Week 6 - Learning to bless those who curse us
Read: Matthew 5:1-12, 33-37
So far we have explored the awful reality of the opposite to the Good and Beautiful life as described by Paul in Romans 1:18-32. We’ve looked closely at the good news that Jesus proclaimed and noted the centrality of the kingdom of God in the Gospel message, and we've thought about the grand invitation that Christ issues to enter this way of life in the here and now.
In this session we’re thinking about the third of a number of very practical ways in which we can live the good and beautiful life as we engage with the daily challenge of blessing those who do the very opposite to us.
‘If someone hits you – hit back harder’ – It’s a common narrative of our world and one that we see played out time and time again in our own country and across the wider world. Tit-for-tat gang violence in some of the UK’s larger cities, the continual escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the revenge driven violence of the protesters and states involved in the Arab Spring uprisings. The outworking of the maxim is everywhere.
But it’s not just on the international stage that the motto can be heard. I’m sure many of us have memories of the same thing playing itself out at school – I certainly do – ‘if a bully punches you punch him harder’ was a core part of my playground philosophy!
When faced with injustice, whether it be public shaming, unfair treatment or intentional harm, the natural reaction is to demand ‘an eye for an eye’. But as Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Reflect – to what degree does this principle inform your day to day actions and life? Are you aware of its influence in certain ways? Perhaps as you respond to injustice done to you?
Individuals and nations…
It’s worth mentioning at this point that there is a difference between individuals and nations when it comes to the ideas that we’re discussing. An individual Christian who has been harmed is able, and called, to turn the other cheek, to go beyond the exact and limited retribution principle of ‘an eye for an eye’.
When it comes to nation states however, things become more complex. Often Jesus words are taken as condoning pacifism on a national level, but this I think misses the point and over-simplifies the matter. For example, if a state were to ignore a threat to its population and fail to respond to aggression or attack, it would be guilty of the most awful neglect in its duty of care to its citizens. Turning the other cheek in a time of war or international aggression can clearly be wrong and a failure of the state to wield the sword of justice, which in Paul’s theology of government, is its chief task.
So, in this session we will explore the idea of learning to bless those who curse us from a personal perspective and not touch on matters of international or inter-state ‘cursing’ and blessing.
Reflect – How do you feel about the idea that a different guiding principle applies to individuals and governments? Does this sit easily with you or not?
The narrative of Lex talionis…
The law of ‘an eye for an eye’ found in the Old Testament is the law of Lex talionis or as it’s more commonly known, the law of reciprocity. It’s a concept that most of us will be familiar with, and a concept that still dominates much middle eastern law today. Lex talionis states that if a person harms another, exactly what the victim has suffered can be inflicted on the perpetrator. There was a recent case in Iran where a man had blinded a young woman because she refused to marry him. The courts found the man guilty and his punishment was to be blinded and to suffer as his victim suffers.
This legal principle is written across the pages of the Old Testament – see Leviticus 24:19-20 for another example. In many respects the law of reciprocity is very good. Human beings have a natural tendency, when angered or hurt, to want revenge rather than justice. Revenge means taking back more from a person that they have taken from you, whereas justice means having what was lost restored. Lex talionis therefore ensured that within the law there was no room for revenge. If someone stole your cow, you were entitled to take a cow back, but you were not entitled to take a cow, chickens, and a donkey. An eye for an eye, or a cow for a cow etc etc…
The Jesus way…
Against this backdrop Jesus speaks some deeply challenging words in this latest section of the sermon on the mount. Jesus says ‘although in many respects Lex talionis is good, and just, there is a higher way to live than this – a kingdom way’. He wants kingdom people to realize that when on the receiving end of injustice or anger, or humiliation, when we’re entitled to enact the law of reciprocity, we have another choice.
Again, it’s important to note at this point that Jesus is not calling his people to be passive victims of abuse – such a reading of the passage does a great deal of harm. There is nothing holy or righteous about passively accepting abuse or injustice, which is why in this passage Jesus offers a means of response which directly challenges abuse and humiliation and injustice, rather than calling individuals to simply accept it and ignore it.
3 examples – what do they mean for us?
So, Jesus talks about 4 situations in which his hearers might find themselves on the receiving end of injustice and abuse, and one by one he speaks about a kingdom response which not only challenges and resists the injustice and abuse, but also brings the grace and peace of the kingdom reality to bear.
1 – Someone attacks or insults us:
“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” – v39.
In Jesus day it was common to see a master slapping a slave. A master could treat a slave any way he or she wanted. The slave was powerless to respond because a person could never slap someone of higher social standing. In the ancient near East the left hand was never used for hitting or slapping, and so a slap was directed (with the back of the hand) onto the right cheek. Naturally, when slapped, a slave, being powerless to respond would submit and the pattern of abuse was allowed to continue – if the slave slapped the person back they would be tried and punished.
So, Jesus offers another idea – ‘if you’re slapped on the right cheek, offer the left cheek too’. If the left cheek is offered, the slap must be delivered with the back of the left hand – something socially unacceptable in Jesus day. And so the abuser is left with a difficult decision. Do they break custom and convention and do something socially un-acceptable, or do they withdraw and in doing submit to a higher authority themselves?
Jesus is rather clever…the abuser would have to think carefully about their response, and perhaps in so doing reconsider and be reminded of a great truth, that all are under authority of one kind or another. The path that Jesus offers is a path of non-violence, but it’s a path of resistance to abuse all the same, and a kingdom principle that helps guide the way we react to other people. It’s deeply subversive.
2 – Someone sues us for what is rightfully theirs:
‘If anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, give your cloak as well’ – v40
Its worth noting that a better translation of Jesus words is ‘…and take your tunic…’ rather than ‘…and take you coat…’ and the translation is rather important for the meaning of the passage.
In Jesus day the poor were common place. Many were so poor that they possessed nothing more than the clothes they stood in. For these people, the only way to access money was to put their tunic down as collateral on a loan. The tunic was the garment most commonly offered as collateral, it was a garment worn under the cloak, against the skin. In Jesus day the poor (who often borrowed money) were at the mercy of the rich (who often leant money) and the loan could be called in at any point. If the borrower could not repay the loan when required the tunic could be demanded from them. This ensured that the borrower could repay what they owed. Positively it also ensured that the borrower would not be left without a garment, their outer cloak would still be theirs, and this was vitally important as the cloak also doubled up as a blanket in which to sleep. But negatively the arrangement allowed an injustice to continue.
The injustice was simple – the poor were totally at the mercy of the rich. If a loan were called in then it had to be repaid. It could be called in earlier than agreed for no more reason than the whim of the lender. Because the tunic put up as collateral was not visible, if the loan were demanded the injustice could be perpetuated without it being widely known. No-one need know that an under-garment had been taken, and the lender would suffer no shame if it were taken unfairly even if rightfully theirs. However if the outer cloak were given away too the injustice would be clear to see, the lenders brutality would be demonstrated in the borrowers nakedness!
So says Jesus, if someone takes your tunic and it’s unjust, if the loan has been called in on a whim, and no grace is offered, then give up your outer garment too – expose the injustice as it were! It would of course also be illegal for the borrower to accept as the Law of the Jews prohibited the taking of another persons cloak (Exodus22:25-27).
Once again, non-violent kingdom behaviour that simultaneously challenges injustice and abuse, and brings the kingdom principle of love for enemy into play.
3 – Someone imposes on us:
‘If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile’ – v41
We’re all familiar with the fact that in Jesus time a Roman soldier could order a Jew to carry his kit for up to one mile. Being less than fond of the occupying Roman forces, no Jew would willingly carry a soldiers kit for a mile, and so as Jesus notes Jews were forced to do so.
Jesus words in this situation present us with a deep challenge. When forced, against our will to do something (in this case help a Roman soldier) that we don’t want to do we have two choices. To go the mile and not a step further drop the bag at the moment the mile is reached and grudgingly walk off muttering in the other direction…or…to do the unthinkable – to continue beyond the mile and walk another mile, without muttering, without grudge, but with love and joy. This says Jesus is the kingdom way of responding to those who impose on us.
Reflect: Here we have 3 examples of situations in which Jesus’ hearers may have found themselves. Each situation featured some kind of abuse or injustice, and each situation had a carefully prescribed response in the Law of the Jews that allowed for a tightly limited and grudging righteousness. Jesus asks us to move to a better place. A way of living that goes beyond getting our exact retribution and a way of life that goes beyond doing the minimum for those at whose hands we suffer injustice. A way of life that allows us to bless those who curse us. He reminds us that in living the kingdom way, not only do we meet hatred with love, and anger with peace, but in so doing we challenge the injustice and abuse that stands at the heart of so many of our problems. Blessing those who curse us is good for us, good for them, and good for the world.
Jesus did the very same thing he asks his followers to do as he perfectly demonstrated the kingdom life. He was spat on, abused, and beaten, yet he did not retaliate with violence. He loved those who hated him, and forgave those who persecuted and executed him. In these things, in calling us to live this life, Jesus does not ask us to do anything that he himself was not willing to do. He invites us into a way of living that transcends the normal course of action.
“Jesus chose the way of the cross as the clearest expression of how God confronts and deals with human evil, not by responding in kind, giving evil for evil, but by extending self giving, non-resistant love.”
Each time we curse our enemies we are affirming our faith in the narratives of the life without God. When we retaliate we are operating by the narratives of the kingdom of this world. Listen to Jesus words as we close:
“You have heard it said ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Matthew5:43ff