Ephesians 6: 10-20, Matthew 5: 38-42
Dealing with Bullies

“Dealing with Bullies”

Ephesians 6: 10-20, Matthew 5: 38-42

Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~  August 26, 2018  

The calendar is poised to flip over to the month of September ~ for Northwood that means: our eagerly anticipated Fall Fair ~ perhaps September brings some changes to our daily routine ~ and for teachers and children alike it is that dreaded season of ‘back to school’. And with ‘back to school’ brings bullies. Bullies, of course, are not unique to children attending school. Bullying seems to know no boundaries. Bullies are found in the workplace, in the community centre, even in the church, and even in a marriage. And as we prepare to head back into this new month, we are given this morning’s two texts that contain much wisdom for this area.  

As we begin to explore the gospel lection, we find one of Jesus' teachings that we seemingly know so well, “You have heard it said: `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. And if anyone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well. If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two." In the past, this text has been interpreted to let others run all over you. If they hit you on one cheek, turn the other and let them batter you there too. Carry your oppressor’s pack an extra mile. Sadly, this text has been misinterpreted to offer prescriptions to becoming the ‘Christian doormat’.  

We must be clear as we gather this morning: Jesus did not prescribe us to be a doormat. He resisted evil with every fiber of His being. There is not one single instance in which Jesus does not resist evil. And so, as we examine the text, that is where we shall begin there ~ with the word resist. The Greek term is antistenai. Anti is familiar to us in English as meaning "against". The second half ~ Stenai means ‘to stand’. Resist is not a mistranslation so much as an under-translation of the word which means to "stand against." When Jesus says, "Do not resist one who is evil," there is something stronger than simply resist. It's ‘do not resist violently’. Jesus is calling us not to resist evil on its own terms. Don't let your opponent dictate the terms of your opposition. So…if I have a baseball bat and my opponent has a rifle, I may be compelled to get a rifle in order to fight on equal terms, but then my opponent gets a machine gun, so I have to get a machine gun. The spiral of violence is unending. Jesus is trying to break that spiral of violence caused by standing against one another. Don't resist one who is evil probably means something like, ‘don't turn into the very thing you hate’. Don't become what you oppose. The earliest translation of this is found in the powerful first reading. In Romans 12 where Paul says, "Do not return evil for evil."  

In Matthew 5, Jesus gives three examples of what He means by not resisting and returning evil for evil. The first of these is, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. But that is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek..." I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You don’t even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of my hand. Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. In that time in history, the back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew. What Jesus is saying is in effect, ‘When someone tries to humiliate you, back into your inferior social position, turn your other cheek’. Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to your master, ‘I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God just like you’. This is Jesus’ first teaching in how to resist evil by and never allowing your dignity to be taken away.  

The second instance of not resisting that Jesus gives is found in the next verse, "If anyone takes you to court and sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well." The situation here deals with collateral for a loan. If a person was trying to get a loan, normally they would use animals or land as collateral for the loan. But the poorest of the poor (see Dt. 24:10-13) would hock their outer garment. It was the long robe that they used to sleep in at night and used as an overcoat by day. Because the person needed it for warmth at night, the creditor would return the garment each night and come to get it every morning. Jesus' audience is made up of debtors - He is talking to the very people who know they are going to be dragged into court for their indebtedness and they know also that the law is on the side of the wealthy. They are never going to win a case. So, Jesus says to them, ‘When your creditor sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well’. The undergarment, in those days, were one’s underwear. Jesus thus prescribes taking off the last stitch of clothing and standing naked, in court. And the shame of nakedness, in Jesus’ day, fell on the person who observed the person’s nakedness. The creditor is being put in the position of being shamed by the nakedness of their debtor when they try them in court.  

Jesus' third example: "If one of the occupation troops forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two." These soldier’s pack weighed 65 to 85 pounds, not counting weapons. Military law made it permissible for a soldier to second a civilian, forcing them to carry their pack ~ but only one mile. That was why there were mile markers on every Roman road. If the civilian was forced to carry the pack more than one mile, the soldier would be in infraction of military code. And military code was always more strictly enforced than civilian. So, Jesus is saying, ‘All right. The next time the soldier forces you to carry his pack, cooperate. Carry it and then when you come to the mile marker, resist ~ take back the power and keep going’. The soldier will suddenly finds himself in a position he has never been in before. He would expect you to complain and carry the pack and as soon as the mile marker came, he would expect you to drop it. When you continue on, the soldier will not know what to do. He will be in infraction of military law will find himself in deep trouble.  

Jesus is teaching these people how to take the initiative away from their oppressors and within the situation of that old order, find a new way of being. What Jesus is showing us in these examples is that we don't have to wait for a utopian revolution to come along before we can start living lives with integrity and power. We must begin now, under the conditions of the old order, taking the power back, in the here and now. The Kin-dom of God can be experienced breaking into the world now, the moment we begin living in these ways of dignity of self-esteem.  

One of my wonderful memories in my studies at SFU was to work with a Ghandi scholar during my schooling. It is interesting that Gandhi said, "Everyone in the world knows that Jesus and His teaching is non-violent, except Christians." What Jesus is articulating here is a way of living in the world without violence, a way of overcoming domination in all its forms by using a way that will not create new forms of violence. In the past, we have thought we had only two choices, either resist evil or don't resist evil. Jesus seemed to be saying, "Don't resist evil," and, therefore, non-resistance seemed to be the only alternative: submission, surrender, giving up. Yet we find that Jesus was not asking us to be doormats, to give up our concern for justice. Now we see in this passage interpreted in a new light, Jesus is not calling on people to be non-resistant. He is calling on them to be non-violent. He is calling on them to resist, in a way that is not injurious or harmful to the other person.  

There are so many modern day applications to this teaching that almost find ourselves wanting to apply it immediately. I am so tired of hearing people misquote this text and tell us that Christians need to be doormats! This passage is the refreshing answer of how we are called to live in those challenging moments of life when we face the bully. The question we become left with is how we will stand against the modern-day bully in our community? May we find the strength to live out our faith in ways that allow the Kin-dom of God to further be born.