Posted by: jadanzzy | March 3, 2008

Jesus Is Ridiculous

In Matthew’s Gospel, the ESV has a section subtitled, ‘Retaliation’. In this section Jesus speaks against the notion that justice is ‘an eye for an eye.’ In its stead, he gives three hypothetical situations that were common for Jews to face at that time:

  • But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
  • And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
  • And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Contrary to the idea that this passage urges Christians to be non-resistant in the form of meekness and unwavering patience when faced with wrongdoers, Walter Wink (a famous theologian) gives appropriate cultural context to these commands. He calls it the Third Way.

During that time, those with higher status (master, husband, parent, Roman) forced their superiority over their lessers (slave, wife, child, Jew) by slapping them across the right cheek with the back of the right hand. In Semitic cultures (and with many middle eastern cultures today) the left hand was considered unclean. This action was not intended to injure, but to humiliate (and anger us “cultured” people in the meantime). However, Jesus is defying and denying the humiliation that these inferiors deal with. If one turns her head towards the other direction, it is making a grand statement about dignity. Not only is the instigator, apart from making a very awkward attempt, unable to slap the right cheek, the victim now forces the instigator to inflict a blow that assumes equality: right hand to left cheek. This defiant action would not have gone over well with the master, but Jesus tells his followers to maintain their dignity. It shows that all are God’s children.

The same for the tunic and the cloak. In a culture of rabid corruption where the wealthy take advantage of the system, indebtedness was a problem. Suing over a tunic must’ve been a commonplace injustice. Where does Jesus defy the system? Giving your undergarment, the cloak, led to your nakedness. So along with the tunic, give your undergarment! In Jewish culture, it was not the one who was naked that was shamed, but the one who looked upon the nakedness. The creditor is now known all over town for stripping the man of all his clothes and casting his eyes upon the debtor’s naked body.

In the third command, Jesus is not instructing his followers to bear the burden and be nice to people (not that we shouldn’t be nice). Again, the call is to defy oppressive systems. During Roman occupation of Israel, Roman soldiers were allowed to force any Jew to carry their 65-85 pound pack up to one mile. Any further, and it’d be against Roman military code. Military infractions were dealt with harsher punishments than civil infractions. What does Jesus command? Force the soldier into a sticky situation. Walk past a mile. Make him realize that you’re not to be taken advantage of.

So there you have it, a culturally accurate interpretation of this passage. The idea here is fight violence, oppression, and humiliation with nonviolent dignity and the worth God gives us.

But the looming question I have is then, does the Gospel not fit within the governmental systems of this world? Government almost always engages in violence to achieve its dominance. Even the idea of just war is thrown out with this model of nonviolence. How do we as Christians reconcile “just violence” or “just war theory”? What about the Old Testament’s “approval” of violent conquest? It seems Jesus’ nonviolence runs absolutely contrary to that. Lastly, what does this passage mean in light of the passage that follows: Love your enemies…?

Save me from insanity.



  1. this was not as requested.

  2. Something else that came to mind is that Jesus’ audience was largely disenfranchised. I can safely say that all of the readers on this blog are not at all. Can we justify maintaining these same principles in our relatively safe and privileged lives?

  3. um what about all the vicious wars in the old testament. I see a disconnect between the OT God and the NT Son of God.

  4. ugh disregard the above comment. Christianity is insanity itself with all its contradictions.

  5. I think at first glance there does seem to be a disconnect b/w OT God and NT Christ, but we need to look past the “violent” acts and see what they were pointing too.

    God had given the promised land to the Israelites. The promised land is in essence a foreshadowing of heaven and so the Israelites needed to purge the land from the Canaanites, much like Christ’s purging the land in the book of Revelation with the “sword that comes from his mouth” and this will happen at the 2nd coming. Jesus preached love, yes, but there is a time of judgment coming when the weeds will be thrown into the fire in the great harvest time.

    So to keep this comment short, the war that the Israelites waged is analagous to the final judgment.

    In addition the Canaanites being purged is a fulfillment of the curse Noah put on his son, Canaan in Genesis 9:25 and following, where the Canaanites will be the servants of Shem (think, Shemite or Semite).

  6. well i finally read ur post. it sounds like you’re comparing jesus’ audience to our current government… maybe that’s what’s driving you insane. jesus wasn’t preaching to governments and it wouldn’t make sense to apply his teachings to our governmental systems. i mean, from what i remember from my high school government class, our democracy was founded on the premise of sin and contention… something about not one faction being able to take power because other factions will balance the power. that’s a very poor one-sentence summary of federalist 51.

    on a general note, i think it’s hopeless to try to make a sustainable governmental system from christ’s teachings. one thing that comes to mind is the idea of the creditor. i’d say it’s irresponsible and harmful for creditors to predictably forgive debt…. but that’s given the moral hazard of the borrower as a possible option to default. i guess if we were all good people it wouldn’t matter, but since we’re not, applying christ’s teachings on a government level would lead to unrest and inequality.

    i think ur comment asks a more answerable question cuz you’re comparing the social context of jesus’ audience to ours. i bet we can still maintain these principles. i mean, they are principles, so from the general idea of what christ was saying, we can try to apply them to our lives. maybe that’s why the bible doesn’t give tons of social context to his teachings, cuz then we’d lose sight of the principle.

  7. I think I’d disagree that Jesus was preaching subversion and civil disobedience… as a primary objective anyway. The reason is because when you look at the context of the passage, the Sermon on the Mount, these words are surrounded by axioms like “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and “blessed are the peacemakers”.

    I can see why Jesus’s advice and teaching for people’s response in the hypotheticals you mentioned may have that discomforting EFFECT on Roman society at large. And I’m sure that Jesus was acutely aware of that possibility of the discomfort it puts on the people targeted by that behavior.

    But I don’t believe that it is His primary intent or secret agenda. The lesson I’d take is that we ought to live and love others, and it may result in an uncomfortable effect.

    And as for mapping the principles of these ideas into our lives… we all have opportunities to put some of this stuff to work, do we not? The analog doesn’t have to be so precise for us to glean what Christ wants in our hearts and in our character.

  8. i don’t understand why there’s so much interest in getting the 1st century historical perspective on the Scriptures when the Jews living in that time who had that perspective couldn’t interpret things properly

    the disciples on the road to emmaus couldn’t interpret things correctly and they needed Christ to illuminate the things from Scripture
    Scripture, not current events

    *gets off his soap box now

  9. re: 1st century historical prespective…
    holy spirit illuminates now, not on emmaus. The question is, is the holy spirit devoid of any historical/contextual interpretation?

    btw, jadanzzy… check out rob bell’s sermon series from december 2006, titled ‘Calling All Peacemakers’. if you need them, I can hook u up i think. he talks about this stuff.
    also, is another good resource.

  10. you’re dead on about the Holy Spirit.

    HS illuminates scripture though. i wouldn’t go far as to say it’s devoid of historical/contextual interpretation. However, Christ showed the disciples on the road to Emmaus that all of Scripture points to him and that all the events had to occur in order to fulfill the prophecies.

    Historical interpretation is great, but if it came down to historical interpretation going against a biblical interpretation, then I’d have to stick with the biblical.

  11. Who says it goes against biblical interpretation? what if historical interpretation IS biblical interpretation?

    Why can’t both be right? Couldn’t Kingdom principles come out of both a non-historical interpretation AND historical interpretation?

    say for turning the other cheek….
    if you absolutely ignore the historical perspective, you can say that it teaches us of humility, taming our anger and not acting based on vengence. which I think are good things. However, to say that we constantly ‘turn the other cheek’ would mean that there is absolutely no justification for the freedom of slaves, or the civil rights movement or any other oppressive system. we can easily tell the oppressed…. look at what Jesus said… you gotta turn the other cheek. bringing the historical perspective to light shows us that people like MLK Jr were indeed aligned to kingdom principles in compelling the oppressors to respect across racial lines…

    I don’t see why historical HAS to go against biblical interpretation….

  12. The problem with historical interpretation of anything is that history is biased. As they say, history is written by the winners. And apart from the idea of inspiration, the bible falls victim to that as well.

  13. Good thing for inspiration, then.

  14. sorry, i really didn’t mean to say that historical interpretation always goes against biblical.

    i apologize if it sounded that way.

    i just meant to say that if there were times when historical interpretation does go against biblical i’d say go with the biblical.

  15. I’m wondering what it even means for HI to “go against” BI?

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