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 5:27-32 – Adultery and Divorce

The best example yet of Jesus the Feminist.

27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

I love Jesus’ passages on anything marital because it throws people through a loop.  It sounds like he’s saying one thing, but in reality, he’s saying another.  He’s so freaking subversive, in a lot of things, but especially talking about marital relations.  Remember, he’s up against an establishment.  Actually, several establishments, but particularly the Pharisees.  Here, Jesus is not speaking directly to the Pharisees (he will speak to them directly in chapter 19 on the subject of marriage), but you can bet that every idea conveyed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount made it back to them.  The very fact that many of Jesus’ teachings can be taken two ways must have been maddening to the Pharisees.  They were smart guys, if misled, and they wouldn’t have missed this.

But let’s back up a little bit, before we get into subliminal messages, let’s talk about hyperbole again really quick.  A few posts ago I mentioned that Jesus loved to use hyperbole to make his point.  This is a classic, perhaps the classic example of that.  Jesus is NOT advocating self-mutilation, but using the cutting off of body parts as a visceral metaphor for removing yourself from sin and temptation.  (As an aside, I’ve written about what I think “sin” is. You can read more about it in that post, but in a nutshell: the greatest commandment is to love one another. The greatest sin is to act out of not-love.) There are whole programs that help people overcome their shortcomings, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that center around this idea of avoidance.  Even if you aren’t actually plucking out your eye, it can feel like you’re losing part of yourself: the friends you had when using might disappear if you don’t sever ties yourself; your personality might change-hopefully for the better, but it can still be disconcerting to realize you’re not the person you thought you were; even your daily routines may change to avoid temptation.  No one thinks that cutting off the hands of an unrepentant alcoholic is going to keep them from drinking.  Believe me, where there’s a will, there’s a way.  But if you are dedicated to sobriety, you will learn how to avoid your triggers for using.  The same is true for sin, for which “lust” is a stand-in here – if you’re dedicated to the teachings of Jesus, you’ll search for ways to avoid sinning.  And I very much doubt it means plucking out your eye, but rather changing your behavior to better reflect your values.

Alright, with that rather lengthy note about hyperbole aside, let’s talk about Jesus’ sly little speech here.  Surface reading:  Get married so you can look at your wife without sinning, squirrel your wife away so she doesn’t unintentionally cause a man to sin by looking at her, and divorce is bad but here’s this broad loophole for “sexual immorality,” which history has interpreted as anything from a full-out affair to wearing the wrong dress, so don’t worry too much about it, you can interpret that at your will.  It’s advice for a “godly man” trying to build a “virtuous” world that best suits him.  And that is how, for the majority of Western history, it has been interpreted: by the patriarchy subjecting women to their rule.

But Jesus was way more egalitarian than that.  I just finished reading an article about how radical it was that Jesus ate with women at the same table.  Apparently, the only women at a co-ed table were the ones there as sexual objects.  So the fact that he elevated women to an equal status at the table, eating and exchanging ideas with men, was like, super crazy radical.  There’s no way this same guy would be saying “here’s a way to dominate women through marriage and policing how and when they appear in society.”

Let’s revisit that lust and adultery thing of vv. 27-30.  Jesus is saying if a woman is causing lustful thoughts in a man’s mind, it is the MAN’S responsibility to remove himself from that situation, NOT the woman’s responsibility to modify her clothing or behavior.  “Pluck out your eye,” (aka stop looking at her) Jesus says.  Police your own actions, not the woman’s.  I. Cannot. Make. That. Clear. Enough.  It is the responsibility of the person who lusts (or sins in any other way) to remove themselves from the sinful situation.  No one else’s.  Through this verse, Jesus is fully recognizing a woman’s right to move through society unmolested, and reminding men that their actions are their own responsibility.

This bit about divorce and adultery that follows all this talk about lust is mostly about protecting women’s rights as well.  The part of Deuteronomy that Jesus quotes, “anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce,” is a law that was trying to codify a modicum of protection for women, who were, at the time, not much more than their husband’s property.  The full verse reads “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him, because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house,” (Deut. 24:1) Subsequent verses then goes on to describe who that woman can and can’t marry.  To make that very clear, a man could divorce a woman simply because she is displeasing to him.  Yes, it has that vague bit about being indecent, but we have seen through history how that has been manipulated to mean any sort of thing:  an infertile woman was often thought to be “cursed” because of some immoral transgression, and therefore expendable; a woman who suffered an illness and therefore displeased her husband could be seen as similarly “cursed;” a woman who boldly spoke her mind was displeasing to her husband as he found her indecent in her speech.

A divorced woman had little agency in society.  Her financial support had been taken away, and there were not a lot of jobs for single mothers out there.  She had limited options for remarriage and the financial support that came with it.  Oftentimes her family wouldn’t or couldn’t take her back in.  Remember, even with this “certificate of divorce” she has been declared “indecent,” and what upstanding citizen would want to be associated with that?  So, the divorced woman, often through no fault of her own, faced social ostracization and poverty.  So when Jesus basically negates divorce (except for true charges of infidelity), he gave blanket coverage to any and all wives of the men who chose to follow him.  As for those who do marry divorced women, in Jesus’ society, that made them complicit to the system.  By including those second marriages in his condemnation, I think Jesus was underscoring just how important a societal change of attitude towards women’s rights was.

All that said, I do believe that Jesus really means that divorce is bad, in any circumstance.  Before you get all huffy and stop reading on me, let me just say, as much as Jesus speaks out against divorce, I don’t think he condemns anyone for it.  In an ideal world, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity, and levelheadedness to sit down with their intended and make sure that yes, this is a good decision.  And once married, again, everyone would have the time, money, emotional capacity and levelheadedness to do the hard work of keeping a good marriage strong.  But the truth is, that’s just not the case.  So, if you made a mistake in your first marriage (hell, even in your second or third), I do hope you learned from it, but rest assured that God knows you are human, and that mistakes are pretty much what we do.  The glorious thing about God is that there is no sin too great to be forgiven, if we come to Xyr with a repentant heart. For one more silver lining: I do think we are headed in the right direction (even if it is slowly) when it comes to marriage and divorce.  The most in-depth study I could find was from the UK, but I bet it’s similar in the US: Couples are waiting until their early 30’s to get married, are dating almost 5 years before marriage, and the divorce rate is the lowest it’s been (and still falling) since 1971.

The main takeaway, folks, is that Jesus recognized how women in his society were underserved.  He couched it in language that wouldn’t immediately get him thrown into prison: on the surface it looks like a support of the patriarchy, but those that have the ears to hear would hear his true message:  one of recognition, of equality, of love.  Let’s help spread that message of love and equality to all women, to all people, everywhere.