Matthew 5:38-42 – An Eye for an Eye

Non-violent resistance. Loud, poignant, effective nonviolent resistance.

FYI this is a rather swear-y post with more than one F-bomb. If that isn’t your thing, you may just want to skip this one.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’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.

This part of the Bible always bothered me.  It bothered me that Jesus would so meekly submit to wrong-doing, and ask us to give away everything, to literally stand naked and helpless, in order to be a good Christian.  Then I heard a different interpretation of the “turn the other cheek” admonition.  I don’t remember where I originally heard it -perhaps on the History Channel years ago, but best I can re-trace it now, it seems to come from the writings of Dr. Walter Wink.  To summarize: In Jesus’ time, it was acceptable and normal to reprimand a subservient person (a wife, a slave) with a backhand slap from your right hand.  This specification is important, because one’s left hand was reserved only for unclean tasks.  So, if your master or husband slapped you across the right cheek with the back of their right hand, and you then offer them your left cheek, they either have to use their left hand to back-slap you, inherently admitting their actions are unclean and wrong, or straight up attack you with an open palmed attack.  Now, this certainly doesn’t get the slap-ee out of trouble, if anything, it invites more pain to come, but it does make the point I’m a person, damn you, pay attention!  In other words, non-violent resistance.

Nonviolent resistance is what these four verses are all about.  Another article I read pointed out the very specific examples used by Jesus are extreme illustrations.  Remember, Jesus does love hyperbole.  Perhaps these exact instances will never happen to you, but you can apply the principles in your own life.  First example: If you are being sued for your clothing, you probably are very poor and lack anything else of value.  By handing over all your clothes, standing naked in the street becomes a non-violent testament to the unfairness of the law and the hard-heartedness of the person suing you.  If you are being forced into service for one mile, walking two with the enforcer allows for one full mile of uncomfortable thought on their part.

Additionally, the translation “do not resist an evil person” is not fully agreed upon, both the literal translation and it’s meaning.  Some, like Dr. Wink, think it simply cautions us against the use of violence.  Others think it should be translated closer to something like “adopt a defensive position.”  Either way, it does not mean meek acceptance of how the world is.

Jesus is asking a lot of us in the passage.  I say that with all sincerity and gravity.  He is asking us to adhere to nonviolence, yes, but definitely not meekness.  He is asking us the very opposite.  He is asking us to put our instinct of self-preservation aside, and to stand up to the wrongs we face.  Look your accuser in the eye, and make them pay some fucking attention.  This is scary, and can result in very real physical harm.  Just think of all the Civil Rights protesters who were water cannoned, attacked by dogs, and harassed by Klansman.  Think of all the women who have had acid thrown on them for their audacity to say no to a suitor or report their rape.

Thank God we haven’t had anything that terrifying happen to us, but recently, Chris and I got a small taste of what it’s like to be the subject of someone’s maleficence.  Someone, we don’t know who, filed a bogus Worker’s Comp claim on us.  There are militant vegans who are opposed to animal husbandry in general with whom Chris has exchanged words.  There are a bunch of Good Old Boys who Chris has pissed off in his writings about race and what it means to be a farmer and black.  And who knows who else we have pissed off being an inter-racial, inter-faith couple with loud opinions.  So take your pick.  Chris had to go to court and prove that we are not a multi-state business employing over two dozen people (we just got our first employee, other than ourselves, last year, and we’re definitely only farming in Virginia).  And it was scary.  We didn’t know what we were up against.  Turns out some jackass just turned in a bunch of pictures of people from our own social media, including a picture of Chris’ grandfather on a tractor taken long before Chris was even born, citing him as an “employee.”  So it got thrown out.  But when I called my mom to tell her about the outcome, she asked if we were going to be more careful about what we put out on social media.  Fuck no, we’re not going to be more careful about what we put out on social media!  Ok, I didn’t swear at my mom, but I just get so angry thinking that someone was trying to scare us into silence.  To whatever fuckface tried to that, guess what: We’re going to keep at it.  You might be able to wound us, you might even find a way to shut down the farm completely, but you’ll never stop us.  We have the safety net of family, careers we could fall back into should farming fail, entrepreneurial spirits and just enough recklessness and faith to keep up our nonviolent resistance to the bitter end.

What injustices do you see in the world that you can stand up to?  That’s a huge question.  But it is one that Jesus asks of us.  If you need to work up your courage, I suggest reading my post about pluralistic ignorance (how more people than you think privately disagree with an idea or situation, but lack the courage to speak up about it). That post also has four ways you can act against injustice without speaking, if confrontation scares you shitless.  But the point is to act.  Do not sit meekly by. Wherever and whenever you are able, it is our duty, if we proclaim to be Christian, to resist the injustices we see in this world.  So get out there.  Resist.

Matthew 5:33-37 – Oaths

A passage that is like a rose blooming: the longer you sit with it, the more it unfolds.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

A super-short quote and a short-ish blog post for you this Friday.  At the time of this writing, I think I have strep – mothering little kids is not for the weak! Hopefully by the time this goes live I’ll be on antibiotics and feeling better already.  But I digress.

I love passages like this because the longer you sit with them, the more they unfold, like a rose blooming.  I’ve found four key points in this passage.  I’d love to hear if you got anything else out of it, too.  My four takeaways are:

  1. The sacredness of everything.  Heaven is God’s throne, Earth God’s footstool, Jerusalem God’s city.  Xe created everything, and therefore everything is sacred: every cloud, tree, stone, street, and person.  It’s beautiful and overwhelming to think about.  Here, Jesus talks about not using anything to swear an oath, but beyond that, we should not defile God’s beautiful creation in any way, but view it with awe and appreciation.
  2. Our lack of power.  I believe we have free will, but that doesn’t mean that we have absolute power, even over our most personal selves – our own bodies, as Jesus so eloquently points out.  We may make decisions, we may swear promises, but in reality, if God has a different plan for us, those decisions and promises may be out of our control to fulfill.
  3. Even if we shouldn’t swear oaths, our word should be our bond.  In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say.  Again, things may be out of our control.  For example, you promise to help with the school field day but then come down with a stomach bug day-of. (Can you tell my latest kids and health obsession from that example?)  But do your best.  Say “yes” if you can do something, and “no” if you can’t.  It sounds easy, but it means knowing yourself, and sometimes turning down things you really want to do.  I’ve read countless Cosmo/Oprah/Woman’s Day type articles that talk about the power and importance of saying no, and how women tend to say yes too quickly and overwhelm themselves.  Having kids forces me on a daily basis to re-learn the saying “you can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”  Know your limits, and promise within them. A quick sub-point: respect other people’s limits and do not ask too much of them.
  4. Strong oaths are an invitation to self examination.  The passage ends with “anything else comes from the evil one.”  The “evil one” is Satan, and as I’ve discussed before, I’ve come to see Satan as a kind of undercover cop/moral auditor.  So, when we use the exact language Jesus is warning about here (or someone uses it to us), we (or they) are revealing something about ourselves.  The question is what are we revealing?  If someone is in a rage and says “I swear I’ll beat his head in,” (I know, extreme, but I’m having trouble being creative today and it gets the point across) we know that they are angry.  But we learn more about what triggers them so strongly, can later discuss whether it’s rational or not, and what a better solution might be.  All this is assuming it’s just letting off steam, if someone is actually about to beat someone else’s head in, you should probably call the cops.  In a few posts I’ll talk about how Jesus tells us to guard our secret hearts, and I think this passage alludes to that, too.  Swearing so strongly leaves our emotions, desires, and ambitions out there for unscrupulous people to prey upon, and leaves us susceptible to their manipulations.

May you have a wonderful and healthy weekend everyone!  I’ll finish Matthew Chapter 5 next week, God willing and health permitting.

Matthew 5:21-26 – Murder

Or more accurately, “Peaceful Living.”

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you,24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Hello everyone, I’m back! I tell you what, trying to get over a cold while you have two kids who are also sick is no picnic.  But we’re doing OK.  Well enough for me to start getting up early, again!

And thank God for small blessings, this is a short and relatively uncontroversial passage -about all I feel I can handle today. I think we can all agree, at least in theory, that murder is bad.  For the sake of brevity we aren’t going to get into the nuances of what some might or might not consider “murder” today (wars, abortion, self defense, societal negligence or apathy that leads to death, etc).  But again, in theory, most people agree that murder is bad.

So what about this other stuff?  Calling your brother “Raca” and settling matters out of court quickly?  Why is that lumped into the “murder” category of this speech?  The larger thrust of this message, of indeed all of Jesus’ teachings, is to live in peace with our fellow man.  Murder is probably the greatest breach of that peace.  It is hate in our hearts turned into action, but so are these other matters.

First, the whole name-calling bit.  I did a bit of reading, and to summarize, using the language contemporary to Jesus, calling someone “Raca” is calling into question their intelligence.  Calling someone “a fool” is to call into question the salvation of their very soul, or to condemn them spiritually.  The best analogy I can think of is it’s almost like the difference between free speech and slander.  You’re allowed to say a lot of awful things about people, but at some point it crosses the line.  Language to degrade, debase, and defame a person out of malicious intent is hateful and can do real harm.  Just like murder, slanderous language is a breach of peaceful living with our fellow man.

Second, leaving your gift at the altar to make peace with your brother.  We literally do this in church (well, not all churches, but most church-goers are probably familiar with this practice) when we share the peace.  Saying “peace be with you” to the others in our pew, shaking their hands (or hugging, as often happens in my church) is a ritualistic embodiment of us making peace with our neighbors before coming to God’s table.  It is a symbolic act of reconciliation that allows us to take communion with a clear conscious, indicating we are at peace with our fellow man.

Finally, settling matters quickly and out of court.  So first off, this is just good life advice.  Why do you think so many companies want to settle accusations of harassment, union disputes, and other disagreements out of court?  Because it’s quicker and cheaper.  I’m not condemning the whole judicial system (though it has its flaws) and not recommending anyone try to settle serious legal matters without consulting a lawyer, but there is something to this “settling out of court,” both literally and figuratively.  Settling out of court usually means some sort of mediation: a sit-down face to face with your adversary, as Jesus calls them, where you negotiate an outcome that is acceptable to all parties.  Can you imagine how much better a world we would have if we could mediate all our disputes – legal, familial, workplace, you name it – by taking time for a rational mediation, maybe one that even included (gasp!) impartial mediators?  So much resentment and hurt feelings could be wiped away!

Most of the Bibles that provide intra-text headings to further delineate stories title this passage “Murder,” because that is what the passage starts with, but perhaps it would be more accurate to entitle it “Peaceful Living.”  How can we apply it today?  Next time you have something nasty to say about someone, think about how saying it might effect them, even if it’s not (maybe especially if it’s not) being said to their face.  When you share the peace at church, don’t just go through the motions, but actively engage your heart, letting go of any resentments you may have, at least for the moment.  I once read “forgiveness” is an ongoing act, so you haven’t failed if resentment creeps back in later, you’re just human.  You can always try again.  And finally, whenever possible, work out your disagreements.  Don’t let them fester into soured relationships and hurt feelings.  The more we work at this, the more we are free to live in peace with our fellow man, just as God intended and Jesus instructs.