SCRIPTURE STUDY: Moral Jujitsu – A Strategy for Winning
Matthew 5:33-42 In these passages from Matthew, Jesus continues to speak of the “higher righteousness,” alluded to in 5:20, which is the crux of the new/old teaching he proclaims.
The fourth passage in this series begins with verse 33. It is an interesting passage that not only teaches, but is a demonstration of the teaching itself. The language of oaths and vows may not resonate with us now the way it did for Jesus’ original listeners; nevertheless, the focus of the passage may be even more poignant for us now.
We start with the question: Why does one take an oath? What makes an oath necessary? The answer, of course, is that one’s word is somehow lacking integrity, that there is some doubt as to whether you will do what you say you will do. So to give it more oomph – to emphasize one’s integrity and trustworthiness to another who is doubtful – we “swear” on a variety of things—our mother’s grave, “the Holy Bible”, to God, etc. But the greater issue here is the assumption that a person’s word is no longer good enough, and that integrity is in short supply. Today, it is an accepted fact that we live in a culture of lies, misrepresentations, deception and dishonesty—in everything from politics to marketing to our personal relationships. We have become a culture that lacks integrity and, because of that – when something is really important – we have to rely on various oaths, vows and other expressions to impress on others that yes, we really mean what we say . . .at least this time.
Jesus discerns this lack of integrity in his own time. In a culture of duplicity, Jesus proposes simplicity: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (verse 37). No oath or vow can substitute for our consistent, faithful practice of integrity. Jesus’ own directness of speech in this passage demonstrates just such integrity: there is no hedging, no obscuring, no duplicity. The message on integrity takes on the characteristics of integrity—Jesus is simple, straightforward and direct.
The next passage is one that many of us at the scripture study last Tuesday confessed to having wrestled with regularly. Many have come away from this passage (5:38-42) believing that Jesus seems to be encouraging his followers to be doormats, to suffer evil without any resistance. But scripture scholars with good social and historical analysis of the Palestine of Jesus’ time have done incredible work with this passage over the past twenty years. The passage starts out by quoting what was a common understanding of justice in Jesus’ time and, indeed, still holds sway with the vast majority of humanity today: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (v. 38). We understand such a mentality today as being primarily about punishment, about seeking “justice” for the perpetrator. For some of us, it even offends our more “developed” sensibilities about a justice that has vengeance at its core. But for the early Israelites, such a law (lex talionis) was actually instituted for its limiting effect. An eye for an eye was instituted to limit revenge, to keep violence from escalating, and to actually break the cycle of vengeance that such actions often invited. Such cycles and escalations rooted primarily in revenge could quickly get out of hand and cease to be about any sort of justice at all. An eye for an eye functioned to limit that tendency.
What Jesus proposes instead of an eye for an eye unsettles some of us though. Is Jesus promoting passivity to evil when he tells us to turn the other cheek? Is Jesus telling us to unquestioningly accept suffering with no thought for our safety or dignity? A quick lesson in the honor-shame culture of Jesus’ time is helpful in understanding what it is that Jesus actually counsels.
The culture of Jesus’ time, not unlike Middle Eastern cultures today, was built on the axis of honor-shame. One’s honor was considered of the utmost importance – and not incurring shame was essential. Note then the language of the last part of v. 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to them as well.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies that you would strike them with the back of you right hand. Such an act was familiar to Jesus’ audience. Those subservient to you—slaves to masters, wives to husbands, children to fathers, peasants to soldiers, and so on—could be put in their place with a well-placed backhand to the cheek. Additionally, to strike one in this way did not go against Jewish law. So what happens when we “turn the other cheek?” The act, far from being a sign of willingness to accept evil treatment, is actually an assertion of dignity by the oppressed party that put the oppressor in a difficult and shameful position. For the oppressor to strike his inferior on the left cheek, the oppressor is forced to strike with his open hand. To strike with one’s open hand, as opposed to backhand someone, is to acknowledge that the one you are striking is equal to you. Furthermore, to strike with an open hand is prohibited in Jewish law, so turning the other cheek and inviting your opponent to strike you with their open hand is to put the opponent in the unenviable position of acknowledging your equality to them, and then having to either back down in front of others and incur the shame associated with that OR break the law and incur the penalties and shame in that action. So what we have here is not Jesus inviting us to a beat-down by our opponents. Rather what we have is Jesus inviting us to a strategy for confronting and resisting an opponent who is in a position of power over us. It is actually a strategy for winning.
The same application follows in the next two examples. In v. 40, the issue of giving one’s cloak to one to whom you are indebted who has taken your tunic is directly related again to Jewish law. Jewish law states that the one item that a good Jew could not deny to another Jew, regardless of how in debt the other was to him, was his cloak. A cloak functioned in a variety of capacities for the poorest of the poor: clothing, shelter from the elements, and economic opportunity (beggars used to spread out their cloaks in front of them at the gates to the city, asking for alms to be placed in them). A cloak must therefore be returned before sunset to one’s rightful owner. To offer someone your cloak when they are taking your tunic again puts them in an awkward and untenable position regarding Jewish law and the potential for incurring shame in front of one’s peers and others.
In v. 41, Jesus is referencing the common practice of Roman soldiers to press into service civilian help in carrying their various military items. Any Roman soldier could require of any peasant the performance of this task—but the law stated that it could be for only one mile. So to offer to go two miles again turns the table on the opponent, forcing them into a position of breaking the law should they accept.
Great activists like Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi understood Jesus’ words here as a strategy for winning in a situation when the vast amount of power was on the side of one’s opponent. To fight with weapons would be a strategy sure to fail since the opponent has all the power – and better weapons. But in the face of such overwhelming odds, Jesus invites us to think creatively and nonviolently. What he offers us is a strategy for winning—both in terms of asserting our dignity but also in appealing to the best sensibilities of our opponent and especially to the many who may not have chosen sides but are watching closely the interaction between us and our opponents. Calling attention to the deep injustice of our situation through creative resistance, as Jesus suggests, is to win the battle for the hearts and minds of all those watching from the sidelines. What we have here is Jesus inviting us to moral jujitsu—using our opponent’s energy against him to make our point and win the encounter.