2-28-16 The Way of Non-violence

When I thought about doing a sermon series on Jesus’ Third Way, I was thinking primarily about today’s sermon. I have talked about this passage before as being one of the central, though often misunderstood, teachings of Jesus. This is the key teaching that Walter Wink used in his book that he sent to South Africa to try to bring down apartheid – turn the other cheek. It is also use by community organizers when we figure out ways we can speak truth to power through creative, engaging and fun actions. Let’s see if we can listen carefully to the passage and understand how Jesus’ teaching would truly change our lives.

Matthew 5:38-42 “You’ve heard the commandment, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, offer no resistance whatsoever when you’re confronted with violence. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other. 40 If anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go two miles. 42 Give to those who beg from you. And don’t turn your back on those who want to borrow from you. 

February 28, 2016.

Jesus’ Third Way: the Way of Non-violence

My teacher, the late Walter Wink, loved to show people what this text really meant; and he illustrated it in some very memorable ways, some of which I have never been brave enough to try myself. And you know I’ll try almost anything. Walter was a gutsy guy. He also read the Bible very carefully and asked questions about why the passage said things like, ‘if someone slaps you on the right cheek.”

This passage about turning the other cheek does not mean what most people think it means. What is the common misunderstanding about turning the other cheek in our society? Why do most people think turning the other cheek is totally unrealistic?

OK, so let’s try to unpack what Jesus really meant by ‘turning the other cheek.’ Who would like to come up here and slap my face? (illustrate being slapped on the left cheek first with the right hand; but the passage says “right cheek” The slap is a backhand slap by the right hand to the right cheek.

By turning the other cheek, Jesus was teaching his followers, Hebrew people under occupation by Rome, a way to confront soldiers or Romans who were mistreating them. They could not fight back directly and they could not run away. Jesus was teaching the people a way when there seemed to be no way.

Turning the other cheek gave them a way to say, if you are going to slap me, treat me like an equal, don’t treat me like a slave. Don’t treat me like an inferior person. You will treat me like a man. You will treat me like a human being.

In the second part of the passage Jesus teaches people to give up their cloak if someone takes their coat. To understand this part, we need to understand what a coat and cloak were in Jesus day. Walter Wink insisted that these were very poor people who had only two pieces of clothing – which don’t directly correspond to our clothes. The coat or outer garment was a kind of cloak that could be used for other things – sometimes for a bed cloth at night, sometimes for begging bowl during the day.

The cloak or shirt was the undergarment – the only other piece of clothing people wore. So when Walter had me illustrate this passage in front of 60-70 of my colleagues including my bishop Susan Morrison, he got a volunteer to take my outer garment from me and then he had me take off the rest of my clothes, down to some swim shorts he had loaned me. The poor woman who had asked me for my coat, kept saying, “it’s ok. That’s enough.”

And that was the response Jesus was expecting too. As people ended up naked in front of the soldier or oppressor, it was embarrassing to them and exposed the humiliation that they were regularly inflicting on the people.

Finally, the third part of this passage about if a soldier forces you to carry his pack a mile, carry it two. Professor Wink had researched this passage as well and discovered that the occupying forces had become so cruel and used the people so badly, that even the Roman government was forced to pass a rule that they would not be allowed to force anyone to carry their pack more than a mile.

So when someone started to go 2 miles, and knowingly showed they were breaking the rule, the soldier was put into a dilemma about disobeying orders. You could imagine them trying to take the burden back from the person and keep them from going any farther.


You can see that this interpretation of this passage gives it quite a different implication. Instead of having Jesus sound like he was asking people to roll over and accept oppression, this interpretation is showing that Jesus was actually trying to help people find a third way, when there seemed to be no way but to fight or flee, a third way which allowed people to contend with their foes rather than give in or challenge in a way that could get them killed.

Jesus did this throughout his ministry – telling parables that forced people to think outside the box, challenging people’s stereotypes and helping them to find a way out of very difficult situations.

We who don’t often find ourselves in such desperate situations might not see how these teaching apply to us very well, which is why I’m using all of Lent to give examples of how helpful these teaching are to us. Today, I would like to illustrate Jesus third way again in regard to relationships. I’m not trying to say that our relationship are oppressive or like relating to an oppressive army.

But relationships can be difficult. And sometimes in relationships we have trouble speaking up for ourselves. We decide that it’s better not to say anything because when we do we get into a big fight. Sometimes we hold in our frustration for a long time until it just blows up and we end up in a big fight.

Jesus’ teaching suggests that there is a third way – a way between capitulation and all out war, a way that respects the needs of both parties in a relationship. In the therapy that I’ve done over the years, therapists have emphasized to me the difference between reacting and responding. When we end up yelling at our partner because we’ve reached the end of our rope or because we don’t know what else to do with how their actions are making us feel, that is reacting.

When we start passively resisting what our partner suggests to us without talking to them, that’s another way of reactivity. A third way is responding to a difficult situation, daring to talk about it rather than react to it, getting help from a third party to reach through and try to satisfy the needs of both partners rather than to assume that one is right and one is wrong, or that one person has to win.

Jesus’ Third Way is a way to expect respect and to give respect. We can apply these principles in our personal lives or in our dealings with political figures, the way we did last Sunday. Turning the other cheek means that we demand that other people treat us with respect, that people, no matter who they are, treat us as an equal, not as an underling. When we find creative ways to make that happen, we are following Jesus’ Third Way.

It takes some work, some careful thought and some risk, but we can apply this kind of creativity and respect for ourselves and others in every part of our lives. This is God’s dream for us, that we find a way out of no way. God offers that way to us, no matter where or who we are. God offers a way of self-respect and respect for others. God’s dream is not always the easy path, but it’s a path of richness and our best selves.


Responsive hymn 3157  Come, Let Us Dream