It doesn’t take an expert sociologist to realize that we live in a very reactionary society. We react, and often overreact, to just about everything. When someone does something to us, we react by taking revenge. They got us, we have to get them back. Just turn on any competition-based reality show and you will see exactly what I mean.
This type of action-reaction is pure entertainment to most people. Some of us out there love watching middle-aged women bicker and argue and fight like school girls. We love to watch people get into shouting matches and fist fights. It’s funny. It’s entertaining. It’s amusing to us.
Unless we encounter it in real life.
Now there are some out there (some females especially) who live for drama. If there’s not some catastrophe or crisis in their lives (real or imaginary) they begin to get bored and actually seek it out.
I don’t understand this.
Is it any wonder that self-control is listed as a fruit of the Spirit? We don’t live in a society that triumphs self-control, and we never have. Oh, individualism sure is a virtue. Our rights and freedoms to run our own lives are to be fought for in our society. But there’s a difference in controlling your life and having self-control. It’s the difference between freedom and responsibility. We want our freedom, but we cringe at the thought of using our freedom responsibly.
But can we really be in control of our own lives if we refuse to take that responsibility? Are we really in control if everything we do is simply a reaction to what other people have done to us?
In Jesus’ most famous sermon, found in Matthew 5-7, he gives us these instructions:
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)
The idea of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” is almost as ancient as human civilization. King Hammurabi of Babylon had a written code of laws and ethics for his people that included this very phrase. This type of justice is swift and clear. You hit me, I hit you back. You kill my goat, I kill yours. You knock out my tooth, I pull out one of yours. This is in the Bible (Exodus 21:24), but Hammurabi predated the writing of the Law by a few hundred years.
While this may be a clear-cut policy, it also encourages reaction and perpetuates a cycle of revenge. Jesus challenges that entire system which had been in place for nearly two thousand years. He wants his followers to develop real self-control rather than being controlled and manipulated by others. That’s the only way to break this vicious cycle.
Let’s break this down. If a right handed person slaps you on your right cheek, then they would be using the knuckle side of their own hand. That’s a slap of insult, not really meant to injure. If this were to happen to us, our reaction would be to strike back and defend our honor. Jesus says don’t do that. Instead, turn your left cheek to him, see if he has the guts to take things further.
To strike back instantly would mean that the offender has control over you. By not retaliating and then turning the other cheek toward him, you are now taking back control of the situation. You are showing that you are fully in control of your own actions. You have nothing to prove to anyone. You will not be controlled by the cycle of revenge.
Jesus then gives the example of what could very well be a frivolous lawsuit. Someone finds a reason to sue you for your shirt. You can either fight the case, lose the case, and then hand over the shirt kicking and screaming. Or you can take control of the situation by giving your shirt and your coat to the other person. The control shifts from the taker to the giver.
It’s like what Jesus said about his own life – no one can take his life from him, but he gives it up by his own power. The giver is in control, not the taker.
Next, Jesus pulls out an example that would make a lot of people roll their eyes in disgust. If anyone forces you to go one mile – that “anyone” would be a Roman soldier who could force a Jew to carry his gear for him down the road. The Jew could only be made to serve as a pack animal for one mile. It was to the point that many people has markers set up at exactly one mile from their property so that they would not be forced to walk one more yard than necessary.
Jesus says if that happens, don’t just stop at one mile. Go two miles. Or three. Or four. Now you’ve got the Roman soldier’s gear and it’s up to you when to stop. Once again, the control shifts from the soldier to the carrier.
Unfortunately, this would not make for very entertaining television. Next time on Real Housewives, watch three women try to outdo the others in showing honor and respect. I don’t think that would have many viewers…
But in real life, how much more empowering is this? Jesus is not simply telling us to roll over passively and defer all authority to the ones who want to take it. He’s not telling us to let people walk all over us. He’s challenging us to take control of our own actions. We can’t control how others will treat us, but we can control how we respond (not react).
Paul echoes Jesus’ teaching in his letter to the Romans:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Don’t get caught up in the cycle of revenge. Don’t react, but respond in love.
Who’s the boss?