Tuesday, December 13, 2005

On "turning the other cheek", etc.

For anyone who hasn't seen this explanation before. This version in particular is from a Unitarian Universalist minister's sermon, Jesus speaks to UUs:

He says, "to those who smite you on the one cheek offer also the other; And those that take away your cloak forbid not to take your coat also." But contained within these humble sentences is something far more radical than goodness or patience – a recognition that we love our enemies not only by making them our friends, but also by helping them understand when they do wrong.

Where do I see this in the sermon on the plain? When Jesus says that famous phrase, "turn the other cheek," he is not being humble, as is the usual interpretation. In fact, according to recent scholarship, he is being defiant. In the ancient world, those who smote others were usually superiors, who would give the inferior a right-handed slap across the left cheek. The left hand was considered dirty and profane, and not to be used for much beyond toileting. Therefore, to turn the other cheek meant to invite one's oppressor to profane himself by having to smite us with his left hand. It sounds small to us, but it was a radical, eye-opening act – an act of love for our enemy designed to wake him up to his own sin.

Similarly, in the ancient world, one's clothing was a basic unit of security. A cloak doubled as a blanket, as shelter from fierce cold and heat. To take a man's cloak was to rob him of his dignity, perhaps even his life. It was indecent. Thus, the act of inviting one's oppressor to take not only our cloak, but also the coat beneath it, invites him to see the profanity of his act, and therefore gives him the opportunity to change. (These insights are, to the best of my memory, from L. William Countryman’s Dirt, Greed and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today and conversations with Darryl Schmidt, the Jesus Seminar scholar who was my “New Testament” professor in seminary.)