Saturday, November 10, 2012

Okay, "turn the other cheek" makes no sense

He's my God, but he says some pretty weird things sometimes. Today we'll see what Jesus has to say about divorce, oaths, defending oneself, and loving one's enemies. Read it here: Matthew 5:31-48.


I'm kind of totally unqualified to write about divorce, so I will refer you to this blog post which is the best thing I've ever read about a biblical outlook on divorce.

And in this passage, Jesus says that divorce is only allowed in the case of "marital unfaithfulness". There are probably other legitimate reasons for divorce (like abuse) but Jesus' point is that it HAS TO BE really serious.

But I don't get this bit about "whoever marries the divorced woman commits adultery". Because God thinks she's still married to her ex-husband? God has to wake up to reality.

Seriously though, what's with that?


Jesus overturns the command about keeping one's oaths by saying "do not swear at all." In other words, you should be a trustworthy person all the time- it shouldn't be necessary to make some huge special oaths to show people you REALLY MEAN IT.

Image source.
He says "do not swear at all" but let's take that as a hyperbole. Sometimes for legal reasons there are oaths/contracts/whatever. That's fine.

"And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black." Wow that's interesting, why did he say white and black instead of all the other hair colors? Oh, maybe because THE MAJORITY OF THE WORLD has black hair. Jesus isn't talking to a bunch of white Americans.

"An eye for an eye"

Okay this is the part where Jesus gets some really bizarre ideas. "Do not resist an evil person." He tells us that we're NOT supposed to think in terms of "an eye for an eye" but instead let people take advantage of us. He gives three examples: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles."

(The "one mile"/"two miles" thing is apparently referring to how a Roman soldier could legally force a Jew to carry his soldier's pack for one mile.)

In other words, if someone hurts you, don't defend yourself. Instead, allow them to hurt you a second time.

OKAY, THAT MAKES NO SENSE. Are we all in agreement that this makes no sense? Just LET PEOPLE take advantage of you?

Some possible answers to this nonsense:

1. Jesus did that.

Ah, yes, we can point to Jesus' death and how he let it happen, he let them insult him, beat him up, crucify him. He didn't defend himself. Indeed. But that was just one time. (Okay, it was the most important event in the history of the world, but bear with me here.)

In general, Jesus DIDN'T let people walk all over him. He had some strong and controversial opinions, and he wasn't afraid to say so. He called the Pharisees out for being hypocrites, many times. When they tried to ask him trick questions and make him look bad, he didn't fall for it. When they accused him of hanging out with "sinners", he had a few things to say about that.

Even in his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, he was really the one in control. It was all part of the plan. Jesus did NOT let people push him around. He knew what his mission was, and he did it.

So when Jesus submitted to unjust treatment, it was because it served a purpose. In the case of other leaders who advocated civil disobedience instead of violence, like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi, it also served a purpose. They let people mistreat them in order to prove a point, in order to send a message. It was part of a strategy to advance justice.

2. Jesus is only talking about revenge here, not justice.

Perhaps he's saying it's not worth it to get into little fights all the time. It's not worth it to try and get revenge on someone. That just escalates the situation.

Don't take revenge into your own hands. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't do ANYTHING to address the problem. Talk to the authorities, go through the proper channels, whatever.

So if someone is mistreating you, you don't have to fight back every time. On a small scale. But that doesn't mean we mustn't fight against oppressive systems and widespread injustice. That doesn't mean we should never confront an evil person and get them put in jail.

But here's the thing...

Yes, that all makes sense, about a difference between revenge and justice, about fighting back against every little offense vs working to change an unjust system. That's great. But then I read the passage again and that's not what Jesus says. He doesn't say anything at all about "a difference between revenge and justice." He just talks about submitting and letting people walk all over you.

So I don't know what to do with this passage. When I extract some of the ideas, I can come to conclusions that sound good and profound, but that's not what Jesus said.

When you read this, it sounds shocking and radical, and I think it's meant to sound that way. But then if you question and rationalize and come to a point where it kind of makes sense- "oh, he's ACTUALLY saying ..."- then it sounds reasonable and not shocking. If he actually meant the reasonable thing, why did he say this totally ridiculous thing?

Basically, if I come up with an answer and say "oh, that makes sense" then I must have missed the point of the passage. To be honest, the only thing I can think of to make sense of this is to obey it and see what happens.

So... I guess I'll... do that, then.

Moving along:

Love your enemies

Jesus tells us to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." He gives 2 reasons for this: First of all, God does it. God gives everyone sun and rain, regardless of whether they're good people. Second, if you only love those who love you, well, any loser can do that. That's easy. You gotta go above and beyond, and love your enemies.

This is definitely hard- wishing for good things for those who mistreat you. Forgiving them, instead of raging about it in your head. It's hard, but at least I understand it and agree with it, unlike that "turn the other cheek" stuff.

"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

This whole passage (as well as last week's) has been about Jesus' very high standards. This last line basically sums it up- Be perfect, like God.

It's an impossible standard, no question. This is what we should aim for, but obviously we're not perfect, so thank God for his mercy. A lot of people read this and feel guilty about not being perfect- I don't think Jesus just wants to make us feel terrible, I think he is showing that nobody can truly follow the law (and the meaning behind the law), so we need God's mercy.

Summary/ take-home message:

Jesus and his high standards. He says that divorce is a lot more serious than most people think, taking oaths shouldn't be a thing because you should just ALWAYS be trustworthy, and then this bizarre advice about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies. 

The reason for this high standard is revealed at the end: We are following God's example. 


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: In which Jesus tells you to cut off your hand (Matthew 5:21-30)

Next post: Jesus' Guide to Getting Rewards for Your Good Deeds  (Matthew 6:1-18)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.


  1. The "turn the other cheek" teaching makes a lot more sense when the cultural context is understood. Theologian Walter Wink has done an excellent job of explaining this.

  2. A few more thoughts: It's my understanding that Ancient Near East peoples did not conceive of the word "perfect" as we do. They had no word that meant "completely flawless." "Perfect" meant "whole and complete." Jesus was not saying we had to be in a state of moral flawlessness like God. He was saying we needed to wholly and completely love-- to be complete in love. Partial love is only loving your friends. Complete love is loving even your enemies. Love is the context of "be ye perfect," and love was what Jesus was talking about.

    Also, with regards to the question of why a man who married a divorced woman caused her to commit adultery-- Jesus was saying that an "any cause" divorce was not a valid divorce, and therefore a person who was divorced for "any cause" was still married in God's eyes. My blog post which you have linked above explains more about "any cause" divorce, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the term.

  3. This is really interesting- I had never heard that before. According to that link, Jesus is saying that by making yourself MORE vulnerable, you're calling their bluff, you're taking away their dignity and exposing their oppression. So Jesus is teaching how to gain the power in a situation where you are being mistreated.

    I'm skeptical because I've never heard this idea before, and it just makes so much sense- which is totally not the impression I get from just reading the passage. (Are we just making something up because what the passage explicitly said was just way too weird?) But maybe it's true. I guess it fits with the Beatitudes, about how the more weak and vulnerable people are the ones with the real power. And the idea of overturning and exposing corrupt systems through grace seems like the kind of thing Jesus would be into. Hmm.

  4. So you're saying that Jesus is talking about having an attitude of compassion, being the kind of person who is merciful and generous, instead of always fighting and defending ourselves. He's describing the type of person you should be, rather than giving laws to be taken literally. And it's "radical" not because he gives us such extreme examples, but because having that much compassion for our enemies is radical. Hmm. Maybe that's right.

    As for justice and revenge, I think Jesus DEFINITELY wants us to bring justice. I don't mean try to punish people ourselves, taking things into our own hands- I mean fighting against oppressive systems (poverty, racism, human trafficking, etc). In Luke 4 Jesus preaches "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Justice is one of the most important parts of Jesus' mission.

    Thanks for commenting- I find that blogging about the bible brings up a lot of challenging questions and things I don't understand, and I'm happy to hear other people's input. :)

  5. Perfectnumber, you wrote:

    I'm skeptical because I've never heard this idea before, and it just makes so much sense- which is totally not the impression I get from just reading the passage. (Are we just making something up because what the passage explicitly said was just way too weird?)

    I think the reason it seems odd and out-there is that in our modern, individualistic Western world, we often miss that the Ancient Near East's social structure was an "honor-shame" culture, as defined very well in this Intervarsity Press online article:

    Jesus' advice regarding turning the other cheek and going the extra mile seem illogical from our point of view because most of what we do is done in private. But almost everything people in the cultures of the Bible did, was a public act-- and was consequently judged by the public. The article I have linked describes it this way:

    The focus of ancient people on honor and dishonor or shame means that they were particularly oriented toward the approval and disapproval of others. This orientation meant that individuals were likely to strive to embody the qualities and to perform the behaviors that the group held to be honorable and to avoid those acts that brought reproach and caused a person’s estimation in the eyes of others to drop. As a group discovered and defined those qualities that it needed its members to display in order for the group to survive, the desire to be honored would ensure that the members would all do their part to promote the health and survival of the group.

    In that context, when someone struck another on the cheek, they were setting up an honor-shame riposte:

    The challenge-riposte is essentially an attempt to gain honor at someone else’s expense by publicly posing a challenge that cannot be answered. When a challenge has been posed, the challenged must make some sort of response (and no response is also considered a response). It falls to the bystanders to decide whether or not the challenged person successfully defended his (and, indeed, usually “his”) own honor.

    When you shamed someone by striking them with the back of your right hand-- if they then turned their cheek so that if you hit them again you'd have to use your (shameful) left hand, then they had turned the shame back on you. This would not work in our day, but it was a very effective form of passive resistance back then-- and it is still understood as such today in honor-shame cultures. Ghandi, coming from an honor-shame culture himself, understood exactly what Jesus was doing and incorporated His teachings into the non-violent Indian resistance he led so successfully.

  6. Well thank you for blogging! I have been a reader of your blog a while now, I've even shared some of your entries to other people who really appreciated reading it.

    I think the bottom line for me is that compassion in all things is the way to go. Whether it be positive dog training, to our jail systems, to everyday life. I think compassion calls us to be intellectuals rather than fighters. Outwit the enemy with better alternatives, solutions, advocacy- without force, pride, or anger. It's to stand firmly, not taking things personal, seeing the world in 'compassion' lens, and letting go of our personal dangerous pride for the good of others/the world.

  7. Most of the time, scripture shouldn't be taken as literally as a rock. 1) It was written by men although inspired by God. 2) It has been translated so many times. I try to just think, "Well, I have the Holy Spirit in my heart and I know right from wrong so......I'll just do what feels right." I trust myself and God and my knowledge and wisdom enough to make my own conclusions about scripture. That's basically how I approach these types of things.