“Turn the other cheek.” “Go the extra mile.” These are axioms that you have heard and probably even used. But I suspect many people would have no idea they are quotes from Jesus. Even within church circles I don’t think there is a widespread understanding of what Jesus was really teaching. In part it’s because these teachings were culturally based examples of how to live out the foundational teaching of “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
(I am indebted to one of my favorite College Profs, Werner Waitkus for opening up these cultural insights for me a long time ago. Thank you sir!)
In the Matthew 5 account, Jesus gives us three of these examples. Each of them were situations where someone was oppressing or unfairly treating another, robbing them of their dignity. Jesus demonstrated how to respond non-violently yet still retain dignity, not allowing the oppressor to just “walk all over you.”
The first is “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (verse 39) Pictured here is a slap, which was always done with the right hand as the left hand was used for, uh, less hygienic tasks. So the right hand slapping the left cheek would be a backhanded slap imposing an indignity. But if the “slappee” turns the other cheek the “slapper” has one of two choices:
- He could slap the left cheek but to do so would require an open handed slap which would indicate the one he is slapping is his equal. Or
- He could choose not to slap which forces him to back down, again acknowledging the other as his equal.
The second example is verse 40. “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” This references an Old Testament commandment that stipulated a person could not hold another’s cloak as security for a loan overnight because it was his only covering for warmth at night. Unscrupulous lenders would get around this by demanding a person’s tunic, the undergarment. But if the indebted person offered his cloak as well he would either force the lender to cause the borrower to be publicly naked, which in that culture brought shame on the person causing the nakedness, or the lender would be forced to deal fairly and take only the cloak.
Finally verse 41. “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” Roman soldiers could force any non-Roman citizen to carry his pack for one mile. But if after going one mile you, of your own will, choose to carry the pack a second mile, the soldier becomes indebted to you and thereby your dignity is regained.
Our challenge now is to take Jesus’ teaching of “love your enemy” and find ways of applying it in our own culture and situations of oppression and unfair treatment.