Year A, Epiphany 7
In seminary, one of the requirements was that we interned in a hospital as a chaplain. We would visit people and mostly listen. But then we met in a group which was essentially group therapy that was supposed to help us evaluate our behavior. One the things that was ground into us was that we could never use the phrase, “You make me feel…” We could say, “I feel sad because of something that a patient said.” But we could never say the other person made us feel something because then we were not taking ownership of our feelings. Not only that, in doing so we were giving someone else power over our feelings. That is not the healthiest mindset and it does not help y ou help others.
In many ways, this concept of power was what Jesus was addressing in our Gospel today. He was doing so in a very unique way. If someone hits you, turn your cheek so they can hit the other one. If someone steals you shirt, give them your coat too. If someone takes advantage of you by making you carry their luggage for a mile, carry it another mile! This is not just unique, it’s plain crazy. Is this really how Christians are supposed to act—like doormats? It makes us appear weak, doesn’t it? Who would ever want to associate with such weakness?
As usual, there is more to this text than meets the eye. First of all, remember who Jesus was talking to at this time. These statements are part of the Sermon on the Mount—which we have been listening to for the last month. Jesus was talking to a large group of followers, most of whom were poor. They were also Jewish people living in Palestine, which means they were under Roman rule. They had very few rights. Some of the examples that Jesus used in this reading were examples of people who had lost their rights and who were being taken advantage of.
Let us consider the prevailing culture of the time. Defending honor and avoiding shame (especially public displays of shame) were prevalent themes. It is also a theme throughout the Old and New Testaments. Battles were fought because one’s honor had been offended. Family and friends were divided because of honor and shame. Punishment was given to restore honor. Often times the retaliation or punishment was greater in proportion to the crime itself. The Old Testament sought to address this disproportion by limiting retaliation by essentially saying, “no more than an eye for an eye.” For example, if someone punches you in face, it would not be appropriate to then kill them. By the time Jesus was born, Jewish law had evolved by specifying a monetary fine for certain crimes. Jesus of course, took it a few steps further.
In Middle Eastern culture, to slap someone’s face was extremely offensive. Just like today, people don’t usually slap people when they want to harm them. They want to make a point. You will notice from our reading that Jesus specifies the right side of the face. Assuming that most people are right handed, to slap someone on the right side of the face, would mean you would have to backhand them. This was pretty much the worst kind of insult you could inflict on someone. It dishonored the person being slapped. The way to regain that honor was to return the slap. Jesus was telling people to resist the urge to slap back. By resisting the urge to retaliate, you were basically saying, “I cannot be dishonored that easily because you don’t have that kind of power over me.”
In the 2nd example, Jesus says that if anyone wants to sue you for your coat you give them your cloak as well. This is commonly explained, “If someone takes your shirt, give them your coat as well.” That is not an accurate translation. At the time, this was actually a legal transaction. If you were in debt (which a lot of poor people were—and still are for that matter), you would give your coat as pledge that you would repay the debt. At this time the coat was more of a tunic (and undergarment). Poor people would almost surely have two of them. While losing one would be a loss, it would not be a life threatening. What would be life threatening would be losing your cloak. A poor person would only have one. It was used not only to shield you from the cold during the day, but as a blanket at night.
Why would Jesus tell these people to give up their cloak after they had already given up their tunic? This meant that you were naked. In using this example, Jesus was being more metaphorical than literal. By giving up your clothing, you reveal yourself. But not only do you reveal yourself, you reveal the shame of the person who is forcing you to reveal yourself. It becomes evident to all how extreme and unfair the punishment is. It brings things out in the open.
The third example is referring to the right of the Roman soldier to force a Jewish person to carry their load (whatever that might be) for a mile. This was also a way to shame the community because it was further proof that someone had power over them. However, there were limits to the power. The Roman soldier was only allowed to force the Jew to go one mile. If they went more, the soldier could get in trouble. By going the extra mile, the person was once again displaying the unjustness of the society that they were living in. While a mile was perceived as reasonable by the Romans, more than that was uncivilized. It got people’s attention.
By making these requests, Jesus was not asking people to be weak. He was asking for strength and refusal to be shamed no matter who had the perceived power in the situation. This power differential continues in our society in many ways. Some of these ways are less obvious than others. How many of us, regardless of whether we feel poor or oppressed, have given someone else power over ourselves—meaning the power to affect our feelings and our self-worth? It is pretty common. There are hundreds of self-help books devoted to the topic of self-empowerment. We don’t need the self-help books, because Jesus addressed it here in the 1st century.
The main difference between Jesus and the self-help books is that Jesus was not just talking about self-empowerment; he was talking about God-empowerment. If your identity and your essence is rooted in God, then no person, no entity can shame you. To be rooted in the identity of God means that you are inherently good and beautiful as you are made in God’s image.
Not only that, we have the power and the responsibility to stand up for those people who are being oppressed. Jesus was not saying, “If someone is treating you unfairly, you might as well just give in and not cause a scene.” He was saying, “Cause a scene–but not with violence, with honesty and your God given power—the power that no one can take away from you.” Martin Luther King and Gandhi were both inspired by these words of Jesus. They were empowered by these words. They changed the world with these words.
In many ways Jesus died because he refused to appease the power structure of his day. Then Christians did a crazy thing. They took the cross, a symbol of Roman oppression and cruelty and they turned into a symbol of hope and redemption. Let us remember that when we gaze at the beautiful crosses in our churches. They were not always so beautiful. They were bloody and cruel. Jesus transformed the cross and has also transformed us so that we can continue to be symbols and enablers of transformation in this world. Later in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus told his disciples, “‘Have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.’”