I Thought Jesus Was... Pt. 1
Growing up I thought Jesus was a real wuss.
I’ve been thinking this week about the notions of Jesus I had growing up in church.
Here’s one to try on for size. There’s a teaching in the book of Matthew that has been popularly summarized as “turning the other cheek.”
This phrase was always thrown out as the appropriate, Jesus-like response, to hurt or frustration. The subtext is that when someone causes you pain, don’t retaliate. But rather, in humility, offer to them the other cheek and let them strike you again.
Something about this never sat well with me.
Let someone hurt you twice? And then what? Walk away?
I didn’t dislike the coinage of this phrase because I directly desired retaliation. I’ve always been somewhat opposed to violence. Rather, when I looked around the world I didn’t see any compelling examples of this phrase being lived out.
The more I’ve read and studied the scriptures my new favorite question is, what if Jesus was up to something different than what we were taught?
What if we we’ve lost some of the meaning of scripture because we are trying to interpret Jesus in light of our culture today? When we do this we miss that the bible was written into a particular place at a particular time and was meant to convey a culturally-contextual message to its participants.
In short, context matters.
These next few blog posts are aimed at uncovering the context of Jesus’ words by studying some of the popularly (mis-) quoted sayings of Jesus.
What would Jesus’ words have meant to his followers?
(Disclaimer: the best ideas in this content I learned from reading the scholar Walter Wink in his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World Domination. His work is really good.)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." - Jesus (Matthew 5:38-42)
There are three big things here.
Here’s the first thing to unpack.
What were hands used for?
You know the phrase, wipe left shake right? That phrase has been around for thousands of years and refers to the left hand’s role in cleaning up bowel movements (praises for toilet paper and indoor plumbing).
Therefore, if you were going to discipline someone by striking/slapping them you would use your right hand. Your business hand. If you struck a person with the back of your hand it symbolized your assertion of authority and dominance.
Try putting your hands out and slapping the air to understand these next few steps. Mimic the back of your right hand hitting someone’s right cheek.
Their head would turn from the force of your air-slap.
If the persecuted person “turned the other check” to offer their left cheek then the discipliner was faced with a dilemma. It would be impossible to do a follow up strike with the back of your right hand (maintaining dominance), and the left hand wasn’t an option.
The only option remaining would be to slap with the open palm of your right hand to their left cheek.
This was seen as a statement of equality. This is how you reprimanded people on the same level as you. Therefore, by “turning the other cheek,” the persecuted was demanding dignity and respect as an equal.
Here’s the second thing to unpack in this passage.
"And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well."
If someone sued you for everything you’ve got you would say that they "sued the shirt off your back.” Jesus is painting an extreme scenario here. In this case, if you were to give your shirt and your coat it would enter into a situation forbidden by Hebrew law (stated in Deuteronomy 24:10-13). By giving the suer the cloak as well, the debtor was reduced to nudity. In Jesus’ day public nudity was viewed as bringing shame upon the viewer, and not just the naked.
So, if someone sues you down to the shirt off your back then your response is creative and non-violent. If someone asserts power over you then demand your equality be respected.
Lastly, in this trio of verses Jesus says, "If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles."
In Jesus’ day there was a commonly abused law of Angaria that allowed Roman authorities to demand for civilians to carry their equipment for exactly one mile. This law forbid the Romans to force or allow a civilian to go further than a single mile, at the risk of suffering disciplinary actions. The moment the person crossed the one-mile mark they were forcing the Roman soldier to break the law.
Jesus says to double down.
Jesus says that if someone exerts power and oppression over you, go above and beyond. Reduce them through your service. When corrupt systemic oppression is taking place, be creative in resistance. When power is wrongly asserted force the asserter to treat you with humanity and dignity.
I love this set of teachings. It has come alive for me this week because I've been challenged by the number of people that believe Christians should steer away from political statements or stances.
I believe that if we are seeking to follow Jesus holistically (with our whole self) then we absolutely should take stances on things that are "political". Jesus was actively speaking against the power structures of his day that were perpetuating systemic inequality. In short, we should live fully-engaged with the world.
We should speak out when we see inequality, racism, or power exerted in ways that demean and diminish. We should be actively working against those powers in the world.
Growing up I thought Jesus was a wuss.
Today I believe that Jesus is beautiful, and subversive to the inequality of his day as well as ours.
How could this teaching change or affect how you see and interact in the world?