Setting in Motion a Safe, Compassionate, Just Society

pendulum in motion

Herb Montgomery | February 18, 2021

(To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.)

“The passage describes the reciprocal nature of judgment, of condemnation, of forgiveness, and of giving. Our choices show not only what kind of people we want to be; they also indicate what kind of community or society we are setting in motion with our choices.”

Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke:

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:27-38)

No other section of Luke’s version of the Jesus story has a denser concentration of the rich teachings that Jesus’ early followers attributed to him than this passage. There is so much for us to unpack this week in these eleven verses, so let’s dive right in.

Enemy Love

Right away, I want to unequivocally reject any interpretation that demands we feel some kind of love or positive emotion toward our abusers or oppressors. That interpretation only furthers the harm that abusers and oppressors have committed against survivors.

So how are we to interpret Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies?

One possibility that deeply resonates with me is Barbara Deming’s two hands metaphor for nonviolence:

With one hand we say to one who is angry, or to an oppressor, or to an unjust system, Stop what you are doing. I refuse to honor the role you are choosing to play. I refuse to obey you. I refuse to cooperate with your demands. I refuse to build the walls and the bombs. I refuse to pay for the guns. With this hand, I will even interfere with the wrong you are doing. I want to disrupt the easy pattern of your life.But then the advocate of nonviolence raises the other hand. It is raised outstretched – maybe with love and sympathy, maybe not – but always outstretched . . . With this hand, we say, I wont let go of you or cast you out of the human race. I have faith that you can make a better choice than you are making now, and Ill be here when you are ready. Like it or not, we are part of one another.’” (in Pam McAllister, You Can’t Kill the Spirit, p. 6-7)

Enemy love means we can still hold those who harm us accountable, and in so doing, we need not lose hold of their humanity or our own. It leaves room for those who have harmed us to choose to change, too. Enemy love doesn’t mean we feel something warm and fuzzy for those who have harmed us. It means we view them as still humans, still part of our human family, and because of that do not allow them to continue committing acts of harm while we wait for them to change.

Turning the Other Cheek

I’ve written so much over the past few decade about what these passages could have meant in the social political context of their day. In a ten-part series I wrote back in 2019 on self-affirming nonviolence, I address this section of Luke with more depth, context, and nuance. You can find the beginning of that series at A Primer on Self Affirming, Nonviolence (Part 1).

I do not interpret these words of Jesus as encouraging oppressed or abused people to remain passive in suffering with those who are doing them harm. But to arrive at a life-giving interpretation we must read the passage in its cultural context.

Jesus’ culture strictly forbade the use of the left hand in interpersonal interactions. Since most people are right-handed, they only used their left hand for “unclean” tasks and even gesturing at another person with the left hand carried the penalty of exclusion and ten days penance (see Martínez, Florentino García, and Watson in The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: the Qumran Texts in English [2007], p. 11). Therefore, one would not hit someones right cheek with the left hand.

One would also never strike an equal on the right cheek. A blow between equals would always be delivered with a closed right fist to the left cheek of the other. The only natural way to land a blow with the right hand on someones right cheek was with a backhanded slap. This kind of blow was a show of insult from a superior to an inferior—master to slave, man to woman, adult to child, Roman to Jew—and it carried no penalty. But anyone who struck a social equal this way risked an exorbitant fine of up to 100 times the fine for common violence. Four zuz (a Jewish silver coin) was the fine for a blow to a social peer with a fist, but 400 zuz was the fine for backhanding them. Again, to strike someone you viewed as socially inferior to yourself with a backhanded slap was perfectly acceptable (see Goodman in Jews in a Graeco-Roman World [2004], p. 189). A backhanded blow to the right cheek had the specific purpose of humiliating and dehumanizing the other.

What did Jesus command dehumanized people do? A retaliatory blow would only invite retribution and escalating violence. Instead, Jesus taught us to turn the other, left cheek so the supposed superior could strike correctly—as an equal. This would demonstrate that the supposed inferior refused to be humiliated, and the striker would have only two options: either a left-handed blow with the back of the hand, and its penalty, or a blow to the left cheek with a right fist, signifying equality. Since the first option was out of bounds culturally, and the second option would challenge the strikers supposed superiority, the aggressor lost the power to dehumanize.

Naked Protest

Jesus issued this teaching in the context of the Hebrew law. Many of the very poor had only two articles of clothing to their name, and the law allowed a creditor to take a poor person’s inner garment (chiton) or outer garment (himation) as a promise of future payment if they lacked means to pay a debt. However, the wealthy creditor had to return the garment each evening for the owner to sleep in:

If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest. If you take your neighbors cloak as a pledge, return it by sunset, because that cloak is the only covering your neighbor has. What else can they sleep in? When they cry out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.” (Exodus 22:25–27)

When you make a loan of any kind to your neighbor, do not go into their house to get what is offered to you as a pledge. Stay outside and let the neighbor to whom you are making the loan bring the pledge out to you. If the neighbor is poor, do not go to sleep with their pledge in your possession. Return their cloak by sunset so that your neighbor may sleep in it. Then they will thank you, and it will be regarded as a righteous act in the sight of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 24:10–13)

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge.” (Deuteronomy 24:17).

In that society, before the invention of modern underwear, it was more shameful to see someones nakedness than to be naked. Remember Noahs son Ham?

Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their fathers naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.” (Genesis 9:22-23)

Because of this context, a debtor stripping off one cloak or the other in public court would turn the moral tables on their creditor and put the poor person in control of the moment. Compare Matthew 5:40 and Luke 6:29: If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt [chiton], hand over your coat [himation] as well” (Matthew 5:40). If someone takes your coat [himation], do not withhold your shirt [chiton] from them” (Luke 6:29).

A debtor exposing their body would also expose the exploitative system and shame the wealthy and powerful person who took their last valuable object from them. Jesus was endorsing public nudity as a valid form of nonviolent protest or resistance: Jesus recommended nakedness in protest over returning violence with more violence.

Giving Based on Need Rather than Worthiness

A more accurate translation for the next section of this week’s passage is “give to everyone who begs from you.” Consider the spirit of this injunction.

Jesus was trying to foster the kind of human community where we place people’s needs above our attachment to our own material possessions. In that community, when someone is in need, we don’t stop to ask if they are deserving. We simply give as we are able. Our actions aren’t to be about what kind of people others are but about what kind of people we want to be. If we have more than we need today, we should share with those whose needs are not met. We should do this, trusting that if at some point in the future our needs are not being met, the kind of reciprocal world we’ve created would be populated with people who can share with us from their surplus as we have shared from ours.

Demanding Return of Property

Some interpretations of this passage would forbid people who are disenfranchised or live in marginalized social locations from demanding justice, restitution, accountability, and reparations for harms committed against them.

But what could Luke’s Jesus have been referring to?

In our time, those who richly benefit from our predatory, exploitative, capitalist system often demand that their privilege, power and property be protected when others organize and call for justice. They’re the opposite of the priest in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables who, when Jean Val Jean stole his silver and was caught by the police, gave Jean his candlestick, too. In the book A Black Theology of Liberation, James Cone wrote that those who were enslaved did not consider taking from the slave master’s possessions as theft or stealing as the slavocracy stole so much from them every day.

Our teaching says to those whose property and privilege have come at the expense of and harm of someone else: don’t demand it back when it’s ultimately taken from you.

Reciprocal Nature of Our World

This week’s passage also includes the universal golden rule found in most of the world’s religious traditions. It includes an unconditionally and universally compassionate description of the divine’s orientation to the ungrateful and wicked that harmonizes more with Christian universalism than with the Christian teaching of eternal torment. And Jesus calls on those who subscribe to unconditional, compassionate images of the divine to be those kinds of people in response: people of mercy and kindness without regard for the worth of recipients.

Lastly, the passage describes the reciprocal nature of judgment, of condemnation, of forgiveness, and of giving. Our choices show not only what kind of people we want to be; they also indicate what kind of community or society we are setting in motion with our choices.

“For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

A dear friend of mine, Dr. Keisha McKenzie, often says, “Society is a group project.”

In school, I never much cared for group projects. I often felt that the weight of success was disproportionately pulled by those of us who cared about our work. That’s true in our society as well. But given the past two years, it especially behooves those of us who care to be more intentional. Group projects fall on the shoulders of those who care most, and what we choose to do, the kind of people we choose to collectively be, will contribute to the kind of world we bring into existence during our short time here.

I’m choosing the path of love: a path of distributive justice, of sharing, of caring. How about you?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share something from our passage that you believe is especially applicable still in our social context, today. Discuss that with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

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