Lenten Devotional 2021: Day 21

Tuesday, March 9 – Written by Jan Wood Daly

Into the Eye of the Storm – Matthew 5:38-42

Photo credit: Jan Wood Daly

This passage always made me feel uncomfortable because Jesus seems to say we should meekly or passively accept violence and oppression. Walter Wink’s book, Engaging the Powers, transformed my perspective. He explains that Jesus’ message wasn’t to be passive in the face of evil, nor to return violence with violence. If we’re not supposed to be passive or violent, then how should we respond to evil? Jesus offers a third way: non-violent resistance. And he offers three examples of how we can resist non-violently.

In Jewish culture, a slap on the right cheek would have been done with the back of the right hand, indicating superiority as it insulted and hurt the recipient. Jesus says, “Turn to them the other cheek.” Slapping with the back of the right hand would leave the palm of the hand open to the left cheek; ‘turning the other cheek’ would then require using the palm of the hand. This would indicate equality, not superiority! Jesus is saying, “You can slap me again, but this time you must do it as my equal!”

Jesus says, “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, hand over your cloak as well.” Poor people had nothing of value to sue for – only their clothing, which included an inner tunic and an outer cloak. Once the tunic was taken and the cloak was handed over, the person would be naked. In Jewish culture, to be naked was both humiliating and illegal – not for the naked person, but for the one who saw the nakedness. Being naked was a way of equalizing the relationship, of “putting a person in their place,” without using violence.

Jesus says again, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Roman soldiers forced the poor to carry their heavy packs for them, but by law they could only enforce this for one mile. By walking a second mile, Jesus’ followers would have forced the soldiers into doing something illegal – something the soldiers could be arrested for. “Walking the second mile” was a way of striking at the heart of Roman oppression without using violence.

This passage isn’t about giving in to evil, or about returning evil with evil. As Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.” Jesus is telling us not to take an eye, but to look another in the eye. He is saying, “Be creative, be bold, disarm, liberate, empower, transform! Stand your ground, speak truth to power, claim your common humanity, convert your enemy! Proclaim God’s reign of love and peace!”

This call to non-violent resistance lies at the heart of Lent and the Easter message. As John Dear says in his book Transfiguration, Jesus engaged in non-violent resistance both before and after he was killed:  “The resurrection is the ultimate example of non-violent resistance to the empire of violence and death.” As we move through Lent, may we look oppression and violence in the eye, boldly proclaiming God’s reign of love and peace.

Prayer: God of revolution, you call us to head into the eye of the storm and calm its fearsome powers. May we liberate and be liberated. May we dare to carry out bold, radical acts of non-violent resistance in the name of the One who conquered evil with love. Amen