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.

Job 14 – Truths vs. Greater Truths

Seeing the forest through the trees.

“Mortals, born of woman,
    are of few days and full of trouble.
They spring up like flowers and wither away;
    like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Do you fix your eye on them?
    Will you bring them before you for judgment?
Who can bring what is pure from the impure?
    No one!
A person’s days are determined;
    you have decreed the number of his months
    and have set limits he cannot exceed.
So look away from him and let him alone,
    till he has put in his time like a hired laborer.

“At least there is hope for a tree:
    If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
    and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
    and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
    and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
    he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
    or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
    till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
    or be roused from their sleep.

13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16 Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.

18 “But as a mountain erodes and crumbles
    and as a rock is moved from its place,
19 as water wears away stones
    and torrents wash away the soil,
    so you destroy a person’s hope.
20 You overpower them once for all, and they are gone;
    you change their countenance and send them away.
21 If their children are honored, they do not know it;
    if their offspring are brought low, they do not see it.
22 They feel but the pain of their own bodies
    and mourn only for themselves.”

There are some who think v. 12-14 are at the very least innocently mistranslated, but possibly even changed completely and intentionally, to more fully support the idea of resurrection.  Indeed, I got excited when I read that passage – “I will wait for my renewal to come.”  Isn’t that what we’re taught, as Christians, to wait for?  I mean, the return of Jesus is the renewal this whole Christian “thing” is all about, right?

So let’s say that this passage has been manipulated.  I can totally believe that: before they were codified into a collection we now call “the Bible,” these stories (especially a really old one like Job) were oral traditions that were retold and later written down in a centuries-long game of telephone, if you will, so things were bound to change, at least a little.  But does that mean we should totally scrap it?

In short, no.  But this is a good time to plug in a little reminder about reading the Bible in context, which can be easy to forget, especially in a project like this with a laser focus on one chapter at a time.  Is it true that the key passage of this chapter has been manipulated to fit an agenda?  Quite possibly yes.  But how does it, and this chapter at large, fit into the greater truths the Bible is trying to convey to us?

Taken as a whole, this chapter – and most of Job’s three-chapter speech here – aren’t really about renewal and allusions to resurrection, but about God’s infinite power and the insignificance of humans in the face of such an almighty force.  I think two verses from chapter 12 could serve as Job’s thesis in this three-chapter speech: “To God belong wisdom and power, counsel and understanding are his…to him belong strength and victory, both deceived and deceiver are his.” (13:13, 16)  So, even ignoring the potentially problematic passage, we have our first greater truth: God is great.

The second greater truth takes a little inference, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.  The second greater truth is that even though we are “like a fleeting shadow” in our mortality, we are important to God, God sees us.  In this chapter alone Job mentions God watching man three times: in vv. 3, 6, and 16.  In all of Job’s the chapters making up Job’s speeches so far, God watching man is mentioned nine, possibly ten times (in v. 7:8 he could be referring to his friends or to God when he says “you will look for me but I will be no more”).  True, it is mostly in a negative sense, more like a kid with a magnifying glass over an anthill than a beneficent Lord, but we must remember the place of pain and lack of understanding from which Job is speaking.  In fact, because of his suffering Job is extra important to God.  Remember, the cause of all this suffering was a wager between God and Satan – so Job’s actions through his suffering are of keen interest to the celestial court of this story, even if Job’s days are just as fleeting as the rest of ours.

So if God is great (Greater Truth One), why are we important to God (Greater Truth Two)?  I honestly don’t know.  But perhaps the key to that mystery lies in the Greatest Truth: that God is love.  We may not understand all of God’s ways, but even with all the suffering we see in Job, all the suffering we see in the world, we can know that we, our insignificant, flawed, mortal, fleeting selves, are important to a power much greater than our own.  God is watching us, all the time.  Xe sees our successes, and rejoices with us, Xe sees our failures, and mourns with us.  One, or even hundreds, of controversial translations in the Bible cannot dissuade me from that fact, because I can see the forest through the trees, or in this case the truth through the words, and it bears repeating one more time: God loves us. God loves you.  Praise be to God.

***

I’m going to switch gears here because we’ve reached a good stopping point in the cycle of speeches between Job and his friends. I’m setting aside the Book of Job until next Lent and reading Psalm 6 and Psalm 32 in the remaining time before Holy Week, which starts a week from today.  During Holy Week I’ll read corresponding Gospel passages, specifically Matthew 21, 26, and 27.  Then for Easter I’ll read Matthew 28, if you want are reading along (or ahead) as we go.