Toorak Uniting Church

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Turn the other cheek

Rev. Ken Gilson
Matthew 5: 38 – 42
20 February 2011

You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth"
"Do not resist an evil doer". But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also thee second mile.

This is perhaps the most unpopular text, concerning forgiveness, in scripture.

In this text Jesus seem to be saying forgiveness means letting yourself be hit on both cheeks rather than one and not only allowing your coat to be taken but also your "chito" cloak, which was a persons underwear. Obeying this seems a sure-fire way to end up being a passive doormat that anyone can trample on.

This seems to go against all the studies in psychology and counselling, which tells us that it is unhealthy to passively suffer abuse. Is this so?
First let us look at the word which is translated ‘resist’.
The Greek word means to use force, as in one army against another.
Is Jesus is saying, don’t use this kind of force.
Keeping this in mind I turn to the scholar Dr Walter Wink. In his book Engaging the Powers by exploring the illustrations that Jesus gives, he gives us understanding of Jesus’ words, probably the opposite of what we have usually thought.

Walter tells us, that in fact Jesus is telling us to actively resisting evil, but in ways that maintain our dignity and invites the person who hurts us to recall his or her own dignity.

Let’s explore what Wink believes Jesus is telling us in his first illustration, when he says.
"If anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also".
Why the right cheek? Imagine you are a poor slave in ancient Palestine and you master is facing you and strikes you. He cannot use his left hand for that is used exclusively for unclean tasks. Therefore he must strike with his right hand. He cannot strike you with his fist or with his open hand for that would require him to contort or twist his arm.
Also in the culture of Jesus day to strike with the fist or open hand was something a person would only do to a person of equal status.
Therefore in order to strike you, he must uses the back of his hand.
Now to strike a person with the back of your hand was a gesture that had a very specific meaning. It was used only by a person in a more powerful position to humiliate a person of less power; master would back hand slaves; Romans backhanded Jews , husbands their wives or children.
The message was "Remember your place. .. beneath me!."
Now if you turned your left cheek (the other) the master must still use his right hand, but now he cannot back hand you. If he is to hit you he must hit you with his fist or open hand making you his equal.
Thus by turning your other cheek you are not only reclaiming your dignity, by refusing to be humiliated, you are also inviting the master to reclaim his true dignity, by examining the lie by which he lives, that one person is better than any other. And you have done all this NON-VIOLENTLY, without striking back.

Jesus is inviting us to extend two hands, of nonviolence and forgiveness.
The one hand takes from the oppressor what is not his due, ‘you cannot humiliate me by backhanding me!
The second hand of forgiveness slowly calms the oppressor, it invites him to a moment of reflection, to be aware that oppressing others is ultimately futile, and degrades oneself as well as one’s victim.
With the second you cannot always offer friendship, since there are situations in which it would not be safe to do so. But we can always offer our oppressor our wish for his or her highest good. To seek someone’s highest good is what it means to LOVE someone; even our enemy.

Two hands of non violence and forgiveness are the way to love, those who seek to hurt us, and our selves as well. Used rightly, they free us from passivity in the face of abuse, and offer our oppressor the freedom from his our abusive behaviour.

Let me give an illustration from family life.
Six year old Kyle had agreed with Diane, his mother, that he would set the table each night for dinner at 6.00pm. Two evenings in a row he didn’t set the table. Each time Diane discussed the matter with Kyle calmly and quietly. On the third night at 6.15 pm the table was still not set. Kyle’s sister and father were both hungry and impatiently offered to set it. Diane said, "If you help Kyle by letting him take advantage of us, you won’t really help him or us." Diane cheerfully asked the family to sit down at the table. She brought in a pot of spaghetti and sauce and plopped some down on the wooden table in front of each person. She then pilled salad on top of that. Maintaining a calm, friendly and non-shaming attitude, Diane finally brought in frozen yogurt dessert and put some on each pile. As Kyle had to eat his food with-out plates or knives and forks, he experienced the logical consequences of his failure to set the table. From then on, Kyle set the table.

Jesus invites us to find inventive, none violent ways of dealing with those who seek to hurt us. If we had time, I could share with you numbers of other example.
You can find them in a little Book entitled "Don’t Forgive Too Soon" by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn - printed by Paulist Press. $29.95.

In the last week, we have seen, on the world stage, the power of none violent action in Egypt, to being down a corrupt dynasty. In India the none violent action lead by Mahatma Gandhi brought about Independence. In Poland it was the action of a singer at a national festival who chose to sing a forbidden polish folk song as an encore, that began a revolution that brought about the beginning of the crumbling of the Socialist Republic. In the USA it was the nonviolent action of one woman which sparked the beginning of the end of segregation of black and white people. I am reminded of the song which says it "only takes a spake to set the fire burning".
Jesus calls us in every area of our lives, personal, family, community, national and international, to seek creative non-violent ways of standing, alone and together with others, against anything that seeks to hurt and destroy life. He calls us to seek the highest Good for ourselves and for every other person. He is inviting us to find creative ways of humbly maintaining our own dignity and offering to others the opportunity to regain their own true dignity, as equal human beings, so that together, we may share that life which makes us all strong, and enables us to live in true peace with one another.

May these thoughts strengthen you. In the name of the Father Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

© Rev. Ken Gilson, 2011

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