For the last several weeks we have been opening the gift of
Christmas “one truth at a time,” and we have learned that it wasn’t
only a beautiful baby boy we found under the tree, but the Savior of
the World, but the King of Kings, the Beloved Son, the Lamb of God,
the Proclaimer of the Kingdom, the Prophet like Moses, the Fulfiller
of the Law, the Creator of Community.
Today we will learn that Jesus is also the Teacher of Wisdom,
but before we get that far, let’s talk about what
When I was in seminary I would hear people talking about the
“wisdom literature” in the Bible, and I thought, “Oh, right…like
Proverbs.” I enjoyed the
Book of Proverbs when I was a boy.
I would read through it and look for the good ones and
sometimes try to memorize them.
I liked the one that said, “A cheerful greeting shouted too
early in the morning can sound like a curse.”
Or the one that said, “Better a dry crust of bread with a
friend than a banquet with an enemy.”
Or my favorite, “Like a fine gold ring in a pig’s snout, so
is a beautiful woman lacking discretion.”
I never got a chance to use that one.
I always wanted to.
I kept hoping that I would be there when the opportunity
presented itself, when the perfect thing would be to turn to someone
and say with a sigh: “Like a fine gold ring in a pig’s snout, so is
a beautiful woman lacking discretion.”
It never happened—at least, it hasn’t happened yet.
But in seminary I learned that the point of the Proverbs was
not to sound wise, but to
They were there to help you make good decisions, so you could
live a successful life.
And that’s what we all want, isn’t it?
At the same time I was reading the Book of Proverbs I was
reading the Childhood of
Famous Americans series, those little orange hardbound
biographies of people like P. T. Barnum: Circus Boy; Annie Oakley:
Little Sure Shot; and Tom Edison: Boy Inventor.
I was fascinated by their stories, and wanted to know what
these famous people had done to
In their own way, biographies serve as a kind of wisdom
literature. They tell us
the stories of successful people and give us a chance to look
closely at what they did and how they did it.
It shouldn’t surprise us that much of the wisdom literature
in the Bible is attached to the legacy of Solomon, the wisest and
wealthiest man who ever lived in ancient Israel.
Many of the Proverbs, the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Proverbs,
and of course the Song of Solomon are thought to be his.
And then there’s Job, who—although he suffered—was pronounced
by God himself to be a “blameless and upright man.”
If you want to know how to live a good, successful life you
could look to these.
Or you could look to Jesus.
In today’s Gospel lesson he reminds his hearers: “You have heard
that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”
And that’s true: they had heard it said.
It was said by wise people like Job and Solomon, and it was
said so frequently that everyone had heard it.
It’s not a bad proverb as far as it goes.
It teaches two important principles.
One is the principle of
limited retaliation, which means that if I poke out one of your
eyes, you can poke out one of mine, but not both.
And the other is the principle of
retributive justice, which
means that if you poke out someone’s eye you can expect to get your
own eye poked out. As I
said, it’s a good proverb as far as it goes.
It keeps things fair.
But Jesus says, “No, a proverb like that will lead to a world
where everybody is blind and toothless.
I want to teach you another way, and here it is: when someone
strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”
No matter how many times I hear this, it doesn’t sound like
wisdom; it sounds like foolishness.
Turn the other cheek?
that mean you get slapped twice instead of once?
Doesn’t it allow someone else to take advantage of you?
Well, maybe not.
I’ve never put much emphasis on it before, but when Jesus says, “If
someone strikes you on the right cheek,” he is talking about a particular kind of blow.
New Testament scholar Walter Wink says you almost have to act
this out to get the point, but when you do you discover that you can
only be struck on the right cheek by a roundhouse punch with the
left hand, or a backhanded slap with the right.[i]
But in that time and place people didn’t use the left hand to
strike with. It was
reserved for “unseemly” purposes.
So if someone struck you on the right cheek they were
striking with the right hand, giving a backhanded blow, and that was
an insult. It was the
way a superior hit an inferior.
Among equals, apparently, people would use their fists.
So, when someone strikes you on the right cheek, Jesus says—when
they deliver the ultimate insult of a backhanded slap—just turn the
other cheek; that way they will only have two options: one is to hit
you with the fist, thereby treating you like an equal, and the other
is not to hit you at all, thereby looking foolish.
If this is about power—about one person demonstrating
superior power over another—then the balance of power begins to
shift as soon as you turn the other cheek.
It’s a very tempting interpretation.
But if I know Jesus he is not interested in getting even or
making others look foolish.
My guess is that when he says, “Turn the other cheek,” he is
asking us to open ourselves to the worst insult anyone could give:
the backhanded slap with the left hand.
Because here is the truth: if you humble yourself, no one can
And what about that coat?
“If someone sues you for your coat give your cloak as well,”
Jesus says. In his
comments on this passage Marcus Borg writes, “Under civil law, a
coat could be confiscated for non-payment of debt. For the poor, the
coat often also served as a blanket at night. In that world, the
only other garment typically worn by a peasant was an inner garment,
So if they take your coat,
Jesus says, give them your cloak as well, or, as Walter Wink puts
it, “strip naked.”
That’ll show ‘em! But
maybe that’s not what Jesus is saying.
Maybe he’s not telling us to shock and embarrass those who
would take from us, but simply to give them what they ask for,
because this is the truth: no one can take from you what you freely
And as for that extra mile, “Roman law permitted soldiers to
force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but because of
abuses stringently prohibited more than one mile.”[iii]
So, if they ask you to do that, Jesus says, if they force you
to carry it one mile go ahead and carry it two.
Again, the balance of power shifts: you can’t force me to do
something I volunteer to do any more than you can take something I
give you. “So, give to
everyone who begs from you,” Jesus says, “and do not refuse the one
who wants to borrow from you.”
A funny story about that: I used to know a couple who begged from
me. I would see them
every Tuesday morning at a local restaurant, where I had a regular
breakfast meeting. They
would ask me to buy them a cup of coffee and, reluctantly, I would.
But I came to resent it after a while.
Why should I buy their coffee?
Why didn’t they buy their own coffee?
Who did they think I was, Mr. Coffee?
I would see them coming on Tuesday morning and grit my teeth.
“Here we go again,” I would think, and wait to see how they
made their approach. But
one Tuesday I must have been studying this passage, because before
they came in I said to the girl at the counter, “You know the couple
that comes in here on Tuesday mornings, the ones I always buy coffee
for? Well, I want to go
ahead and buy their coffee this morning, but then I’m going to leave
before they come, and when they do maybe you could take their coffee
over to them and tell them it’s on the house.
What do you think?”
She thought that was a wonderful idea.
So, I paid and left and on my way to my car here they came.
“Listen, Jim,” they said, “would you mind buying us a cup of
coffee?” And I was so
surprise had been ruined.
But do you see how it turned the whole thing around to take
the initiative; to give to them before they could beg from me?
I think this is what Jesus is saying in this whole passage:
nobody can humiliate you if you humble yourself first, and nobody
can take something from you if you give it to them first, and nobody
can force you to do something if you volunteer to do it first.
Because listen to what he says next:
You have heard that it was
said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say
to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so
that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his
sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the
righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love
you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the
same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are
you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be
perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”
That last line needs some explanation.
When Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is
perfect,” he uses a word that can mean perfect in the way we usually
think of it, but can also mean “finished,” or “complete,” and that’s
the meaning I’d like to focus on:
I sometimes imagine that everyone in the world is holding a cup,
and that some of those cups are empty while other cups are full.
The people with empty cups are always going around begging
from others: “Could you put something in my cup?
Anything at all?” While
the ones whose cups are full are busy pouring what they have into
the empty cups of others.
And that’s where God is.
His cup is full and running over.
It’s so full there’s enough for everybody.
He has no lack of anything; he is complete, finished,
perfect. And so he makes
his sun to rise on the evil and the good; he sends rain on the
righteous and the unrighteous.
He doesn’t have to save it up or ration it out.
And Jesus calls on us to do the same.
Why? Because we
have held our cups under the waterfall of God’s love and grace.
We’ve got plenty.
We don’t have to save it up or ration it out.
We can share it with our enemies as well as our friends.
And this is just what Jesus did, isn’t it?
He showed his followers how to live the good life.
He held his cup under the waterfall of God’s grace and love
until it was full and running over, and then he shared it with
everyone around him, friend or foe.
He didn’t even stop to find out which was which.
And it made some people furious; that kind of completeness
always will. So, they
struck him on the right cheek and he turned the other.
They sued him for his coat and he gave them his cloak as
well. They forced him to
go one mile and he went two.
They tried to take his life but he gave it.
There is wisdom in this, but it’s not the kind of wisdom
we’re used to. It’s not
the wisdom of those who never have enough, who are always trying to
figure out how to get more.
It’s the wisdom of one who is finished, complete, perfect,
one who has all he needs and more, one who has plenty to give away.
He invites us to live that kind of life, and if we could we
might just discover that it really is…
The good life, the successful life, the best life there is.
[i] Marcus Borg
credits Walter Wink with this
observation in an article called
“The True Meaning of Turn the Other