The Other Cheek

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | February 12, 2023

Matthew 5:38-48

Retaliation. Revenge. The idea of striking back when struck goes so far back into human history that it seems almost like something we are born with. When you retaliate you are putting things right; or so it seems. You are evening the score. We do want the score to be even, don’t we? Maybe we need to ask, do we even have the right to keep score?

An eye for an eye, we say. It’s only right, isn’t it?

Last year on February 9th in Minneapolis, 30-year-old Cody Fohrenkam was robbed. He was smacked around a bit and his phone was taken. He was upset, as anyone might be. He decided he was going to get his phone back; He was going to get an eye for an eye. He was walking around the neighborhood where he got robbed, looking for his phone and the person who took it.

Proverbs 17:12 says, “Better to meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs than to confront a fool immersed in folly.” Or perhaps to pass that fool on the street.

That day 15-year-old Deshaun Hill, Jr. was walking home from North High School in Minneapolis. Deshaun was a student at North High School where my daughter is a teacher. He and Cody passed each other on the sidewalk. Deshaun and Cody had never met. Cody pulled out a gun and shot Deshaun in the back, killing him.

As is often the case when someone seeks an eye for an eye, the balancing of the scales doesn’t  stop there. What did this notion of an eye for an eye mean? Is it a formula for justice, or is it a justification for seeking revenge?

In the book of Exodus there are a series of laws which provide the guidelines for justice. These laws were not created in a vacuum. No one sat down and said, “Let’s see now, what penalty shall we exact for the loss of an eye? Hey, I’ve got it, how about an eye for an eye?” These laws were formulated from experience. They reflected the kinds of predicaments in which people could find themselves. Dangerous predicaments where a person’s life could be forever altered.

The intent of these laws was not retaliation, but justice. The law sought balance, not revenge. The benefit of keeping the law was peace in the community. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth was a rule designed for a person’s protection. It meant that accidents could in some way be paid for, yet the penalty would not be harsher than the crime. Human nature might demand a life for an eye. The law was a guard against the all too human desire for revenge.

How did Jesus interpret the law? He took the law a step further. His interpretation casts a new light on the law; he referred to his teachings as fulfillment of the law.  He said, “Do not set yourself against the one who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer them your left one as well.”

Everything we know, everything we feel tells us that this is wrong. “We’ll do everything you say Jesus, except to turn the other cheek. You just don’t know what it’s like in today’s world. We get slapped around enough as it is without setting ourselves up as easy targets. We just don’t see how this idea fits into the reality of our experience.” It’s one of those ideas that seem to broaden the gap between religious expectations and actual experience.

The standards we live by seem to demand retaliation. If someone takes advantage of you, it isn’t natural to just sit back let it happen. People say, “Why do you take that? Why do you put up with that? Why don’t you do something about that?” The idea of turning the other cheek is perhaps one of the most difficult ideas to master.

When my children were in school and they asked, “Dad will I get in trouble if I fight back?” No one wants their child to be the easy victim of the school yard bully, so we say, “Stand up for yourself and don’t let some bully push you around. Fight back and they won’t pick on you.”

And it all seems to make perfect sense. So we grow up learning that in order to survive, we must stand up for ourselves and fight back. Then Jesus comes along and turns our cherished traditions upside down by saying, “Turn the other cheek.” Turn the other cheek sounds almost like a mockery to us.

The obvious question is “Why? Why should we turn the other cheek?”     

The people who were the original audience of this teaching were without power. They did not have the resources to defend themselves. They were under military rule by a foreign power. It was martial law. There were no such things as a constitution or civil rights. It was a law and order society. Order was enforced with violence.

The saying, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek” was not a theoretical notion; it was reality. The key to understanding the idea of turning the other cheek is found when Jesus says “right cheek.”

If a person was slapped on the right cheek, it would happen in one of two ways. One was a back-handed kind of slap; a was a slap that showed contempt. Another was a left-handed slap; the unclean hand. It was an insult. Why then if a person was insulted, should they turn the other cheek? For another insult?

By turning the other cheek, a person would be saying to the one who offered the slap, “If you hit me, you must recognize my humanity. You may have the power to slap me, but in so doing, I will at least retain my dignity.” And just maybe when faced with a person’s dignity, the one who is inclined to strike out of contempt, will reconsider. When you set yourself against the one who wrongs you, Jesus is saying that you create more conflict. By turning the other cheek, you create the possibility of diffusing conflict.

What’s being called for is a new starting point in human relationships. The starting point of the relationship Jesus points to is to look for the other person’s best interest. Jesus calls us to widen our obligation to include other people. By considering another person’s interest, we begin to demonstrate the presence of God in our midst. We begin to reflect the wholeness that Jesus came to give us. It’s a place to start.

One of my grandsons, Ian is 16 years old now. He’s growing up; he’s taller than me. When I think about his path in life and the challenges he faces, I am mindful of what it means to turn the other cheek. Ian is black. He was born in Ethiopia and came into our family when he was six months old. My daughter Jane is a teacher at North High School where Deshaun Hill was a student. She has known many students like him who have died from violence. When Ian was starting out in school, she wrote a prayer for him –

“Thank you for my precious boy, who was created perfectly, in your image, with a sharp mind, a tender heart and cinnamon skin.

Since I first held him in my heart, and then my arms, I have prayed for wisdom and strength, with gratitude and joy, to be the mother he needs, now and always.

Now I pray for his life, his future, his sense of purpose in this world that breeds injustice and intolerance even as you have taught us to love first, always first, and love most and love best.

Please enter the classroom where my son will sit on the edge of a chasm between himself and his white classmates that is filled with lowered expectations, higher rates of suspension, suspicion of cheating even as he is so articulate.

Turn the pages of his book, lift his ballpoint pen, build the connections in his mind despite the depths of that chasm, so he can prove himself over and over and over.

Hold in your hands the inferno of his curiosity so the pervasiveness of institutional racism does not extinguish his light.

Please walk alongside him in the store while he clutches his allowance in search of the perfect reward for a dollar earned, all the while tailed by suspicious security, a concerned cashier, a secret shopper.

Help him not to lose the lessons we have imparted in the excitement of his purchase. Never touch merchandise you do not intend to buy. Never wander aimlessly in a store. Always ask for a bag and a receipt, no matter how small the purchase.

Hold in your hands his carefree spirit that he must leave at the entrance to be ever alert, on guard, in control, until he can resume a relaxed posture, perhaps in the privacy of his home at least, and always in the arms of his family.

Please sit in the passenger seat when my son is pulled over for a burned-out taillight, not using his turn signal, drifting too close to the center line, driving while black.

Speak the words ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir’ through his lips, even while spread eagle and cuffed, without hesitation, as if his life depended on it, which it does.

Hold in your hands the hurt, the anger, the attitude, the humiliation, the questions, until he is among his own, who will be ready to hear it and bear it, every time it happened.

Please keep my son alive.

Please keep my son safe and healthy.

Please keep my son motivated, passionate, and loving…even when he has every right not to be.

Please hold my son in your hands, along with every other black boy who sits in that classroom, walks into that store, and drives down that street.”  Amen.

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