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Happy? Keep The Initiative
February 19, 1995

MATTHEW 5:38-41, LUKE 6:29

Last week, I said that loving enemies, loving neighbors, does not mean liking them necessarily. Love is not a sentiment, or a warm, goosy feeling. Love is an act, a strategy of good will. Love turns the tables, not by retaliating in kind, not by taking an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. Love turns the tables. Jesus does not teach us to let people take advantage of us. Jesus expects us to stand up. But, how we stand up is critical. Jesus tells us how. Jesus gives us examples. Jesus gives us strategies on how to turn the tables, take the initiative, and keep the initiative.

This morning we will look at three strategies which have usually been misunderstood. Turn the other cheek, give your shirt as well as your coat, and go the second mile have usually been interpreted to mean: don't resist; in fact, give more than you are asked. What Jesus is really teaching is to be clever, creative, and innovative. The reason we have difficulty with these teachings is that we have not understood 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.

First, let's look at Matthew 5:39, If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. How do you strike someone on the right cheek? 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 fist fight, 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. 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 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! Fist fights 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.

The second strategy on how to take the initiative and keep the initiative is Luke 6:29, From anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. 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. 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 servants, sharecroppers and day laborers.

The final straw was to be so heavily in debt that even their coat was 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 shirt as well." The shirt was the only undergarment that was worn. When you took off your shirt, 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?" The ingenuity of this teaching lay in the fact that nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell not on the naked one, but on the one viewing the nakedness, and the one who caused the nakedness.

Jesus taught the poor to turn the tables, and to clown. Can you see the crowds laughing, not just at the naked one, but at the lender! 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.

The third strategy on how to take the initiative and keep the initiative by turning the tables 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 them, 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.

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 pack one mile, and only one mile. If a soldier forced the civilian to carry his pack more than one mile, he would be severely disciplined. What did Jesus teach? Get the soldier in trouble by going the second mile! Isn't Jesus clever? Do you see why he taught his disciples to be wise as serpents? 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!

Are you happy? As happy as you would like to be? Keep your self-respect. Know yourself as a worthy creation of God. When subjected to harassment and intimidated, love your enemies by turning the tables. Don't fight on their terms and with their methods. Don't do to them what they did to you. Be creative, be innovative. Do something that gets them laughed at or gets them in trouble!


© 1995 Douglas I. Norris