Historical Cultural Context
Concluding his reinterpretation of the commandments, Jesus paints three scenes in which one disciple humiliated by another is urged to forego retaliation (Mt 5:38-4).
Being struck on the right cheek entails either a backhand slap from a right-handed person or an open-handed slap from a left-handed person. The left hand in the Middle East is reserved for toilet functions. It is a serious insult to place that hand on the table, use it in eating, or extend it to others. Both slaps are insulting (Mt 5:3).
Having to resort to courts in the Middle East is very shameful. Arguments should be settled long before this stage. Jesus’ recommendation to yield more (the tunic) than the plaintiff asks (the cloak) is astounding (Mt 5:40). The cloak was absolutely essential not only as a piece of clothing but as a sleeping bag. To give this up too would leave one naked, a shameful condition to say the least.
Lastly, it was legal and customary for soldiers to force citizens to carry their military gear for one mile. In first-century, occupied Palestine, this soldier frequently was a fellow Israelite who turned mercenary. Carrying the gear was humiliation enough; being forced to do so by a traitorous fellow citizen was even more humiliating (Mt 5:41).
In each instance, Jesus urges the humiliated disciple to suffer the shame and surrender the right to defend honor. Is the advice radical or culturally practical?
Middle Easterners are agonistic, combative. When threatened with dishonor, they will attempt to respond. Since all these insults happen in a very public arena, the attempt is normally sufficient. Usually others, certainly kin, will intervene to halt the insult process. This permits the shamed or dishonored one to be reconciled with the aggressor later when tempers cool.
Jesus’ advice, therefore, is practical rather than radical. He urges relying upon others to defend against dishonor rather than seeking justice or shedding blood. It is preferable to preserve community rather than destroy it.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
**From St. Louis University