“But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.”
So let me begin by saying that as a therapist, as a clinical social worker/pastoral counselor, I do not like this passage much at all. In my time as a social worker, I have worked with all sorts of vulnerable people, from those who were homeless, to people who were dying, people addicted to substances and behaviors, to folks struggling with illnesses, physical, mental, or both. And so the worst part to me about this passage, is when you are working with people whose situation involves a bully, an abusive spouse or partner, or working through abuse that occurred as a child. Because most of us, when we hear this passage, we hear this: “Just let them take it and give them more.” “Turn the other cheek so that they can just hit you again.”
It is almost as if we hear this as “just be passive, a humble servant, and this is what God wants.”
And I strongly disagree with this interpretation. I am made profoundly uncomfortable in hearing these words as a reason for someone to remain in a situation where one is being hurt, where you are broken and afraid. But perhaps there is a different word here in this passage, a different layer of meaning, which we miss somehow.
After all, what should not surprise us, but does sometimes, is that Jesus speaks in different ways to different people. For the pharisees, who were so religiously pious in the temple that they did no good out in the world, Jesus says, “You brood of vipers!” And to those who were sick and vulnerable, Jesus doesn’t say that “I have made you whole,” but instead tells them “your faith has made you whole.” Jesus chases out the moneychangers in the temple, but when the disciples were shooing the children away, Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.”
We miss the message if we miss that Jesus was on the side of the vulnerable, the hurt, these that are called “sinners” at times. I first encountered this way of thinking in a class at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, a class called Contextual Theologies where we read articles by authors who were writing about their experience of God and scripture based on their particular experience, often an experience of being an outsider or powerless in some form or fashion. One article that we read was by a woman named Valerie Saiving. She argued that even our very idea of sin, of sin as pride, as being “too much,” that this is a particularly male way of looking at the situation. She writes that for most females, especially during the 1960s through 1980s when Saiving was writing and teaching, that sin for women could be not recognizing God’s image in them too. Sin was not standing up, that women instead should be encouraged, not discouraged. This is what we hear in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, about this savior who is coming that will raise up the meek, and will bring the mighty down.
And to me, that sounds like a fight, right? That sounds like getting your fists up and ready, guns blazing, time to take them on! Eye for an eye, right?! Tooth for a tooth, right?!
Oh, but wait a minute . . . we have this passage from Matthew. Jesus is telling us NOT to do what feels so natural. We have heard it said “an eye for an eye,” but Jesus tells us, as followers of Christ, that this is not who we are to be.
So now what?!? Do we fight? Do we just give in? Or is there some other way?
And here is the struggle, in this challenging passage. Jesus does not talk to us in either/or dichotomies because that is not how God is. God is not either/or; God is both/and. God does love those who are vulnerable, rest assured. And we emphasize God’s special love for the vulnerable so that we, who may have more, we remember that just because some of us have more, it does not mean that God loves us more. God loves the weak and the hurt, but God loves those who are strong too. God loves the oppressed, but God also loves the oppressor . . . and loves them enough to not allow them to remain in a system, a system of sin, that hurts and oppresses, a system that kills them and their spirit too.
God loves all of us.
And truth is some of us don’t like that very much.
Funny thing is even the old “eye for an eye” rule was an improvement. There was a time that when people were hurt, they hurt someone else. Then that person just hurts back, over and over, in a continuous cycle of vengeance. So stopping at one tooth for one tooth, in actuality that was an improvement over what had been. But then what takes this ethic even further, is what Matthew describes here. Jesus advises actions that do NOT retaliate, not committing another wrong because of the first wrong. Instead Jesus proscribes acts that point out injustice. These responses are ones that shame the one in power, that point to the wrong and stand with dignity in the face of that wrong.
So without getting too far into the mores of that age, the scene Matthew is describing is one where someone in power has hit someone with less power, with the back of their hand on their “right” cheek, a gesture intended not only to sting, but to humiliate the one who was hit. So what does Jesus do? Jesus tells the one who has been hit to turn the other cheek, forcing this person to hit them not with the back of their hand, but the front, which would make them an equal, not a hit as master to servant but between equals. This gesture, this turning of the cheek is a standing up, not cowering down.
And this business about the cloaks and coats, if you were sued to the point where you are standing in court and you have nothing left to take except your coat and cloak, then giving this person everything you have leaves you naked. You are standing there, standing in the court, in front of God and everyone, quite literally. But this nakedness, again according to the mores of that day and place, this would not be a shame on you, but a shame on the one who sued you. The shame is on the one who took everything, the one who has now left you with nothing. Again, this action is a pointing toward justice, pointing out injustice, not for the sake of committing one more wrong for the wrong done to you, but pointing to a higher right.
And it is fitting that we hear this passage during Black History Month in part because the civil rights movement in this country succeeded because of the way of non-violence. This was not a movement that was passive, but fought in a way that means the salvation not only of the oppressed, but the oppressor. This is not a God that wants anyone to remain in their sin, whether that is sin that hurts an individual, or the sorts of sins that hurt all of us, as racism did and does still. God is calling all of us home, the strong and the weak, the vulnerable and the powerful.
Because this is a God who wants us to love as God loves. This God loves us all. That is what this “perfection” that Matthew speaks of is like, a perfection, a heaven if you will, a beloved community where we all belong.
–St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Macon, Georgia