I had been accused of calling someone, maybe more than one person, a cowpat. Did I? Actually, yes I did but the context is important. It wasn’t a word I had conjured out of thin air on the spur of the moment and the insult wasn’t personal.
“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 (Matthew 5:38-42)
I was discussing the whole slapping thing with a group of young people. There is a perception out there in the world that the slapping thing is about not retaliating and not standing up for yourself. You are not allowed to hit back but you “take one on the chin for Jesus”. That is not what it is.
A slap in Jewish culture at the time of Jesus had a very specific meaning. It was a deep insult. It wasn’t about physical violence. It wasn’t a challenge like throwing down a gauntlet. A slap was deeply insulting. It was about showing contempt. How you slapped mattered. Using the palm of your hand was a slap delivered to an equal. Using the back of your hand was delivered to someone you considered to be inferior – the person equivalent of a cowpat.
With a back handed slap to the right cheek, not only are you insulting someone, you are also telling the world you think they are inferior – a master to a slave, a husband to a wife, a parent to a child.
OK, so we pretended to slap each other’s right cheeks with back handers and just in case we didn’t know we were being insulted we called each other “cowpat” and laughed a lot. It’s quite possible that some weren’t laughing. They stopped at the cowpat and didn’t move on. The next bit of Jesus’ teaching didn’t sink in.
Jesus went on to say “turn to them the other cheek also”. He didn’t say you just “walk away”. When you turn the other cheek you are inviting a second slap. However the person who is slapping is dealing with a left cheek, not a right cheek. It’s almost impossible to backhand someone’s left cheek with the right hand. The person slapping, if they want to continue slapping, has to use an open palm – a slap between equals. What you are saying, by offering the left cheek is “You might consider yourself superior to me, but I don’t accept that. I refuse to live your way.” It doesn’t really matter what someone else thinks of us – we are not going to define ourselves in their terms. We are not going to return the insult either or involve ourselves in a tit for tat scuffle.
So much of Jesus’ teaching, whether it comes in thirty second sound bites or in fully blown stories or parables, come with a context. We don’t always know the context. We interpret the teaching in the light of our own culture and experience and miss what Jesus rally meant.
We don’t often get insulted with a slap to the right cheek. Our insults come in other ways. I was watching “Room 101” a week or two ago. Celebrities were asked to identify things that they didn’t think people should do, explain why and then, if they have convinced the panel host their irritation was shovelled into the bin – the metaphorical bin.
It wasn’t a celebrity that I could put a name to. He was complaining about aggressive atheists. These people are not content to live and let live. They insist that the believer is always wrong and see it as their duty to drag the believer into a reasonable and a scientific world. There are not gentle people. They don’t always use reason, or intelligent debate but often throw insults around like “stupid” and “moron”. He didn’t like that aggressiveness. The panel host agreed and the aggressive atheists were disposed of.
We don’t seem to have worked out how to respond to the insults that come our way. I think we go on the defensive or we whinge a lot about the unfairness of it all. We tell ourselves that we are being targeted – and we are. We mutter and we grumble.
If this is the promised persecution then we should be rejoicing. We should be claiming all the resources God gives to respond with kindness - part of which is not allowing them, the aggressive atheists, to continue their mockery and the ridicule.
I lift up my eyes to you,
to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he shows us his mercy.
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
for we have endured no end of contempt.
We have endured no end
of ridicule from the arrogant,
of contempt from the proud.
The Psalmist shows us how – powerful lives lived with open eyes fixed on God and with His mercy poured upon us and through us.