Summary: A look at the historical context of Jesus commands to turn the other cheek, give away your cloak and go the extra mile to see what they really mean.
The passage we read is at least on the surface one of the most difficult passages in the Bible, if we are to live by it. Every time you here the passage preached or talked about there is always a but, or a bit that says it doesn’t mean this. Or sometimes but it can’t mean this, Jesus couldn’t really expect us to live like that. The most common one I’ve heard, is but we’re not expected to be doormats. Well, what does Jesus mean by these words? Does Jesus expect us to go round and be doormats? Isn’t this passage just setting the standard a little to high, isn’t it asking just a little too much for ordinary everyday Christians.
Well for starters, this passage is often misinterpreted and Jesus is not asking us to become doormats. There is a specific context to each of Jesus statements, about striking the other cheek, giving away your cloak when you are sued for your tunic and going the extra mile. This context allows us to understand what Jesus was saying. One commentator calls them cartoons. Little brief situations that highlight in extreme form some principals that Jesus is trying to get across. Indeed they functioned for Jesus in exactly the same way as some of our modern political cartoons that you can find in newspapers today. Some of you might remember us looking at this passage when we looked at the issue of War in our Bible Studies to see what God said about it. However, then we were merely concerned with whether this passage ruled out war. Now however, we want to look at what it means for us in everyday life. Of course for those that weren’t at the Bible study and for those that need their memories refreshed, we will look at the situations that Jesus was talking to. But the questions we need to ask is what difference does it make to our lives. We aren’t facing the same situations that Jesus and his listeners were facing, so how does what Jesus said apply to us. Unfortunately for those who are looking for an easy way out, Jesus doesn’t give you one. To understand Jesus in his context and apply it to us does not mean an easy way out. It is hard. But it is also possible with Jesus help and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Turing the other Cheek
The first situation that Jesus introduces us to, is that when someone strikes you on the right cheek you should turn to them the other. Our first thoughts on this one might be that it means when we are threatened with violence or actual violence is used against us, not only should we not resist even if we are able but that we should deliberately leave ourselves open to further attack and damage. I faced this situation once. I was travelling home on the train from Glasgow, on my way to run a youth activity in our church. There was a group of 3 teenagers sitting in a group around where I had chosen to sit. Now while they were younger than I, they were a good deal bigger, perhaps not quite Aled size but big enough. They were basically out to start a fight. So throughout the kind of build up, I just ignored all the insults and comments that were thrown against me, thinking they would leave me along, but no they decided that was not enough. So they attacked. Did this passage have anything to say to me? In an enclosed space, surrounded by 3 attackers should I try and fight back, should I try to get by them and run, was it ok to keep dodging blows and bringing up hands to deflect the blows, or should I just stand there arms by my side and let them continue to hit and hit and hit. Or should I follow the example of someone who says you turn the other cheek but it doesn’t say what you do to them when they hit that cheek.
You see this interpretation of this passage goes beyond even a pacifist attitude which says we shouldn’t hit back but we can at least run away. People who argue that this passage means pacifism don’t really know what to do with this extra bit. Was Jesus just exaggerating for effect, to make a point through hyperbole. Like when we say, I’ve told you a thousand times not to exaggerate.
Or we can take Jesus words at face value and think about the situation that he is describing. We are told that this involves being struck on the right cheek. No remember we are talking about a world where being left handed was looked down upon and even those who were left handed always used their right hands anyway. So now imagine squaring up to an opponent. In fact turn and face the person sitting beside you. Touch your own right cheek, now how can you strike the person sitting opposite you on the cheek they are touching with your right hand. You certainly can’t punch them. The only way you can hit them on the right cheek is if you slap them with the back of your hand. Now before you act I’m not asking you to do that. Although, if we did it might be interesting to see how many would turn the other cheek. But anyway, what that little experiment has established is that Jesus was talking about a slap from the back of the hand.