The Sermon on the Mount as storytelling, Part 4: Bringing the Torah’s guidance into daily life

As Part 3 suggests, listening to the Sermon on the Mount as storytelling rather than as doctrinal text we learn that Jesus is not reading from the text of the Torah.  He is paraphrasing passages that his audience already knows.

And his concern is not to prescribe ideals of righteous behavior, but rather to work out practical moral guidelines for life under Empire. Jesus is “building a fence around the Torah” in order to help people apply the behavioral boundaries set by these ancient teachings to their own times.

Nonviolent resistance vs. eschatological expectation

Here again is this essay’s core biblical passage, Matthew 5:38-42 (NIV):

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 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. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

This passage is somewhat confounding for many modern readers.  It seems to imply that Jesus requires us to submit passively to whatever evil people do to us.

In part this interpretation arises from the notion that Jesus is prescribing a new “law” specifically for those who expect an eschatological “end-time” within their own lifetimes.  Such modern readers argue that Jesus is instructing his followers to live as if they were already in those last days.

George Amoss, Jr., for example, explains this view as follows:1

One might expect an exhortation to mercy to follow [verses 38-42], but Jesus goes far beyond that: “But I’m telling you not to stand against (anthistēnai) wicked people” (v. 39). Moreover, you are to assist them in further evil: as we might say today, you must enable them…

Consistently, Jesus then admonishes us to give to anyone who asks of us and to lend to anyone who wants to borrow. While those latter injunctions may seem laudable…, [they] ultimately point to the eschatological requirement of forsaking all possessions and leaving the future to God: if consistently obeyed, they would render one destitute.

The practical consequences of their implementation would include, then, a dereliction of our responsibilities toward those who depend on us—and, if widely adopted, a disaster for an ongoing society….

Jesus’ ethical demands make sense only when seen as contingent upon his eschatological expectation: the radical sacrifices necessary to adopt Kingdom life here and now would very soon gain for the elect entry into, or a high place in, that Kingdom.

The approach of the present essay is very different.  Rather than addressing theological notions of eschatological expectation, I am exploring the here-and-now of Jesus’ audience inside the story and of the Sermon author’s first audiences outside.  Those people are dealing with their immediate situations as Galileans before the Temple’s destruction or as exiles from Jerusalem afterwards.  In other words, they are hoping to learn from Jesus how to live as faithful Messianic Jews under the brutal dominion of Rome.

Most importantly, as we consider these historical contexts it is possible for us to recognize in them our own times under the brutal dominion of 21st century powers.  Never mind forbearance in hopes of an end-time righting of wrongs.  How do we live as faithful followers of Jesus now, day to day, moment to moment, engaging with whomever we care for or struggle against?

“Carrying a Roman soldier’s furca,” from Backpacking in Ancient Rome: Old School, Minimalist, YouTube video by Kenneth Kramm.
Carrying a Roman soldier’s baggage

Retaining personal agency in the face of coercive power

Levine and Brettler note that Jesus begins this passage with the Torah’s “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” a principle that the Romans call lex talionis (“the law of equals”).  However, Jesus immediately shifts the focus.

Rather than countering or extending the law of talion, Jesus changes the subject. The talion speaks of physical mutilation; Jesus speaks about public humiliation….

The three examples Jesus gives, regarding the slap, the suit, and the subjugation, together reveal their import: do not escalate violence; do not give up your agency; shame your attacker and retain your honor. 

As with the other injunctions in this section, his concern is correct community relations, rejection of violence, honesty to others, and acting mercifully and justly as God would.

These expressions—turn the other cheek, give the coat off your back, go the extra mile—have become so commonplace in the English language that it is difficult to appreciate their original import.

“Turn the other cheek” asks more than “ignore the problem”; giving the coat is not about “being generous”; “go the extra mile” demands much more than “make an extra effort.” When heard in their first-century context, the three injunctions all serve to prevent the escalation of conflict…. (202)

But they go further.  They show Jesus’ followers how to empower themselves even in the face of an inescapable oppression that is imposed by the threat of violence.

Physical violence

Assuming a right-handed assailant, a slap on the right cheek would be a backhanded slap with the left hand.

It is the slap that would be given by a master to a slave, or a soldier to a peasant. A backhanded slap is designed to humiliate, not to injure; it does not do the serious damage a right jab does….

When slapped, the victim has a few options, none of them good. Hitting back escalates the violence, which in situations of social inequality can have deadly consequences. But cowering does not help either;…it opens the possibility for continued or more extreme violent acts on the part of the perpetrator.

Jesus offers what the biblical scholar Walter Wink2 called the “third way” : rather than escalate violence, and rather than accept the loss of personal dignity, confront the violence. (202-03)

Jesus’ third way becomes an opportunity of expressing agency when publicly humiliated by someone in power.

By offering the left cheek, the victim resists humiliation by displaying agency and courage. Further, offering the left cheek invites the right jab, the punch of greater violence. It reveals to the perpetrator that a slap is itself a violent act; it shows that a slap of dismissal does not decrease the humanity of the victim. (203)

Turning the other cheek is thus a powerful act of nonviolent resistance.  It was Gandhi’s principle.  It is what principle that gay Quaker activist Bayard Rustin taught to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Judicial violence

From physical violence, Jesus turns to judicial violence. The setting is the court: someone “wants to sue you and take your coat.”

Behind this concern is Exodus 22:26-27: “If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep?….”

Again, the victim has few options, none good. One option is to accept the verdict and freeze that night. Another would be to avoid the court, but that could result in arrest and an even worse situation.

The third way, to “give your cloak as well,” means to strip off one’s other garment in the court and so to lay bare, literally, the injustice of the situation. In this setting, it is the one suing who is shamed. (203-04)

This person does not merely submit but graphically exposes the injustice of the more powerful person’s actions.

Military violence

Finally, the issue of the extra mile concerns military violence, a system of compulsion, or as the NRSV reads, “forces you to go.”

We see such conscription in Matthew 27:32 and Mark 15:21, where Roman soldiers “compel” (the same Greek term, aggareuö) Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’s crossbeam. To refuse is to risk a beating. To comply is to be humiliated and more, to be turned into a pack animal.

The third way is to accept the inevitable, to carry the baggage. Yet at the end of the mile, the victim adds, “I’ll go the second.” In other words: You sought to treat me as less than human. I refuse to allow you to do this—I will use my own agency to carry it farther. (204)

Hence, this behavior is not, as often misinterpreted, and act of generosity.  It is a nonviolent act of self-respect.

In each of the three cases in Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus offers his hearers an alternative other than surrender to or violently resisting worldly authority that is imposed by force.  We can comply with human “law” (if it doesn’t require us to do harm), yet at the same time we can act out of our innate human agency, not out of submission to that authority.  We obey the divine authority that loves all beings equally, not the human powers that try to impose hierarchies of political value upon us.

Earlier in the Sermon, Jesus addressed two sorts of inner conflict.  The first has to do with the escalating feels that can lead to violence and murder.  The second has to do with the clinging to what one has versus facing the needs of others.  Part 5 will consider the range of choices that Jesus offers in response to such inward wrestling.


Index


Image Source & Notes:

“Carrying a Roman soldier’s furca,” from Backpacking in Ancient Rome: Old School, Minimalist, YouTube video by Kenneth Kramm https://youtu.be/Ko8WRhI4TSg?si=ias6oypOpGTwcZFp. The furca was a marching pack mounted on a forked pole.

 

  1. What Would Jesus Do? – A Critique of Jesus’ Ethics,” George Amoss Jr., The Postmodern Quaker (8/15/2023).
  2. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way, Walter Wink (Augsburg Fortress, 2003)

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