Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 5:38-42
Today’s reading comes to the heart of Jesus’ stance toward injustice and oppressive powers. Unfortunately, Jesus’ words here, typified by the saying, “turn the other cheek,” have too often become advice to lie down in the face of evil, to become a “doormat.” Looking at Jesus’ life, however, we can see that he was anything but.
Walter Wink explains that in Jesus’ words, “Do not resist an evildoer,” the word usually translated resist (antistēnai) is a military term meaning to come against in battle. “In short, antistenai means more here than simply to “resist” evil. It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection.”1 Jesus’ call is one to nonviolent resistance, of finding a way between violence and passivity. Jesus then gives three creative examples—ways of living out this “third way.”
To understand the first example, we must remember that in the culture of Jesus’ day, only the right hand would be used to strike someone—the left would be considered dishonourable. To strike someone on the right cheek, then, requires a “backhander” (Try hitting someone with your right fist on the left cheek.) It is the way that a person in a position of power (such as a slave owner) hits someone considered an inferior (such as a slave). To “turn the other cheek,” then, is a way for a person with less power to refuse to be treated as inferior. “By turning the cheek, then, the ‘inferior’ is saying: ‘I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.’”2
Similarly, Jesus’ teaching to “give your cloak as well” envisages a situation where a person who has fallen into debt is being sued by a creditor. We need to keep in mind the injustice of the debt system of Jesus’ time, and the way it was designed to strip the poor of their land. With nothing else to give, handing over the cloak would mean effectively stripping naked, and in that culture bringing shame on the creditor.
Thirdly, “going the extra mile” is not simply a call to go over and above one’s duty. In Jesus’ day Roman soldiers were allowed to force people to carry their packs for one mile. But anything beyond one mile was not allowed and could mean harsh punishment for a soldier. To “go the extra mile” is actually to put the soldier in a very difficult position. In this example Jesus is “helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire.3
Finally, the teaching on almsgiving is an example in which Jesus’ followers relate not to those with power over them, but to those who have even less power than them. It is always tempting to perpetuate the ways and systems of injustice, even for those who are too often on the underside of them. Be generous, says Jesus. Subvert the cycle of greed, debt and dispossession by refusing to treat others in that way. For then it is then that God’s reign might be expressed.
Perhaps it is best not to see these examples as rigid commands, but as creative examples of ways to resist injustice, finding a way between what often seem like the only alternatives—passivity or violence. Jesus teaches a third way, a way which responds nonviolently, refusing to dehumanise the offender and even creating space for them to be won over. As we seek to live out Jesus’ way, we might remember the words of Martin Luther King: “The end of violence or the aftermath of violence is bitterness. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation and the creation of a beloved community.”4
- In what ways are you tempted to respond violently—in action or attitude—to those who hold power over you?
- How do you feel you are tempted to perpetuate unjust ways or systems?
- How is God challenging you in today’s reading?
Pray for one another
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
1. Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), Kindle loc. 1292. In this devotion I am drawing heavily from chapter 5 of this work.
2. Wink, The Powers that Be, Kindle loc. 1322.
3. Wink, The Powers that Be, Kindle loc. 1402.
4. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Power of Non-Violence,” in The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I Have a Dream” and Other Great Writings, ed. Clayborne Carson (Boston: Beacon, 2013), Kindle loc 433).
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.
Read: Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus’ teaching to “Love your enemies” is perhaps the most subversive, radical teaching in all of history, but it is one that is frequently minimised—“Surely Jesus couldn’t have meant that!” Is there though, in the climate of today’s world, a more urgent message?
Jesus, we might remember, is speaking to crowds of Galilean peasants, struggling under the occupation of Roman forces and exploitative local elite. No doubt they had more than their share of resentment for those who made life so difficult. But to them, Jesus not only gave a command to love their oppressors, he invited them to reimagine their world. In Jesus’ time, it was thought that if one suffered misfortune—for example, disease, disability or even poverty—it was because they had sinned and God was giving a just punishment. This kind of assumption, though, meant that the elite, whose lives supposedly displayed God’s blessing, could delegitimate the poor, who were assumed to be “sinners” under God’s punishment. and by delegitimating them—by seeing them as “unworthy” or “undeserving”—the elite opened the way to mistreat them.
Jesus words, “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” totally undercuts this assumption. God doesn’t send the sun to shine only on the good. If the sun is not shining on Jesus’ hearers, then, its not because God is against them. Jesus exposes this thinking as false. The poor of Galilee could know that they had God’s blessing, and that no delegitimating words or treatment from the powerful could take that away.
From this position though, one of recognising their own worth and refusing to take on the delegitimising assumptions of the elite, Jesus words issued a challenge that would take their total commitment—and ours: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Who were the enemies that Jesus might have had in mind? Perhaps tax collectors, whose demands were a constant reminder of Roman domination and exploitation. Perhaps Gentiles, who those in the fragile Jewish communities of first century Palestine saw as foreign and threatening. Whoever it was, Jesus taught that in seeking to love their enemies his followers would be living out the very heart of God.
- Are there people you feel delegitimated by? Are there people who you have delegitimated?
- Pause. Ask God to bring to your mind someone you find it difficult—even impossible—to love.
- Hold them in your mind for a moment. Ask God to reveal their humanity to you.
- Pray for them.
In the group, pray for anyone who would like prayer for God’s help to live out today’s reading.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 6:1-4, 16-18
Today’s readings on almsgiving and fasting frame the Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Together, almsgiving, prayer and fasting are ways of “practicing your justice” (6:1) which followers of Jesus should be wary doing to be seen be others. We all know that doing justice can be done in ways which, if we’re honest, are more about seeming good than doing it.
Almsgiving in the ancient world was a common practice, and one which was often more about the giver than the poor. It was “a linchpin of patron-client relations which maintained the hierarchical social structure by elevating the powerful and prosperous. It enabled them to secure honor and dominate the lower ranks by binding them into dependent relationships.5 To practice almsgiving in secret, then, was to forgo any status or benefit that the giver would usually expect, therefore subverting the patron-client system. It was to genuinely care for the poor without hidden agendas.
Fasting, similarly, was a traditional religious practice “associated with atoning for sin… healing diseases, and casting out demons.”6 But such religious practices were often condemned by the prophets if they were divorced from just living (Amos 5:21-24; Isa 1:10-17), and Jesus was certainly no stranger to such prophetic voices. No doubt in the background of Jesus’ understanding of fasting was the words of Isaiah 58:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isa 58:6-7)
Perhaps we might say that fasting in Matthew’s Gospel is about the joining of spirituality and justice. Michael Crosby explains:
“Hunger and thirst are two global realities. Fasting from food and water can make us more aware of how hunger and thirst affect half of the world. By personal fasting we can experience, in a limited, temporary way, the all-pervasive, sustained hunger and thirst experienced by hundreds of millions. Our very resistance to fasting can become an inspiration to resist whatever in our lives, our relationships, and our structures contributes to hunger and thirst in the world.”7
- How have you seen or experienced practices such as almsgiving or fasting?
- Are there ways that these practices have been helpful or unhelpful in your experience?
- In what ways are you tempted to do acts of justice to be seen by others?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer
5. Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000), 159.
6. Carter, Matthew and the Margins, 170.
7. Michael H. Crosby, Spirituality of the Beatitudes: Matthew’s Vision for the Church in an Unjust World, Revised ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2005), 117.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Discipleship
Read: Psalm 86
Ask: What might following Jesus mean this week?
Close with the Lord’s Prayer