What it means to turn the other cheek is to maintain your dignity. Maintain your self-respect. What the victim did was to take the initiative from the perpetrator, leaving him with no recourse. He was disarmed.

The second example on how to turn the tables, take the initiative and keep the initiative is Mathew 5.40, "If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well." Usually we understand this to mean generosity. When someone asks you for something, you are to give more than asked. That is not at all what Jesus meant, when you understand the circumstances in which Jesus was teaching. Note the word "sue". The system conspired against the common people. Rome taxed heavily in order to finance its army and wars. This forced the gentry to rob poor people of their land, possessions, and even their clothes! They did it through the process of lending money. The interest charged was exorbitant. The poor had no choice. They had to borrow. They had to feed their families, and in the process, lost everything. They were forced into homelessness. By the time of Jesus the process was far advanced. The family farmer had lost his land to large estates, owned by absentee landlords, managed by stewards, and worked by slaves, sharecroppers and day laborers.

The final straw was to be so heavily in debt that even their coats were offered as collateral. Interesting, Jewish law required a creditor to return a debtor's coat to him by sundown because it also served as his blanket. What Jesus taught was that when you have sunk to the lowest, are dragged into court, and humiliated by losing your coat, Jesus said, "Give them your cloak as well." The cloak was the only undergarment that was worn. When you took off your cloak, you were naked as the day you were born! In effect, the debtor was saying, "You want my coat? Here, take everything. Now, all I have left is my naked body. Do you want that too?"

Jesus taught the poor to turn the tables, and to clown. Nudity was taboo in Judaism. Can you see the crowds laughing, not just at the naked one, but also at the lender, the one who caused the nakedness! Embarrass the system, Jesus taught. Ridicule the system. Have you noticed that tyrants usually have no sense of humor? They abhor people laughing at them. Jewish people traditionally have a terrific sense of humor. It is no accident that many of our best comedians are Jewish! There is an old Jewish teaching, "If your neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back." Don't let people humiliate you, Jesus is saying. Turn the tables. Use humor. Put them in a position where they are ridiculed. Disarm them.

The third example on how to turn the tables, take the initiative and keep the initiative is Matthew 5:41, "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile." Usually we understand this to also mean generosity. If someone asks you to do something for him or her, do even more than what they ask. When you understand the culture in which Jesus is teaching, you realize this is not at all what Jesus meant.

Note the word "force". Who could force you to go one mile? Roman soldiers had the right to impose forced labor on the locals, but under strict conditions. Rome well knew that they could push people only so far before there would be insurrection. Therefore, the law was that a soldier could require a civilian to carry his heavy pack one mile, and only one mile. If a soldier forced the civilian to carry his pack more than one mile, the soldier would be severely disciplined.

What did Jesus teach? Get the soldier in trouble by going the second mile! Can you see the soldier, leisurely walking the first mile, enjoying his freedom, watching the civilian do his work for him. Then, they reach the mile marker, and the civilian keeps walking.

"Hey! What are you doing?"

"Oh, it's a nice day. The sun is shining. The grass is green. I'm enjoying my walk. I'll just walk on further."

"Oh, no, you don't. Put that pack down." Can you see the soldier frantically waving his arms, trying to stop the civilian, hoping no one sees the infraction and reports him to the Centurion!

When subjected to harassment and intimidation, turn the tables. Don't fight on their terms and with their methods. Don't do to them what they did to you. Don't retaliate in kind. Be creative, be innovative. Do something that gets them laughed at or gets them in trouble! Do something that immobilizes the perpetrator, that disarms him/her. The "slapper" had no recourse. If he did anything, he would lose his superior status, by treating his slave or wife as an equal. The creditor had no recourse. The poor man gave him his coat. The lender was subjected to humiliation but could do nothing but endure the laughter. The soldier was rendered helpless. He was already in trouble with the centurion by forcing a local to go more than one mile. He could hardly further reprimand or punish the walker!

Jesus taught his followers not to resist by reacting on the perpetrator's terms, but to diffuse the situation and disarm the perpetrator. A modern example of Jesus' teachings: Yesterday the newsletter from my former church in Merced arrived. Kristen, a high school student, observed a bully picking on a new student. Courageously, Kristen reminded the bully what had happened at Santa High School when bullies picked on a kid. Sobered, probably realizing he might be shot, the bully stopped his teasing. Kristen did not fight the bully; she disarmed him.

Another example: In 1982, Ellie, our youngest son, Craig, and I went to England. Craig, 15 years old, was not exactly thrilled to be traveling with his parents. We knew that if he sat in the back seat, he would read a book and be quite oblivious to the scenery, so we made him the navigator, and sat him in the front next to me. With map in his hand, off we went. Soon Craig said, "Turn left at the next corner." My logic said to turn right, so I reacted as usual and stormed, "What do you mean left? Left is not the way." Usually, Ellie, as navigator, would argue back and off we would go, in typical marital style! Craig, however, refused to resist. He refused to get into it. He refused to argue back. He refused to respond on my terms, using my method. He calmly replied, "All I do is give the directions. What you do with them is up to you." I was completely disarmed. He took the wind out of my sails. The situation was diffused. Meekly, I turned left, and of course, he was right! I relaxed and was quiet the rest of the trip. We had a wonderful time, and we all learned a great lesson, which I now realize is what Jesus taught. Don't argue back! Don't react on their terms. By the way, Craig is now a successful attorney!

Another example. An old woman in shabby clothes, hobbled up to the counter. The clerk snarled, "What do you want?" "A hot dog, please", the old woman replied, and with gnarled arthritic fingers slowly, with great difficulty, counted out the change. The clerk fumed while she waited. When the old woman asked for mustard, the clerk slammed it down on the counter. When the old woman fumbled the mustard and spilled a little on the counter, the clerk stormed, "Now look what you did! Take your hot dog and get out of here!" Tears came to the old woman's eyes.

Then Phyllis walked up to the counter, looked at the old woman, and asked, "May I have the mustard, please." She took the mustard, and while looking the clerk straight in the eye, began squeezing the mustard all over the counter, back and forth. The clerk was motionless. When finished, Phyllis, still looking the clerk in the eye, said, "If I ever see you treating your elders with disrespect again, I'll pour the mustard all over you." Phyllis turned to the old woman, and with great dignity, arm in arm, the two walked out of the store.

Turn the tables. Take the initiative, keep the initiative. Be creative, innovative and courageous. That's what Jesus meant.

© 2001 Douglas I. Norris