Context Matters

For the faithful and faithless alike, it is vital to lead an examined life.  It’s important to ask questions like: Why do I hold certain beliefs? Why do I adhere to a certain lifestyle? The wanton incuriosity that has descended upon our time isn’t helpful to anyone.  Certain Christian groups are sensationalized in the media because it draws attention, and the qualities of the part are ascribed to the whole by the general population (a logical fallacy).  People react to this.  Agnostics and atheists alike engage in ad hominem attacks against an entire religion based upon what a few do.  Christians do the same.  We all do this.

I have a friend who grew up Catholic but identifies herself as agnostic now.  She doesn’t pull any punches in my presence when it comes to what she really thinks about God.  While she claims not to believe in God, she has called Him a “douchebag”.  When discussions of abstinence education in schools arise, she quickly says, “Take a look at Mary.  I guess abstinence didn’t work out so well for her, did it?” Other statements are made like, “What kind of idiot god would say, ‘Turn the other cheek’? Hit me once, your fault.  Hit me again, it’s my fault.  What, are we all supposed to be victims?” I think that these are actually very valid questions.  Jesus said some weird things, and, if we follow Jesus, then it is our responsibility to figure out what He meant.  Why? Well, frankly, the phrase “Turn the other cheek” is a phrase that has been used historically to cow people into tolerating oppression.  It still is.

Starting points matter.  Every person that you know has a set point in your internal character graph.  A husband, for example, is often set very high on the Trust axis.  So, if an acquaintance were to come to me and say that she saw my husband at a restaurant with another woman, then I would ask my husband about it.  I would not immediately sell his clothes and burn him in effigy on the lawn.  Why? Because my starting point is high.  Were my husband a drug-dealing pimp, however, and I were given the same news, I might consider divorce court.  The starting point would be very different because the character of the person in question is different.

This is where our view and experience of God comes into play.  When we hear Jesus’ words from The Sermon on The Mount we might be tempted to think all sorts of things:

To the one who strikes you on the jaw or cheek, offer the other jaw or cheek also; and from him who takes away your outer garment, do not withhold your undergarment as well.  Give away to everyone who begs of you who is in want of necessities, and of him who takes away from you your goods, do not demand or require them back again. Luke 6

For adult children of borderline parents or even abusive parents, there is a temptation to feel erased by these words.  How many battered women have been told to stay with their abusers by well-meaning pastors using these very verses? An enormous amount of victimization has been perpetuated historically because of the words of Jesus in this text.  I would ask, however, what did Jesus really mean? If our starting point regarding Jesus is that He came to heal people and free people from oppression, then why would He simultaneously preach a lifestyle of tolerating ongoing victimization? When I talk about passive incuriosity, this is what I mean.  Clearly, there is an inconsistency between who Jesus claimed to be and how He is coming across to modern readers if we come away from reading the Bible feeling disempowered and helpless.  This is the point in our reading of scripture when we must stop and say, “I must be missing something important.”

Context.  That’s what is missing.

Who was Jesus talking to when He gave the Sermon on The Mount? First-century Jews.  First-century Jewish culture is nothing like 21 st. century Western culture.  Here are some givens that the Jews knew:

  • There were cultural rules around striking someone in the face.  Firstly, one didn’t strike someone with the left hand because the left hand was viewed as unclean; it was used for cleaning oneself after urinating and defecating.

In Latin, sinestra means “left”.  It is the word from which we have derived sinister.  This concept, therefore, of the left hand not being used due to uncleanness has even found its way into our language.  It is far-reaching.  One struck a person with the right hand, and, generally, striking a person in the face was considered an act of dominance.  This was done with the back of the hand.  When Jesus suggested turning the other cheek, he was being counter-cultural.  One cannot backhand a person with the right hand on the left side of the face.  One would have to strike a person with a fist or the palm.  In Jewish culture, however, striking a person in the face with an open hand or with a fist was seen as a sign of equality.  Do you see what Jesus was doing here? He was using the culture against itself and encouraging people to think.

  • So, in 1st. c. Jewish culture, Jesus is telling his audience that if a violent person backhands them across the face, then offer them the other cheek.  In order for the person to hit them again, they would either have to hit them with an open hand or fist, thus, negating the message of the first strike and declaring them an equal with the second strike.  Or, they would have to twist their arm around to backhand them again, thus, making themselves look all the more evil and their victim look all the more submissive.  Either way, the aggressor loses.  Violent, reactive people tend to back themselves into corners when faced with non-violent thinkers.  Eventually, they either have to overplay their hand and get caught doing something illegal, or they must back down.  This is the spirit of the passage.  It is up to us to apply the spirit of the passage to our modern circumstances.  Jesus is not encouraging victimization here.  He is, in fact, encouraging wisdom, critical thinking, and incredible self-awareness and an awareness of the culture.

I’ve been asked about the second part.  What about giving someone the shirt off your back? What if it’s your last one? How many of us have been taken advantage of by family members in the name of blood? By the time they’re done with us, we’re broke, ruined, and completely out of emotional resources. What was Jesus talking about here? Jesus was making a reference to Deuteronomy 24:

When you lend your brother anything, you shall not go into his house to get his pledge.  You shall stand outside and the man to whom you lend shall bring the pledge out to you.  And if the man is poor, you shall not keep his pledge overnight.  You shall surely restore to him the pledge at sunset, that he may sleep in his garment and bless you; and it shall be credited to you as righteousness (rightness and justice) before the Lord your God.

The Torah forbids that a man accept the shirt off his brother’s back.  Jesus is presenting situations where the oppressor is systematically put into situations where they will be  breaking the law or, at a minimum, compromised.  The Sermon on The Mount isn’t some fairytale.  We aren’t supposed to be passive victims accepting whatever life gives us.  Jesus was a brilliant teacher, whether you believe him to be the Messiah or not, who was trying to teach some of the most oppressed people in the Roman empire, the Jews, how to live in their own time and culture.  Our starting point about Jesus should not be that He was a nice guy or a peace lovin’ milquetoast.  Our starting point about Jesus should be that He was a subversive political dissident who equipped and taught people to live empowered lives.

Once again, God’s plan for our lives is that we walk in empowerment.  No matter what our past or present circumstances look like, there is favor and God’s empowering presence available to all of us in.  We do, however, have to think for ourselves.  Find your starting point, and go from there.

8 Comments on “Context Matters

  1. This is so good, and funny because I was thinking about the phrase “turn the other cheek” just yesterday, wondering what Jesus really meant.

  2. There are so many passages that have been tossed about in evangelical circles as the hard sayings of Jesus. Through the lens of our current culture some of these sayings, such as the “turn the other cheek” passage seem unknowable or overly cryptic. There is once course I took in bible college that made the entire mixed experience worth the money and that course was on biblical interpretation. My prof taught us to first look at the culture that existed when the passage was written. What did this mean to the original audience? Then, how can this apply today.

    I did some reading a few years ago on this very passage and came to similar conclusions as yourself. This makes sense. This is the teachings of a wise and empower man. This is the Jesus I want to follow.

    • I agree with you. I think that it really does have to begin with what can be known and then lining up text with what is knowable about the character of God. If we come across one of the particularly hard sayings of Jesus–of which there are more than a few–and His words seemingly contradict His character and declared intentions, then we know we are missing something. We do this all the time in our relationships. Someone does something weird or says something that doesn’t line up with what we know about them so we stop and ask for clarifications. It’s just that we are separated by, oh, a few thousand years, language, culture, history, and a spiritual dimension when it comes to asking for clarification on some of things that Jesus said. But, then that’s what the Holy Spirit is for. He can lay out the bread crumbs for us, and we have the pleasure of following along.

  3. Pingback: The Religious Spirit | Out of the Mire

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: