I mentioned in the previous article that we will be looking at different Bible verses/quotes that are often misunderstood or taken out of context. This article is no different, although instead of a single specific verse, we’ll be focusing more on small fragments within specific sections of Scripture and will consider their original meanings and contexts. These fragments include more popular phrases that have been embedded in our culture and are often spoken in our every-day conversations. Taken on their own, the phrases “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile” have developed meanings all of their own. Believe it or not, they both come from the same group of verses in the Bible. But what would they mean if we were to put them together and read them in their original context?
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” – Matthew 5:38-42 NIV
OUT OF CONTEXT MEANING
Because this issue’s “out of context verse” is really a pair of phrases in the same section, I will be looking at them individually for their out of context meaning, as both of these phrases have taken on slightly different meanings from one another.
Turn the other cheek…
Speaking as a Canadian, this can sometimes be seen as our general default mode of dealing with conflict–ignoring the hurt while pretending that everything is still alright. We present a polite, pleasant face to the world even though we may be seething inside; or we express our grievances to friends when the source of conflict is absent. Because of this, many of us, especially in the Canadian church culture, tend to feel uncomfortable with those who are more direct or abrasive when it comes to dealing with conflict. We tend to label this practice of “pretending everything is alright” as forgiveness or “turning the other cheek,” and those who do not pretend as we do, we tend to see as rude, mean or judgmental. It is for this reason that Canadians are viewed worldwide as being generally “nice”.
Go the extra mile…
This is used when referring to someone who puts in extra effort in a project that they are doing, whether for school or for work. Like the other phrase in this passage, there is a tendency to label the person who does this as being generally a “nice” person, although it could also be used as a label for a perfectionist who wants credit for doing the extra work that goes over and beyond the expectations of the teacher/employer. However we interpret the motives for the person “going the extra mile,” we tend to think of that person’s actions as being worthy of some kind of applause or reward.
DANGERS OF READING OUT OF CONTEXT
Once again, while these phrases on their own may not present the greatest danger for going off-course in our faith as Christians, there are still a few cautions that we need to watch out for. The biggest one is that these phrases tend to encourage “niceness” as the ultimate virtue. Please don’t misunderstand me when I say this – kindness, gentleness and meekness are great character traits, and they are praised in other sections of Scripture. The danger comes when that “nice” also translates into passive and weak-willed, leading to a lack of healthy boundaries, and refusing to confront evil out of our fear of offending the other person.
See, when we hold “nice” as our ultimate goal, we also tend to get uncomfortable with Jesus when he clears the temple of the merchants and moneychangers (Matthew 21:12-17), or when he says certain things to the Pharisees and Sadducees that would make those in “nice” churches cringe (like calling them snakes, fools, hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, and blind guides in Matthew 23 and Luke 11, or when he told them that they were children of Satan in John 8:44). We would also have a problem with pretty much every prophet in the Old Testament, as well as the tone that Paul takes in several of his letters (1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians especially).
So, if Jesus was the one who said these words, namely our need to turn the other cheek (since that is the image that is giving us the most trouble here), then why does it seem that he, and most of the heroes of the Bible, not to mention many of the heroes from the history of Christianity after the Bible was written, didn’t seem to obey these very words? That would mean that every Protestant tradition would be existing in disobedience to Jesus’ words here, especially if we consider the circumstances that caused the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s. Not only this, but it was out of Christian conviction that forced the Abolitionists like William Wilberforce in Britain and later the governmental leadership of Abraham Lincoln in the United States to oppose the trade in slaves. It was also the conviction of concerned Christians that operated the Underground Railroad and led to legislations later that would protect children from slavery-like labor. If obeying Jesus to “turn the other cheek” means to roll over and allow the abuse to continue, then none of this would have happened.
Rather, I think Jesus probably had something else in mind when he said these words.
THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT
If we were to look at where these verses are found in the Bible, we would find them in the middle of one of Jesus’ longer teaching sections in the gospel of Matthew. Specifically, this section of teaching (chapters 5-7 of Matthew’s gospel) is actually one of his more famous sermons, and has been named the “Sermon on the Mount” because in Matthew 5:1, it says that Jesus went up and sat on the side of the mountain to teach the crowds. Specific to the verses we are looking at today, we find ourselves in a section of this sermon where Jesus is addressing his audience’s understanding of the Torah, the Jewish laws found in the Old Testament. In this section of his sermon, Jesus starts by stating “You’ve heard it said…”, and then after referencing the law in question follows with “But I tell you…” At this point, Jesus then reinterprets the law in question.
So to begin, we should understand the law in question that he is quoting from to get a picture of what he is addressing when he tells us to turn the other cheek, give the shirt off our backs, and go the extra mile. For that, we need to look at Exodus 21:23-25.
23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (NIV)
This law, which is also stated in slightly different words in Leviticus 24:17-22 and Deuteronomy 19:16-22, may seem rather harsh to us today, but it was actually a law of restraint when it comes to how it is applied. See, when someone is intent on revenge, there can be the tendency to overreact (burning an entire village because someone from that village insulted you, for instance), or to continue bitter disputes, even when the original offense was forgotten. The idea behind this original law, while it allowed for some retaliation when a wrong was committed against a person, was to make sure the punishment was equal to the crime and that once there had been judgment and the criminal had faced the consequences for their actions, the matter would be considered settled.
When we think about how Jesus is using this law in his Sermon on the Mount, it is similar to the other laws that he is addressing in this same section. After looking at how he treats each law, it seems as though Jesus is taking an even more extreme stance than what the original law stated, or that he is telling us that we should go above and beyond the requirements of the original law. Or rather, he was pointing toward a greater way by placing people’s minds on God’s original intent behind the original law in the first place.
As well as this, we also need to think about how the people living at the time would understand what is being said here. In other words, we also need to look at something called “historical context,” which basically means asking how these words would have been understood by people at that time and place. For instance, when considering the first image of turning the other cheek, since the majority of the people throughout world history have been right handed (which would also be the dominant weapon hand that someone would hit you with), to hit someone facing you on the right cheek would mean that they would be hitting you with the back of their hand. And while we may not think too much of it in our day and age, back then, the only ones who would be hit with the back of the hand would be animals or slaves (those who were not deemed worthy enough to be seen as an equal). In other words, it would be more of an insult than it would be a life-threatening injury.
To offer the other cheek is not to roll over and allow the bully to beat you up; and neither should we remain silent and passive when somebody else is being attacked (the epitome of “niceness”); but rather, it was an action that forced the other person to acknowledge you as a fellow human being, which would also introduce a sense of shame into the picture (without responding by insulting the other person or escalating the conflict). So, far from telling his followers to just roll over and take any abuse given to them, Jesus’ words here seem to be encouraging assertiveness.
Continuing on with our “historical context” exercise, the other examples also show a similar theme. In the next example, a person’s wardrobe usually consisted of an inner garment and an outer one. In the case of the poor, these were usually the only clothes that they had. So, if you were being sued for your clothes, Jesus’ words would look especially ridiculous because you would then be stripping completely naked in front of everyone. This, of course, would be a HUGE mark of shame and embarrassment, not just for you but also for the person you are giving your clothing to, and might make the person seriously think about their actions a bit more, as well as reminding them of the injustice that they are doing.
The going the extra mile example is especially interesting, though, as it was actually related to the Roman soldiers. A Roman soldier was allowed to commission a civilian for difficult tasks (such as when Simon of Cyrene was ordered to carry Jesus’ cross), or to carry his gear for any distance up to 1000 paces (roughly one mile). Those listening to Jesus speak these words would have been very familiar with this, as they were a people conquered by Rome, and they were regularly reminded of this by the constant presence of the Roman military. There were likely several in the crowd who would also resent and despise the Romans for this. There were even possibly Zealots in the crowd – freedom fighters, if you will (though the Romans would have considered them “terrorists”), who would use violence to oppose Roman rule. And yet, Jesus’ words must have seemed strange here. Offer to carry the Roman soldiers’ gear for an extra mile? What is he, crazy?
But you see, if the soldier forced the civilian to go more than that mile, this practice would be generally frowned upon by that soldier’s superiors, which means he may be disciplined for it, and he may become an object of ridicule to his peers, who might mock him for being too weak to carry his own gear. In short, by carrying it further than the mile, you would be causing embarrassment and social shame to come onto that soldier (which might then make him treat other people, including you, with more respect and honor in the future).
HOW CAN WE APPLY THIS IN OUR OWN DAY?
So you see, Jesus wasn’t so much telling us to roll over and become a bunch of “nice” doormats; but neither was his counsel to seek revenge. Remember: he was responding to the “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” principle. Rather, he seemed to be suggesting non-violent assertiveness and a response showing creativity and loving concern for the other person.
But there is another aspect that is seen here that could also be applied in our own day and culture, where social honor and shame may seem somewhat alien. By making the offer to be hit again, to give the clothes off your back and to carry the soldier’s gear (or whatever situation you may find yourself in where you feel insulted, belittled, cheated or abused), you are actually becoming the one in control of the situation, and you are also changing the dynamic of the situation from one of threat and antagonism to one of love and generosity. You are choosing to actively love the other person, in hopes that through your actions they might see Jesus. And, if you keep reading in the gospel, you will see that we are even to love those that we would consider our enemies. But that, my friends, will have to be for another time.