But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your coat is taken from you, give your shirt, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. (Matthew 5:39-41)
Relate: “For the rest of the week, you’ve got latrine duty.” The soldier was rightfully confused and angry. Latrine duty was generally reserved as a particularly nasty punishment duty. He could think of a few minor things he had done, but nothing demanding a week. So he questioned his superior. “Multiple witnesses are saying you were taking advantage of the locals.”
“What do you mean? I’ve done nothing.”
“You know the law. One mile. You made some poor sap carry your gear for easily double that.”
“But sir. That’s not my fault. I asked him to give it back. I practically begged him, but he insisted on carrying it further. What was I supposed to do? Knock him unconscious to get it back?”
The sergeant barked a laugh. “I’m adding another day to that duty. If you can’t think up a better lie than that, I’ll tack on a few more.
– – – – – – –
Most people are right handed. That means most people, if they are going to swing violently at someone else will do so first and foremost with their right hand. Jesus didn’t just say, “turn the other cheek” what he said was, “if someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer him the other.” That specific mention of the right cheek makes it clear He is referring to a backhanded slap. This is how a master would strike a slave. This is how a lord would strike a servant. It is not, ever how a man would strike a neighbor or someone considered an equal.
When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek He is giving us a message to convey to the aggressor. That message is twofold, “I will not fight you. I will not retaliate. But neither will I allow you to look down on me. I am passive, not inferior.
– – – – – – –
The shirt and coat scenario deals with the rich and poor, but also cleanliness laws. If the coat is the reward from a lawsuit, then clearly the defendant has no other method or means of payment. He is poor. For a poor farmer, his outer tunic, his coat served not just as an article of clothing but also as his blanket at night. In an arid land, those nights can get frightfully cold and without the coat, that poor farmer will become more tired during daylight hours and also more susceptible to sickness. He will be less able to work his land and make a survivable living. Without this ability, soon he will be evicted from that land, or his children be sold as debtors, or…
On the flip side, Jesus calls for that poor farmer to strip down naked. In doing so, he is exposing the injustice that is happening for all the world to see. Not only that, but the rich landowner and everyone who sees him and does nothing are now ceremonially impure. If they have seen a naked body, they cannot enter into the Temple or any synagogues. They are effectively barred from the presence of God. That poor farmer is in essence saying, “Until I receive justice, God and the community will know your shame.”
React: Going another mile, turning another cheek, giving another shirt… none of these are easy. They are all acts of sacrifice. They are also all acts of love. All too often we are presented a false dichotomy. Either we retaliate, either we go to war, or we become a doormat and let evil people walk all over us. Jesus gave us three very specific examples of a third way. Dr Martin Luther King Jr beautifully applied these lessons in the context of racial injustice fifty years ago. What are some areas in our society today that need to experience this third way, this tough love? What are some ways we, as individuals can live out this love?
God, I am so grateful that You first showed me tough love. You did not retaliate and give us what we deserve, but neither did You ignore the injustice and straight up evil of our sin. You showed a third way. You lived out tough love. Help me to do the same. When presented between the choices of complacency and violence, help me to find a better way. Though it might require immense amounts of sacrifice on my part, help me to live out Your in an evil and unjust world.