This coming Sunday is the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time. In yesterday’s post we considered the verse containing “an eye for an eye” in terms of legal proceedings and the search for God’s justice. Today the examples continue as we move beyond retribution and retaliation” But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.

The Greek verb anthistēmi meaning “set oneself against, oppose, resist” is wider in meaning than “do not retaliate.” In the NT the verb most often involves the human opposition to the will of God and can imply more than simple passive resistance.  In the OT (LXX) the verb anthistēmi is sometimes used for ‘take legal action against’ – supporting the premise from yesterday’s post about Jesus’ teaching to forego even legitimate retribution.

There are some (a minority) scholars who argue that Jesus is teaching a third way between violent resistance and passive submission: non-violent resistance.  Their basis comes from the use of anthistēmi in classic Greek literature where the word does find a home in the battlefield setting. Thus some translations suggest “offer no violent resistance” as the better translation – even though “violent” does not appear in the text. Mt 5:39 then becomes a prescription for non-violent resistance.  Their argument continues on to suggest that evil (v.39; Jas 4:7) must be countered if justice is to be established. Their argument has merit when one considers that each of Jesus’ examples has the disciple taking action (turning the cheek, handing over the cloak, going the additional mile). And the idea has resonance in the light of humanity’s experience: all evil needs in order to triumph is for good men to do nothing.  Ironically in our age a common form of nonviolent resistance is litigation in the courtroom, something several NT passages may warn against.  The US Civil Rights movement in the mid 1960s is an example of a believing community that found warrant for their non-violent resistance in these passages. Given the context of Matthew’s use, other scholars argue these verses are not a prescription for non-violent resistance but for no resistance at all, even by legal means.

A comparison of the wording of vv. 39–40 with Luke 6:29–30 shows that Matthew’s concern seems particularly focused on cases of litigation rather than with violence, and Mt 5:41 is also concerned with legal rights. All the examples deal with the individual’s response to other individuals (rather than evil in general). A willingness to forgo one’s personal rights, and to allow oneself to be insulted and imposed upon, is not incompatible with a firm stand for matters of principle and for the rights of others (cf. Pauls’s attitude in Acts 16:37; 22:25; 25:8–12). Indeed, the principle of just retribution is not so much abrogated here as bypassed, in favor of an attitude which refuses to insist on one’s rights, however legitimate. Jesus is not reforming the legal code, but demanding an attitude which can forego personal rights for something greater. Verses 39b–42 are illustrations of that attitude, not rules to be applied.

When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. The words in v.39b have become a common wisdom expression in our day. But our times do not share the same sense of honor/shame operative in 1st century Palestine. To strike… on the right cheek is considered to describe a blow with the back of the hand which was a severe affront to one’s honor and dignity (Job 16:10; Lam 3:30). God’s prophets had suffered such ill treatment (1 Kings 22:24; 2 Chron 18:23; Is 50:6) – as would Jesus (26:67).  To strike someone so was considered the greatest possible contempt and extreme abuse and as such was punishable by a very heavy fine (Mishnah BK 8:6). The situation envisaged in this verse is one of insult rather than of physical violence.

What is Jesus’ larger intent in suggesting such an example as turning the other cheek? Carter (150) suggests that the context is one in which those in power deliberately take an action of power to humiliate the lesser one. In this view, Jesus is teaching passive resistance to ungodly power by an action that refuses submission, asserts dignity and challenges what is supposed to demean – and as well to bring shame upon the person who has delivered the blow. Keener (198) writes that by freely offering the other cheek one demonstrates that one does not value human honor and shows contempt for the value system of the one who delivered the blow – and perhaps the onlookers. Rather, in turning the other cheek you insist that honor before God is the one thing sought; avenging lost human honor has no value at all.

Image credit: Cosimo Rosselli Sermone della Montagna, 1481, Sistine Chapel, Public Domain

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