What would you do if someone slapped you in the face?
Would you turn the other cheek? Would you open yourself up for another attack?
What about self-defense? What if your family is in danger?
How on earth can we take Jesus seriously in our reading today when he tells us to “turn the other cheek?”
Let me say upfront that I don’t think Jesus is instructing us to welcome or invite abuse upon ourselves. There will be times to fight back and defend ourselves or our family from those who try to hurt us. There will be times to stand up for ourselves and our livelihood. We certainly shouldn’t let someone deprive us of our ability to care for those we love. The law and the courts exist for this purpose.
But I don’t think Jesus is talking about situations that are life-threatening or require immediate action. He doesn’t say anything about someone coming at you with a sword or a gun or a fist. He doesn’t refer to war. He doesn’t mention situations where someone might swindle or scam us out of money. He doesn’t say anything about tolerating abuse.
Instead, Jesus uses the word slap.
“If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
A slap to the face stings, yes, but it’s not life threatening. Mostly, it just hurts our pride and makes us angry. Pride and anger typically lead to sinful behavior. Indeed, nothing gets the blood boiling faster than for someone to haul off and slap you across the face. It’s the ultimate insult. It makes you want to punch the guy.
So why would Jesus want us to let it go?
Furthermore, if He wants us to tolerate a slap across the face–the ultimate insult–then what about all the other types of insults we endure from others– the snarky text message or the rude comment that someone makes as we pass them in the hallway? I guess we have to let those go, as well. Why?
Then, of course, Jesus also mentions giving our tunic to the one who takes our coat and going the extra mile and giving and not refusing those who beg or borrow. But again, why?
The answer could be as simple as this is what it means to be “poor in spirit” and “meek” and so forth–everything Jesus mentions in the beatitudes. In fact, I’m sure that’s a big part of the reason. But there’s also the fact that when Christians slap back, or take extreme legal action against petty theft, or when they refuse to give to those who beg and borrow or go an extra mile with difficult people, it never look good for the Christian. The optics of it are terrible. Such petty behavior never comes across as godly.
Even though the worldly ways of handling insult is to fight fire with fire, when the Christian fights back against mudslinging, slaps in the face and stolen tunics, the rest of the world will always be a little scandalized and wonder why. They’ll ask, “Shouldn’t Christians be more forgiving… more compassionate… more loving?”
It’s not fair for us to have to live with this double standard, but there’s no getting around it. This is just the way it is in a sinful world–the followers of Christ are always going to have to go the extra mile to show the world who we are in Christ, and sometimes it’s just going to be better to let insults or offenses go lest the world see the people of God as unforgiving, stingy, uncaring and uncompassionate. Doing so will always be inconvenient but it will never be as costly as trying to rebuild a Christian reputation.
Of course, in it’s original context, Jesus teaching might have seemed a little crazy. From what I’ve read, In the first century, a Roman soldier could actually legally force a Jewish person to carry a load for one mile. Wouldn’t you just love that? There you are working in your field or your shop, minding your own business, when suddenly you feel the point of a Roman spear in the middle of your back, and a soldier says, “Come on. I want you to carry this for me.” How unfair!
You’d have no choice but to acquiesce. According to Roman law you’d have to stop what you’re doing and carry it one mile and then walk the mile back to where you started from. Yet, what Jesus says seems even more inconvenient. He says, “Carry that load one mile, and then when you get to the end of that mile, turn to the soldier and say, ‘Do you mind if I carry this for you another mile?’”
In other words, I think Jesus would want us to shock the sandals right off the guy so that he might see a kind of person that he’s never seen before–someone who thinks more of others than they think of themselves, someone who is willing to go above and beyond the call of duty, someone who is willing to go the extra mile when it comes to helping and serving their fellow man, no matter how inconvenient such action might be.
You see, the world we live in is very accustomed to seeing people fight it out, even over the slightest insult. The world we live won’t bat an eye when people stand up for their rights and pitch a fit when they don’t get their fair share. The world we live in fully expects people to look after their own needs first and others second. But what the world can’t get used to is people behaving as Jesus describes in our reading today.
It makes me think of the story of Dan Mazur.
It was the morning of May 26, 2006. Conditions were absolutely perfect, even at 28,000 feet above sea level. Dan Mazur was leading a team of climbers on a planned ascent up the north ridge of Mount Everest to its summit. The team was feeling strong and healthy and thoroughly optimistic. This had been a dream of Dan’s since he was a boy, and now there he was, within 1000 feet of the summit. No winds, no clouds. It was a dream come true.
But then they discovered something that was terribly inconvenient.
Up ahead and off to the side of their path, was a man who was sitting on the edge of a 10,000 foot drop. His coat was off and tied around his waist. His gloves and thermal hat were thrown on the snow. He had his arms stretched out like he was flying. His name was Lincoln Hall, an Australian climber who had been reported missing the day before. He was obviously hallucinating (he thought he was on a sailboat) and experiencing extreme symptoms of hypothermia, edema, and dehydration. He didn’t respond to any of the offers of help from Mazur and his team. He was without any of the proper equipment for survival in such conditions. He was as good as dead.
Apparently, Mr. Hall had collapsed the previous day on his way down from the summit. His team assumed he was too close to death to bother trying to help him and so they just left him there to die. In fact, the team leader had actually gone so far as to call Mr. Hall’s wife to tell her that Hall was dead! Obviously, he wasn’t! And so, without any real deliberation, Mazur and his team quickly gave up their ascent to the summit and went to work trying to save a man whom others had given up on.
Now the North Ridge is a very inhospitable place. Besides being at 28,000 feet, it is located along a severe ridgeline, dropping off 10,000 feet to one side and 7,000 feet to the other. Oxygen and proper equipment are virtually essential to survival. So, Mazur’s team anchored Hall to the mountain, replaced the hat, jacket and gloves he had discarded, and gave him their own oxygen, food and water. They stayed four hours to care for Mr. Hall, even though it meant completely forfeiting the chance of getting to the summit of Mt. Everest. These men sacrificed a lifetime dream and risked their own lives to save Lincoln Hall. Clearly, they went the extra mile.
I think that’s what Jesus wants every Christian to be like. Our story may not be as remarkable, but when we offer the other cheek, or give our tunic to the one who takes our coat, or when we go the extra mile and give recklessly to those who beg or borrow, people will notice and then they will wonder why?
I think that’s the point!
Besides, Jesus is most definitely the one who went the extra mile to save as-good-as-dead people like us, despite all the offense we cause Him because of our sin and disobedience. He turned the other cheek and received the mocking and reviling of those who crucified Him. He let soldiers nail His hands to the cross, even as He begged God to forgive them. And all we can do is wonder why?