Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Part Two

As promised, here are my thoughts and explanations of the other parts of the "turn the other cheek" passage in Matthew's Gospel. Sorry that it has taken so long, but with finals and other school things going on, I haven't had as much free time as I would have liked...

The part about the coat and the cloak is again a cultural reference that the author is presenting. A coat, much like today, was a garment worn outside the rest of the clothes. If a person owed someone else a debt, it was a common practice for the person owed the debt to seize the coat of the one owing the debt. Sometimes this was a legal matter that involved a lawsuit, since the person who owed the debt may not have been forthcoming about paying up. However, Jesus throws in the notion of having the debtor sue for your cloak. To give up one's cloak at that time, when he already had given up his coat, would leave the person naked. Nudity at the time of Jesus was a huge no-no, and very shameful. Not so much shameful to the naked person, but shameful to the person who made that person naked. So in this case, the debtor would be the one shamed by everyone else. Jesus is saying this to show how greed and selfishness can lead to shame and humiliation.

Finally, the part about walking the extra mile is a reference to the Jews under Roman occupation. If a Roman soldier were to come upon a Jewish citizen and ask to have his things carried, the Jewish person had an obligation to carry the soldier's items for one mile. Upon completing that mile, the Jewish man had fulfilled his obligation and was free to go. In this instance, Jesus is saying that instead of going on their way after one mile of service, stay for another mile. Again, this is a cultural reference with which most of us are not familiar. For the Jewish man to take up the Roman's stuff for another mile, he was keeping another Jewish man from undergoing the same humiliation. Instead, the humiliation would fall on the Roman soldier, since it would seem as if he did not have "control" over the Jewish man as he should.

So, you see, what Jesus is saying in this passage is that no one is superior to another person in God's eyes. We are all equal, and there is no reason to feel entitled to something that others are not. What Jesus was doing in saying these things was giving hope to the people to whom he was speaking. At this time, the Jesus-believers were being persecuted by their Roman occupiers, and by the traditional Jews, so Jesus is saying this to give them hope. His use of these situations is a way of explaining this concept to the people of that time, in ways that they would understand. Sure, these people think they are hot stuff, but they will get their justice. He urges them, and us today, to be the bigger/better person, and just maybe those that were out to get us or make us look bad will get what's coming to them.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Turn the Other Cheek

"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 to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow."
--NAB Matthew 5:38-42

Most of us are familiar with the "turn the other cheek" statement. But does any of us truly understand what this means? The way I always interpreted it, and probably the way most people do, was that Jesus was telling us to be subordinate and not stand up for ourselves. Well, this isn't exactly true. Taking into account the context of the time, you might say that Jesus was the original proponent of nonviolent resistance.

Back in the days of Jesus, most people in that region were right-handed, or at least used their right hand for most tasks. The left hand was used almost exclusively for "bathroom duties." When a superior or some other antagonist set out to punish someone else, it would almost always take the form of a slap. And this was no ordinary slap; this was a back-handed slap on the face. Since people were right-handed and the left hand was only used for one purpose, the only way to slap someone with the back of the hand was to slap them across the right cheek. This was seen as the ultimate punishment to put someone "in their place."

For Jesus to say "turn the other cheek" was more controversial than it seems. If a person were to turn their left cheek to their superior, the superior would be unable to back-hand slap him with the right hand. Instead he would have to slap the subordinate with the palm of the hand. This, instead of signifying putting someone in his place, would signify that the subordinate was instead an equal. Equals slap each other with the palm of the hand. For a subordinate to turn his left cheek to the superior was seen as the ultimate insult, and the ultimate way to stand up for oneself without using violence. So, you see, Jesus was much more revolutionary than we sometimes give Him credit.

This was just one section of Matthew's Gospel that was recently explained to me in my Christian Scriptures class. I must say, this is all very interesting to me, since I have been hearing some of these stories all my life. I am now getting a better explanation about what they mean, and just how much we can benefit from learning the Scriptures in their original context. What a beautiful thing! In case you are still curious about the rest of this passage, I will give my explanation of the cloak part and the "walk two miles" part soon. And I will continue to share my new-found knowledge of these things for the rest of the semester, so look out!