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Turning the Other Cheek (and Other Ridiculous Proposals)

February 21, 2011

“Turning the Other Cheek (and Other Ridiculous Proposals)” Matthew 5:38-48 © 2/20/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I never saw The Godfather, so the first time I heard that saying was in Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There the villain calls it “an old Klingon proverb” and adds with a sneer “It is very cold in space.” Indeed, Klingon culture as represented in Star Trek approved heartily of revenge, regarding the exacting of it as a matter of honor and right. But the actual story of the proverb is not quite as colorful.

The original version was first found in a French novel from 1841 and is translated as “Revenge is very good eaten cold,” “la vengeance se mange très-bien froid.” In popular usage, it came to mean that revenge is most satisfying after being planned for a long time and exacted in an unexpected way. The one wronged nurses the hurt and lets the desire for vengeance sustain him or her until the act is carried out dispassionately.

If you’ve seen the wonderful classic adventure movie The Princess Bride, you know that one of its themes is revenge. Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, has for years been seeking the man who killed his father. He knows just what he will say when he finds the killer. He practices hours and hours with a sword. Revenge has not paid the bills, but it has kept him going on the as-yet fruitless search. Just before he runs the man through, Montoya will greet him with this: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Presumably this will strike fear in the heart of the murderer and seeing such terror will give Montoya satisfaction.

We understand that movie character and anyone else who longs for revenge for some wrong done. We have soaked up the spirit of the age; our culture and so many others are based in retaliation and violent revenge or at least vengeful litigation. Here are two other common and well-regarded sayings: “I don’t get mad; I get even” and “I give as good as I get.” In public, we may say we are shocked when people get back at each other, maybe in some violent way. But who of us can really say his or her heart hasn’t been full of the desire for revenge at one time or another? I certainly can’t. Isn’t there some harm, perhaps harm that can’t be undone or repaired, some wrong that has been done to you or me or a loved one or our country that makes our blood boil? Haven’t we been angry enough at someone that we wished them physical harm, even death? Or at least humiliation, insult, loss of power, prestige, respect? When we have heard of some tragedy like divorce, illness, car wreck, defeat, grief befalling an enemy whose goal has been to ruin our lives, haven’t we wanted to do a little dance and shout “Hallelujah! They finally got what they deserved!” “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” and I bet a lot of us like frozen treats.

But in our glee, Jesus comes meddling yet again. His specific target to start off is the so-called lex talionis, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The intent of that rule of ancient culture was to make sure that the punishment fit the crime and did not exceed reason. If someone took your eye, you or your family could not demand both of the perpetrator’s eyes in punishment; you were only entitled to one-to-one compensation. So the rule was meant to ensure fairness and to provide legal remedies that would forestall the cycle of revenge. By Jesus’ day, the principle had morphed into rules prescribing monetary compensation for an eye or a tooth. But it had also come to mean in popular imagination the exact opposite of what it originally did. Now it was warrant for taking revenge, for retaliation. Strange how we can do that with the law or other rules. We humans can pervert any good intention, can’t we?

Let’s be clear. Our Lord is not against justice. What a crazy idea that would be, since the God of the Bible is consistently calling for justice, especially for the vulnerable and the poor. Our Lord is for justice. So he would counsel that the brutes who assaulted reporter Lara Logan in Egypt be found and held accountable or a parent who kills his or her children be sent to prison or that judge who got payoffs for putting kids in jail for minor offenses be punished appropriately.

Nor is Jesus setting out a political agenda, telling nations not to respond to attacks like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. Indeed, Jesus rarely, if ever, spoke about international politics. So what can we say? I’m not entirely sure, but I suspect our Lord would at least acknowledge that sometimes war or other violent action is necessary to protect the innocent, vulnerable, and powerless. But on the other hand, he said “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

What I’m certain Jesus is against is the constant cycle of revenge and retaliation that goes on and on and on until, as someone has put it, we are all toothless and blind. This is the disproportionate, hateful, unreasoned response which I call the “Lamech strategy.” Do you know that Old Testament character? He’s from Genesis, in which he makes a bragging speech to his wives: “‘I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’” (Genesis 4:23,24). Notice how lopsided his action was? Killing the man who merely wounded him. This is arrogance run amok, believing that the slightest action against your exalted person ought to be met by the death of the perpetrator. And of course, I suspect the man’s family went after Lamech, and the feud went on and on. Interesting that Jesus takes this calculus of revenge and turns it upside down, telling Peter to forgive not just seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22).

Specific details and context are always important in understanding Scripture, and this passage is no different. Jesus uses words here that had particular technical meanings in his day. The translation we heard has “Do not resist an evildoer.” But this is not a counsel to be passive. Better is “Do not take revenge against one who does you wrong” or even “Do not resist in an evil way.” The word is best understood, though, as referring to suing someone for damages for wrong done. It also has a military meaning: “Do not offer armed resistance.” Jesus is asking his followers to renounce the right to personal retaliation.

The church fathers told us that our Lord’s call does not preclude self-defense. And it does not mean a Christian cannot serve in the military. Augustine said that the evils in war were not so much death and destruction but rather “‘love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity… and the lust of power… (see Lisa Cahill, “Nonresistance…,” Interpretation, 10/1984: 384). Thomas Aquinas said that when we defend ourselves, we must do it not in “revengeful spite.” And he told us sometimes it’s necessary to fight for the common good.

No doubt there were plenty of people hearing our Lord that day who considered themselves fighting for the common good. Judah was occupied by Rome, and there were insurgents who resisted the Romans violently. Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot, later among Jesus’ disciples, were two such men. Our Lord deliberately seems out to antagonize these people.

One particularly irksome practice the Romans had, along with King Herod’s soldiers, was called “impressing.” No, that wasn’t about looking good, flashing cash or getting dates. “Impressing” meant that a soldier could make a civilian carry the soldier’s pack or the person’s cart or donkey could be taken for military use. Impressing was what happened when Simon of Cyrene was made to carry our Lord’s cross. Jesus uses the military term for such a practice. He also tells people to go not an extra stadion, which was the Greek term for a long distance, but a milion, the Latin, Roman unit. It’s a term for measurement that would have sounded foreign and reminded the crowd of the language spoken by the army.

The revolutionaries would have called him a traitor for such talk. How he ever got Judas and Simon on board is a mystery. But the revolution Jesus has in mind is much more radical that overthrowing an oppressor, as wonderful as such freedom is. He has in mind going beyond expectations of both neighbors and enemies. Radical, unexpected, incredibly gracious action. Like taking insults without responding in kind and even going beyond that to doing good to the one who insults you. That’s the meaning, I think, of turning the other cheek. Or giving up both your inner and outer garments and thus having literally nothing to wear. The coat or tunic in the text is equivalent to our “shirt,” except that it’s really closer to underwear. Think of the term “losing your shirt” in gambling or that T-Mobile commercial where the iPhone gives his shirt to AT&T, “paying more to be slower.” The cloak was the outer garment. These two pieces would be the only clothes someone owned.

What would others think about a person who in such ways went beyond what was demanded? Maybe they would think him or her a weakling. Or maybe they would consider such a one to have extraordinary courage and love.

Jesus is asking for a bold initiative beyond business as usual. Walter Wink calls it “the third way between passivity and violence.” We don’t have to be locked in to just the same old options. Jesus invites us to use our imagination, to act with courage, energy, and love. He asks for creative action that breaks the ever-escalating cycle of violence, abuse, and oppression. He tells us not to be baited by our enemies; he reminds us that when we are so drawn in, we become like the one intent on hurting us. Our Lord invites us to remember that we are free people, free to choose how we will respond to insults, hurt, and pain. He wants us to act positively, for good and healing and restoration.

It doesn’t take much courage, imagination or energy to do what everybody else is doing. Jesus wants his followers to stand out. If we love those who love us, greet those who greet us, what’s so special about that? Even the worst sort of person does the same.

Why should people be attracted to the Church if Christians are no different than anybody else? What’s compelling and inspiring and innovative about that? Presbyterian pastor Rick Carter cites a study by the Barna Group, which found that “‘American culture is driven by the snap judgments and decisions that people make amidst busy schedules and incomplete information. With little time or energy available for or devoted to research and reflection, it is people’s observations of the integration of a believer’s faith into how he/she responds to life’s opportunities and challenges that most substantially shape people’s impressions of and interest in Christianity.’”

He goes on: “So here is the challenge. We’re having trouble making our case in the public sphere because those outside the church can’t see that adopting Christian faith makes a difference in our lives or contributes to the well-being of the community.

“We are salt and we are light, Jesus tells us. So in a more skeptical environment, we have to find better ways to live up to and to demonstrate the new life in Christ that we cherish. Christians who rely on preaching and public relations to create a positive impression for their faith are missing the most effective way to influence others to follow Jesus, which is the modeling by believers of everyday faith and commitment” (http://rickcarter.wordpress.com/2011/02/13/we%e2%80%99re-having-trouble-making-our-case/).

One of the most courageous ways to model faith in our litigious, violent society is to refuse to take revenge. Indeed, that is the better part of wisdom given to us not just by Jesus, but by others. “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself” said the Chinese proverb. Churchill reminded us: “Nothing is more costly, nothing is more sterile, than vengeance.”

And remember the saying I shared at the beginning of this sermon? It originally meant that revenge ought not to be taken in the heat of the moment. Instead, we should wait and consider consequences and let wiser, cooler heads and hearts prevail. And then no doubt, we will not take revenge at all.

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

Note: for another perspective on this text, see my friend Jim Evans’ comments at http://www.ethicsdaily.com/love-your-enemy-what-was-jesus-thinking-cms-17478

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