Monday, June 14, 2010

When Someone Strikes You On The Right Cheek, Turn The Other Cheek As Well.

Monday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I
1 Kings 21:1-16
Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel
next to the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria.
Ahab said to Naboth,
“Give me your vineyard to be my vegetable garden,
since it is close by, next to my house.
I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or,
if you prefer, I will give you its value in money.”
Naboth answered him, “The LORD forbid
that I should give you my ancestral heritage.”
Ahab went home disturbed and angry at the answer
Naboth the Jezreelite had made to him:
“I will not give you my ancestral heritage.”
Lying down on his bed,
he turned away from food and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said to him,
“Why are you so angry that you will not eat?”
He answered her,
“Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite
and said to him, ‘Sell me your vineyard, or,
if you prefer, I will give you a vineyard in exchange.’
But he refused to let me have his vineyard.”
His wife Jezebel said to him,
“A fine ruler over Israel you are indeed!
Get up
Eat and be cheerful.
I will obtain the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite for you.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and,
having sealed them with his seal,
sent them to the elders and to the nobles
who lived in the same city with Naboth.
This is what she wrote in the letters:
“Proclaim a fast and set Naboth at the head of the people.
Next, get two scoundrels to face him
and accuse him of having cursed God and king.
Then take him out and stone him to death.”
His fellow citizens
—the elders and nobles who dwelt in his city—
did as Jezebel had ordered them in writing,
through the letters she had sent them.
They proclaimed a fast
and placed Naboth at the head of the people.
Two scoundrels came in
and confronted him with the accusation,
“Naboth has cursed God and king.”
And they led him out of the city and stoned him to death.
Then they sent the information to Jezebel
that Naboth had been stoned to death.

When Jezebel learned that Naboth had been stoned to death,
she said to Ahab,
“Go on, take possession of the vineyard
of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you,
because Naboth is not alive, but dead.”
On hearing that Naboth was dead,
Ahab started off on his way
down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite,
to take possession of it.
Today we have the story of Naboth’s vineyard - an example of corrupt and shameless use of power. The main characters are King Ahab and his Sidonian wife, Jezebel. We have seen both of them before and the general impression is that Ahab is weak, while his wife is corrupt and ruthless. It was she who introduced the worship of Baal into Israel and had wanted to avenge the execution of the Baal priests by killing Elijah.

he story begins on a reasonable enough note. King Ahab asks Naboth to exchange his vineyard which adjoins the king’s property for another one or, alternatively, to be given its value in money. This property was in Jezreel, where Ahab had a second palace, in addition to his main one in Samaria.
In spite of his position, the king could not confiscate land. The king’s power in Israel was limited by the Law so Ahab was unable simply to take over privately held land, as was customary with Canaanite kings (not to mention kings and governments in our own time!).

Naboth, however, refused because the ownership of the land was a sacred tradition handed down through generations. Naboth’s refusal to dispose of his land was based on the conviction that the land belonged to the Lord and that a perpetual lease had been given to each Israelite family. This was to be jealously preserved as the family’s permanent inheritance in the promised land. (One of the central issues in the ongoing strife between Israelis and Palestinians today is precisely who has prior right to the ownership of the land, especially where outsiders have come in to take it over.)

Ahab, like many people of power when they do not get their way, went into a sulken depression and refused even to eat. In some ways, of course, his behaviour arose out of his respect - or his fear - of the Law which he did not want to violate.

His wife, Jezebel, however, saw things differently. As a Canaanite, she was not used to seeing kingly power challenged and she satirically mocked her husband’s weakness. “A fine king you are!” A sarcastic remark of incredulity spoken by one accustomed to the dictatorial practices of Phoenician and Canaanite kings, who would not hesitate a moment to use their power to satisfy personal interests. Something we see all too often even in these times. She tells him to get up and cheer up because he is going to get the vineyard he covets so badly.

Writing in the king’s name, she shamelessly sent off letters to the aristocracy and the leaders of the people ordering them to proclaim a fast (as if there had been a national calamity) and to put Naboth on trial (as its cause), accusing him of cursing God and the king, both charges carrying the punishment of death by stoning. In effect, the leaders of the community become collaborators in the crime; they could very well have known or suspected the real circumstances.

In addition, they were told to produce two witnesses - as required by law - to make the charges stick, where a capital offence was involved. These men were to give false testimony in order to give a veneer of legality to the proceedings. Naboth was to be accused of cursing both God and king, for which the mandatory sentence was stoning. It seems also that the possessions of those condemned to death went to the king - the main purpose of the whole charade.

It is possible that there may, in fact, have been some form of calamity at the time, such as a drought or famine, which gave Jezebel the excuse to get rid of Naboth. She wanted to create the impression that a disaster threatened the people, a disaster which only be averted if they would humble themselves before the Lord and remove any person whose sin had brought God’s judgement on them.

Everything was done to the letter as Jezebel, in the name of the king, had ordered. The two witnesses gave their false testimony and Naboth was stoned outside Jezreel, as the law required. (Jesus, too, was brought outside the city for his execution.) From references in the Second Book of Kings, it seems that Naboth was actually stoned on his own land and his sons were stoned with him. This eliminated the heirs who might make claim to the land, thus leaving it for the king to take over.

With the vineyard now ownerless, Jezebel told her husband, as king, to exercise his right and take it over for himself. The reading ends with Ahab going down to Naboth’s vineyard to take it over but, as we shall see in tomorrow’s reading, there is an unpleasant surprise in store for him.

This story has overtones of the trial and death of Jesus much later on. Jesus himself, in a parable, will tell of tenants who will take over a vineyard and kill the son of the owner. Jesus, too, will be accused of cursing God and the Roman emperor and will be executed - not by stoning but by death on a cross. In his case, too, scoundrels will be brought forward to make charges of blasphemy against God and sacrilege against the Temple. And, like Naboth, the execution will take place outside the city.
We need to be constantly on our guard that people are not falsely accused even if it is “only” a matter of gossip but even more so if it is a serious matter. And we might ask to what lengths we would be prepared to go simply to have something we want but do not need.

We live, too, in a world where there is a great deal of scapegoating (the ‘blame culture’) and corrupt justice at many levels of public and private life. Let us not be part of it in any way.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 5
Lord, listen to my groaning.
Hearken to my words, O LORD,
attend to my sighing.
Heed my call for help,
my king and my God!
Lord, listen to my groaning.
At dawn I bring my plea expectantly before you.
For you, O God, delight not in wickedness;
no evil man remains with you;
the arrogant may not stand in your sight.
Lord, listen to my groaning.
You hate all evildoers.
You destroy all who speak falsehood;
The bloodthirsty and the deceitful
the LORD abhors.
Lord, listen to my groaning.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Matthew 5:38-42
Jesus said to his disciples:
“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you,
offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one to him as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand him your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go with him for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”
We continue Jesus’ interpretations of some commands of the Mosaic Law as he pushes that law to a higher level of understanding.
“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is not, as it may seem to be saying, an encouragement to take revenge. It is part of what is known as the lex talionis by which punishment for an assault was to be restricted to not more than the suffering experienced. So Exodus 21:23-24 says: “You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stroke for stroke.”

Jesus calls for a very different kind of response. He tells us to offer the “wicked man” no resistance.  He makes the famous recommendation to turn the other cheek. If a man would take your tunic, give him your cloak as well. If someone asks you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to the one who begs and do not turn away a borrower.

It is not surprising that even in Christian circles not a great deal of time is given to this text. Is it to be taken literally? Are we really to allow people to walk over us and offer no resistance at all?

I think the answer is both Yes and No.
For many in our “macho”-idealised world, turning the other cheek seems the ultimate in wimpishness and cowardice. It is certainly not the way of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and countless other “heroes” on our cinema and TV screens. Can you imagine them turning the other cheek?

But Jesus did. During his trial before the Sanhedrin “they spat in his face and hit him with their fists; others said as they struck him, ‘Play the prophet, Christ! Who hit you then?’” (Matthew 26:67-68). What was Jesus’ response? Silence. This was turning the other cheek. Was this weakness or was it strength? Which is easier to do under great provocation: to practise self-restraint and keep one’s dignity or to lash out in retaliation? By lashing out one comes down to the same level as one’s attackers. (This is quite different from self-defence.)

In another account of Jesus’ trial (John 18:22-23), after having given an answer to a question, “one of the guard standing by gave Jesus a slap in the face, saying, ‘Is that the way to answer the high priest?’ Jesus replied, ‘If there is something wrong in what I said, point it out; but if there is no offence in it, why do you strike me?’”  Here Jesus does respond to the attack but on a totally different level. The physical and unreasonable attack on an unarmed person is actively responded to on the basis of reason and non-violence. Jesus is not a victim here; he is in control. And this is true of the whole experience of the passion. His executioners behave in the most barbaric way but he never loses his calm and dignity right up to the very end. 

And that is why we worship him as our Lord and Master. He asks us to follow in his footsteps.

Revenge, in all its various forms, is the easier way, the more instinctive way but it is not the better way. The way of active (not passive) non-violence is, in the long run, far more productive, far more in keeping with human ideals and human dignity. We have more than enough evidence in our world of the bankruptcy of a never-ending cycle of violence and counter-violence. We see it in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland. Violence does not pay; revenge is not sweet.

The example of Jesus has been followed by a number of outstanding people in our own time. Gandhi in India, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks who inspired him, in the US, Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany, Dorothy Day in the US, Jean Goss and Hildegard Meyer of the active non-violence movement in Europe… All of these people were actively involved in the correction of seriously unjust situations.

There is a striking scene in the film “To Kill a Mocking Bird” where the lawyer (played by Gregory Peck) has been defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. As a white man himself the lawyer earns the hatred and contempt of his fellow-whites for defending a “nigger” they have already condemned as guilty. In this scene one of the townspeople approaches the lawyer and spits into his face. The lawyer stands there, says nothing, and slowly wipes away the spit. For the film viewer the contempt immediately shifts to the man who spat. The positive non-action of the lawyer reveals the smallness of his assailant.

Turning the other cheek is not at all a sign of weakness. It requires great inner strength, self-respect and even respect for the dignity of one’s attacker. Jesus is calling us a long way forward and upward from “an eye for an eye”.


Sarah in the tent said...

I think Ahab and Jezebel might have been even more cynical than you describe. Perhaps the fast was proclaimed to plead with God that the king might get better (he had taken to his bed). After Naboth had been successfully stoned, Ahab staged a miraculous recovery, which made everyone think that Naboth had truly been guilty of placing him under a curse.

When I was about 8, I had the opportunity to 'turn the other cheek' myself. Our school had been temporarily relocated to share another school's site. One day, some unknown boy from the other school just grabbed my nose and twisted it practically upside-down! I can remember thinking 'turn the other cheek', and wondering how it applied to noses - perhaps turn the other nostril... Anyway, after glaring at me for a while as I struggled to breathe and my eyes watered, the boy said to me, 'you're weird!' and ambled off. I never saw him again.

Not a pleasant experience, but thinking of the teaching gave me a sort of detachment. Also, there was no escalation. The boy had little to boast about and I didn't have to worry about revenge attacks.

Children are just as territorial as adults, but even less subtle about it. The Jezreel valley, where Naboth had his vineyard, is still a source of territorial conflict and the location of Armageddon! The Holy Land needs this teaching of Our Lord's more than anywhere.

Our Lord did battle with the sword of His word. His honesty was sometimes brutal and He was not afraid to cut through polite conventional behaviour with offensive truths. I think some current conflicts are due to leaders who are less afraid of war than they are of arguing frankly. This is a tragedy.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

What an incredibly wise child you were! And how perceptive about the Middle East situation (where I lived for some years)!

We have so many opportunities to turn the other cheek. Once, the Union president vociferously opposed my being hired into a senior management position at an institution where I had worked years earlier (and left) as a junior manager. (Long story, and I felt that he was very wrong in his perception because he was relying on untrue information from some jealous but vocal junior managers.) I was hired, anyway, and he came to me on several occasions for "favors" which were warranted and which I granted. Two years later, he died suddenly. I was asked to be one of the three eulogists, and after the service, his family, which had come all the way from Egypt, said that it was my eulogy that began their healing!

On another occasion, an employee took me to court because I had not given him a position for which he was not ready. Years later, he was ready for a junior management position, and I was the only one, other than my boss, in the institute to support him. Based on my recommendation, that person was promoted. Now, he often comes to me for advice. He seems to have become a fan, but at the very least, we have become supportive colleagues.

These "other cheek" experiences, I am convinced, do more good for us than for the other person. Either way, it is a win-win situation if we can only follow that teaching.

Anonymous said...

Here and elsewhere in the Bible, Jesus practices what he preaches: Blessed are the meek. He never acted in response to attacks on his “ego” but would always stand up for “the principle of the thing” (to use a common phrase).

Something he did, as you say, through the whole experience of the passion and death. Every Beatitude is right there, from:
Blessed are the meek - “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do“, to
Blessed are the merciful - “This day you shall be with me in Heaven“, to
Blessed are the poor in Spirit - “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” to
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst - “I thirst”

I don't think we give enough attention to the Beatitudes either.