Here’s what I think: Every once in a while, you need a good palindrome. Not because they are the funniest thing on the internet, but because we need to be reminded that sometimes looking at things backwards makes the most sense (or at least in the case of palindromes, the same sense). So here are ten great palindromes. Feel free to read them forwards or backwards. After all, it really doesn’t matter.
- Step on no pets.
- Never odd or even.
- No lemon, no melon
- Madam in Eden, I’m Adam.
- Dennis and Edna sinned.
- A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.
- Eva, can I stab bats in a cave?
- Golf? No sir, prefer prison-flog.
- Marge lets Norah see Sharon’s telegram.
- Tarzan raised Desi Arnaz’ rat.
Last week, we began looking at the so-called antitheses in Matthew 5 where Jesus refers back to the Old Testament law and refutes it by saying, “But I say unto you.” However, in most cases, Jesus doesn’t provide a strict antithesis to these laws, but instead extends or intensifies them (which raises the question why we call these sayings, ‘the antitheses’ in the first place!). But then we come to the “eye for an eye” passages. Unfortunately, most of us have misread the original laws. We think they encourage retaliation and vengeance and treat them like we now have written permission from God to get revenge for the wrong done to us. But when we read these laws in their proper context, we see that they are not interested at all in promoting retaliation, but in setting proper restraints. In short, these laws were about justice and fairness, not retribution. However, the law was adamant that justice must be done. They were to “show no mercy” in making sure that crimes were punished and that the punishment fit the crime.
And this is how it was for centuries, but then Jesus comes along and says in Matthew 5:38-42:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an antithesis (or maybe Jesus is extending the justice principle so far that it just appears like an antithesis!)! The Old Testament is clearly advocating justice (an eye for an eye, but not an eye and an ear for an eye!). And the law calls for us to show no pity to bring about justice. But Jesus turns this whole discussion upside down and comes at it backwards! The law says punishment must be meted out; but Jesus says, don’t resist an evil person (or as NT Wright translates it, “don’t use violence to resist an evil person.”). Jesus says forget about retribution and even forget about justice. Instead, we are to leave justice to God while we remember grace and mercy. Why? Because we are called to love our neighbors and even our enemies. And if we are serious about following Jesus in the way of love, we will not resist an evil person. Scot McKnight writes:
“A person shaped by the Jesus Creed responds to injustice not with retaliation and vengeance, but with grace, compassion and abundant mercy in such a way that it reverses injustice.”
Note those last words, “in such a way that it reverses injustice.” What does that mean? It means entering into the injustice with God’s redeeming grace. Far from calling us to ignore the pain of injustice or to treat it as if it was inconsequential, we are to shame the evil person into repentance. Let me explain.
Let’s start with the “slap.” To be struck on the right cheek presumes a backhanded slap. Backhanded slaps were not intended to injure the victim, but to humiliate and degrade them. Now, a victim of such a slap had few recourses. They could retaliate and escalate the violence (which usually ended very badly). They could cower (but that seemed to egg the perpetrator on and support his “power makes right” perspective). Or they could do what Jesus suggests; they could turn the other cheek. But why? Levine and Brettler write:
“Rather than escalate the violence, and rather than accept the loss of personal dignity, they were to confront the violence by expressing agency. By offering the left cheek, the victim resists humiliation, and displays agency and courage. It shows that a slap does not decrease the humanity of the victim.”
By turning the other cheek, the victim casts shame on the offender and establishes the strength of the victim.
Jesus next mentions the “suit;” but to understand what Jesus is saying here, it is helpful to understand the background. In Jesus’ day, men wore two layers of clothing, an outer cloak and an inner garment. Now, while the outer robe was used for comfort during the day, its real role was at night where the robe functioned as a blanket for warmth. For the poor, this outer coat was essential. In Jesus’ example, someone (who else could it be, but an evil rich person) is suing someone who literally only has the clothes on his back. Apparently, the rich person loaned this poor individual some money, and there has been no attempt (or ability) to repay the debt. As a result, the rich person is demanding the court take the shirt off this man’s back as punishment (and I’ve got to ask, what was the rich person going to do with that shirt – it was the guy’s only shirt, he never took it off – would you want it?). Now, our poor individual could simply accept the court’s decision and stoically surrender his shirt in payment or he could avoid the whole thing by refusing to show up for his court date in the first place. But Jesus offers a third way: Instead of the poor person surrendering only his shirt, he is to offer his robe, as well. Levine explains:
“To give ‘your cloak as well,’ means to strip off one’s other garment in the court and so lay bare, literally, the injustice of the situation. In this setting, it is the one suing who is shamed.”
And in a culture, where nakedness was considered unbearably embarrassing, stripping in front of the court would have shocked and upset—and shamed everyone involved. And it would powerfully deliver the message the poor person was trying to send.
Jesus’ third example revolved around conscription. Roman soldiers often drafted individuals on the side of the road to carry their possessions. Now, individuals could accept the assignment and suffer the ignominy and humiliation of being perceived as nothing more than a pack mule. Or they could decline, but they would suffer a horrific beating as a result. Jesus, however, commands his followers to not only go the first mile, but voluntarily choose to go a second. In so doing, these individuals would demonstrate that they are responsible moral agents who refuse to be reduced to a “wheelbarrow.” And in demonstrating their full humanity, they would shame the soldier for viewing them as subhuman.
The last example. Jesus says,
“Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”
Alms-giving was very important in the ancient world, but so was the giving of loans; and when these loans were not paid back on time, there were penalties and punishments. Jesus tells his followers to give without thought of payback. If the person repaid the loan, great; but if he could not, Jesus says, let it go. Instead of giving to get a return on our investment, we are to be compassionate and generous and kind. Why? Because those who have been given grace in abundance must respond to others with grace.
Let’s face it, we are all about demanding our rights, getting even and getting ahead. But Jesus flips all of that on its head. He even turns Deuteronomy 19:21’s “show no mercy” on its head and, instead, calls his people to “show an extravagance of mercy.” Instead of resisting an evil person, we are to show them mercy. Instead of revenge on someone who has wronged us, we are to show mercy. Instead of demanding our rights, we are to show mercy. Instead of suffering an injustice with hatred and scorn, we are to show mercy. And instead of always seeking what’s in it for us, we are to show mercy and give freely of our time, talent and treasure. And if we embrace Jesus’ ethic here, we not only shame the guilty and subvert the system of injustice, but we also advance Jesus’ kingdom in our world. Granted, from our perspective it is a backwards way of looking at things, but it clearly is the way of Jesus. Scot McKnight writes:
“The cross reveals how God himself deals with injustice and violence; by absorbing and bearing it away, the sin is removed and the mask of injustice is stripped away. It is through the cross that Jesus was vindicated in resurrection and exaltation, and that same promise is given to his followers.”
What better motive is there in this than that? When we do not resist an evil person, when we turn the other cheek, when we surrender what is ours without a struggle in hopes that our silence leads the tyrant to repentance, when we voluntarily go the second mile and give generously and joyfully to the one who asks us, we follow in Jesus’ footsteps and are remade into his likeness. Bonhoeffer said it this way:
“Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but instead, is willingly borne and suffered. Evil meets an opponent for which it is not a match.”
It seems backwards, but it is our straightforward calling. No matter how we read it, our calling is to respond to injustice and evil with love and mercy and goodness. And that is the clear message of the whole New Testament. We are to overcome evil with good. From front to back, it is the same. And we are back where we started. It’s simply “Too hot to hoot.”