Have you ever been punched in the face?
I have and I’d say it’s up there with many of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had in my life. Like the one time I stuck a knife in my eye when I was 2 and anytime Nickleback come on the radio.
So quite what Jesus was thinking when He told His listeners that they should offer up the other side of their face after they’ve been hit once, so they can be hit again, I’m not sure.
Yet He does, without any resemblance of irony or humor. But why?
On the face of it (yes, pun intended), it looks like Jesus is telling us that we must remain humble, remain passive and allow others to take advantage of us when we are persecuted. This is certainly how we have traditionally understood this bizarre set of instructions from Jesus. When we dig a little deeper though, we discover that Jesus was actually doing something underneath the surface which was going to shock everyone.
Hitting someone in Jesus time came with a set of protocol. To hit someone on the right cheek required someone to use the back of their right hand to slap them across the face. Nothing unusual in itself (unless you want to look stupid in a fight), until we understand that hitting someone with the back of your hand signified a great deal about the status between two people.
For example, when hitting a slave or subordinate you would hit them with the back of your right hand. So in effect, being hit in this manner meant you were nothing but scum to the person hitting you. They were clearly putting you in your place and you and everyone knew it.
But then Jesus tells His listeners to do something that they would have understood as being truly pulling the rug from underneath their feet. He instructs them to turn their other cheek to be hit again.
Now, having hit the person with the back of the hand and having followed through there was simply only one way to hit the person on the left cheek too. It would require either using the inside of the palm or today perhaps we would use our fist. Which again might not sound unusual.
Except, when we understand that to hit someone with the inside of the palm or a fist was also to signify the status between two people. For hitting someone in this manner was only reserved for those of equal status. Someone who was on a level with you. Someone to whom you held in some respect, even if you were hitting them.
See now how radical Jesus’ instructions were to turn the other cheek? These are not instructions to let people take advantage of you. It’s actually a remarkably clever way of subverting the perception of power on those who oppress us and without having to resort to violence ourselves.
Likewise, Jesus’s advice to His listeners to carry the bags of their Roman suppressors an extra mile is only truly significant when we learn that Roman soldiers were only legally permitted to make someone carry their belongings one mile. No more. Any more would have been taking advantage and so who looks bad when you carry their stuff longer than was allowed? Not you, that’s for sure.
Or when being sued in court, Jesus tells us that we should not just stop at what is being asked from us but to take off our shirt and give it away too. Pretty mundane I guess, unless you think public nakedness is a pretty mundane occurrence. Which is what would happen given the style of clothing usually worn at that time, if your shirt was removed.
Now who looks shameful? The naked person or…. the person who has forced you to strip publicly, greedily requiring more and more until you are left cold and naked?
So not only does Jesus ask us to be loving and forgiving and generous but He also wants us to fight injustice in a way that rises above violence or name calling or aggression. We may not have the same rules about how to punch someone today but each of us come face to face at some point with people or groups or organizations that seek to hurt us and belittle us or trample us under their feet.
Powers that seems so huge and overbearing that we feel powerless in the shadow of their might and strength.
And our natural response to these situations is to either keep quiet or use the same force or action that was taken on us and reply in kind to our ‘enemies’.
But Jesus also had pretty strong words on how we are to treat our enemies. A term that can range from including someone we disagree with online to those who want us dead.
What Jesus is doing here, like much of His teaching, isn’t about giving us a neat set of instructions that can be easily looked up every time someone hits us or every time a Roman soldier demands we carry their stuff for a mile (What do you mean this has never happened to you?)
Jesus is actually showing us a third way.
A way that doesn’t make sense. A way that seems to fly in the face of every convention we have been taught about how to get ahead and how to succeed. Because as followers of the teachings of Christ we are called to a new way of living. A higher form of success. One that doesn’t include getting one over on our enemies but embracing them and telling them we love them and occasionally using creative, simply beautiful and “I didn’t see that coming” ways to treat our enemies.
Because winning for a Jesus follower isn’t about bombarding that person who doesn’t agree to a tee with our theology with Bible verse after Bible verse, or about using the same aggressive force in countless wars that our enemies use on us.
You see, when as followers of Christ we become aggressive or feel like we need to defend our faith it is because of a fear that causes us to want to attack the ‘other’. The three illustrations that Jesus used above demonstrate what it is like when we are not motivated by fear but out of love. A fear that our faith is being demeaned or even attacked is a fear that the very identity that we believe is ours is being threatened.
And when that happens we are no different than any other human being and seek to protect anything that we perceive to be a threat to ourselves.
So instead of turning the other cheek, we take aim for theirs. Instead of walking the extra mile, we put our feet down and don’t engage. Instead of of being generous to those who seek to destroy us we sue them in return for more.
What Jesus is doing is asking us not simply to be the bigger person, but to realize that preserving our faith is not what we were called for. We are called to spread a message that includes everyone, regardless of what they think of us or what they do to us. This is not something that is easy and the temptation to attack may always be there but when we love those who we perceive to hate us or even actually do hate us, we will find shocking results.
Literally people will be shocked. They will be intrigued to why we are different. They will ask questions to why we are so peaceful when everything says we should be angry and hostile when we are wronged. They will want more and we should be in a place where we are genuinely able to offer them more. More hope, more love, more Grace, more Peace.
Winning for Jesus followers can only be counted as such when our enemies become our neighbours. (Tweet this)
When this gift that we have been given becomes something not to be used to oppress others but so fucking beautiful that even the person that despises us is moved by it.
When something inside of us grows weary of using force against force, or hatred against hatred but yearns for something more.
Something that includes every. single. last. one of us.
Anything less is not the Gospel. Anything less is just another weapon.
Jesus understood that when we become aggressive or hostile the person we are defeating isn’t our enemy but ourself. (Tweet this)
Jesus understood this when He when we healed the soldier who was responsible for taking Him away to die and when those responsible for His death realized that there was something unique about this crucifixion.
If any attacks deserved the attacker to be paid back in kind, it was these. Yet Jesus, saw the endless cycle that would have persevered if He hadn’t acted with a love that was absent from his attackers. He saw the peace that is possible to unite entire communities at war. He saw the justice and joy that would underlie the human experience if only we didn’t feel so threatened all the time.
He understood the real power of astounding, creative and perplexing ways to love our enemies.
The real question though is, do we?