The Most Misinterpreted Passage in the Bible (From the Archives)
I met a delightful woman with a PhD not too long ago. She teaches religious studies on the college level. We had much to talk about.
I told her about the post I wrote about my Grandmother counseling me on Marriage . As Grace would have it, I learned something that day: My Grandmother was right when she said “Jesus never said anything about being a doormat.”
According to this learned lady and many Biblical and historical researchers, the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible. Here’s why:
According to Matthew 5:39-41, Jesus says:
- If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
- If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well.
- If any one forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
When Jesus says, “Turn the other also”, he isn’t commanding us to take abuse and be submissive about it. He’s starting a movement. Perhaps the greatest movement in the history of humanity: The Christian Movement.
At that time, there were two ways to respond to violence: passive acceptance and violent retribution. Jesus is giving us a third and powerful option: passive resistance.
The verse specifies that “If someone strikes you on the right cheek.” In those days, if someone struck you on the right cheek, they had to do so with either a right-handed backhand or a left-handed overhand blow. Act it out, and you’ll see for yourself. The social custom forbid using the left hand because it was typically used for ‘unseemly uses’. So, in order to strike someone on the right cheek, it meant using a backhand with the right hand. Given the social customs of the day, a backhand blow was the way a superior hit an inferior, whereas using fists was the way to fight an equal. Jesus is saying, “Turn the other cheek.” This required the abuser to use an overhand blow with the fist which would have meant treating the socially inferior person as an equal. Using a fist to strike an inferior, by law at that time, was a punishable offense. The beating may not have ceased, but the inferior would be treated as an equal if only during the beating, and the abuser was subject to punishment by law.
The next part of the sermon says, “If someone sues you for your coat, give him your cloak also.” In those days, under the law, a coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, a coat was typically used for bedding at night and carried around as a coat when not in use during the day. The only other article of clothing was an inner layer of clothing. When Jesus says, “Give them your cloak as well”, he means strip naked. This not only demonstrates what the ‘system’ inflicts, but nakedness shames the observers as well.
When Jesus says, “If someone forces you to go a mile, go a second mile”, this too is a form of passive resistance. Roman law permitted soldiers to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile and one mile only. Jesus says, go ahead and carry it for a mile; but then carry their gear a second mile. This put them in a shameful situation: either they risked censure, or they had to forcibly remove their gear from you.
Jesus is asking us to endure, but also to stand firm against our oppressors. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi based major revolutions on the same verses and the same idea of passive resistance.
Jesus was a revolutionary.
Here’s to standing firm in our convictions today and going the extra mile.