As I pointed out last week, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain are different treatments of the same story, each shaped by the particular concerns and ideologies of the writer. Luke’s presentation has a directness that brings Jesus’ teaching into the tense and contested negotiations of everyday life. In particular Jesus addresses the two most intractable problems that promote competition between one person and another, between one group in society and another, between the few and the many.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Faced with this text even Christians who believe all scripture should be read as the plain meaning of the words on the page will feel the impossibility of taking these words on this page at their face meaning. Love our enemies – at least in principle is a noble aspiration, and we would expect an idealized and perfect Jesus to have said nothing less. Yet, when practiced as Jesus suggests it implies relinquishing all appropriate measures of self-defense and self-assertion.
For most of us we are forced to reject the plain meaning of the text because it’s impossible to live like this. To do so is to embrace a spiritualized form of emotional masochism, a recommendation frequently offered to women in the face of male domestic violence. This text has often been the justification for accepting one’s helplessness, one’s powerlessness.
Is Jesus asking us to give up all power and material protections in situations where another seeks to impose themselves upon us?
Between one person and another, between one section in society and another, there lies a contested ground. Our competitive society promotes self-protection and if not a spirit of strike first before you are struck, at least if struck, strike back harder. Everyday life is viewed from the competitive perspective of contested ground. Each of us must be the first to occupy the contested ground. It does not require much imagination to see what results from this.
In his commentary on Luke in the New Interpreters Bible, Alan Culpepper notes that Jesus teaching is both a repudiation of privilege based on wealth and the repudiation of retaliation that spawns violence. He notes that Jesus’ teaching is:
diametrically opposed to the assumptions of the marketplace and the media that shape American culture: The wealthy are privileged, and conflict requires that one show strength through retaliation. Our heroes, therefore, are usually neither poor nor non-violent. As a result, the power of materialism and the question for possessions have increased dramatically during this century and violence in our homes, schools, and streets is rampant.
Is the choice only between strength and weakness, invulnerability and vulnerability? If you read Jesus words in a binary fashion, black or white, true or false, then you are rather stuck in the face of this question. Remember the pivotal line in this section of the Sermon on the Plain is do to others as you would have them do to you. This line counteracts notions of competition by establishing a fundamental commonality between parties in the contested areas of everyday life.
Jesus uses the very specific language of striking on the cheek and there is a context in his world for doing this that makes his meaning here clearer. Without knowing this we either reject his words as parabolic- exaggerated and thus impossible to apply, or we think he’s telling us we need to become passive doormats in the face of others aggression.
In Jesus time the standard practice for masters disciplining slaves, fathers disciplining children, and husbands disciplining wives was to give them a good slap on the face. As far as acts of aggression go this is a relatively non injurious way of showing who is the boss. The real point of slapping someone in the face is not to injure them, but to humiliate them. If you’ve ever been slapped in the face you will know that the blood rushes to the surface of the skin, not simply because of the physical force of impact, but because of the shame of this experience. If someone punches me in the stomach, I will pull back and nurse my injury. I will look at them and ask, why? If someone slaps me in the face, I am more likely to strike back as an automatic response, spurred by the rage of the humiliation inflicted on me.
Now here is where original context comes in. Masters, fathers, and husbands struck the left cheek of the lower status person with their right hand. When Jesus says turn the other cheek, he is saying present the right side of your face to be struck. But the striker can’t slap your right cheek with his right hand. To do so he would need to use his left hand. In a society where left hands were only used for actions considered unclean, there would have been a prohibition from using the left hand in this situation because to do so would bring intense social shame to the striker.
Likewise, the requirement to give up my coat and even my shirt is a challenge to my reliance on the material protections of wealth and security within which I insulate myself from the more direct challenges of life. We live in a society that encourages the acquisition of material wealth and power as the best forms of self-protection and self-preservation. This is about our aquistive and possessive attitude to material possessions.
When Jesus tell his hearers to give up their coat and even their shirt, he is affirming God’s intention of creating a world where there is enough for all to share. A situation of my having more than I need resulting in another having less than they is a product of the injustices of distribution and inequalities of access. This is what Jesus is asking us to confront directly through our nonviolent willingness to share with others from our abundance.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Attitudes and actions have a habit of interconnecting, interpenetrating in a field of complexity. Resistance is not acceptance. Where violence provokes violence, Jesus asks us to interrupt and redirect this dynamic by offering nonviolent resistance in the face of aggression. Towards the end of this long teaching Jesus says:
Give, and it will be given to you: a good measure, having been pressed down, shaken overflowing will be given into your lap. With what measure you measure it will be measured to you.
What goes around comes around, as the old saying goes.