Manhood and the Second Slap PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Sunday, 27 March 2011 17:26

In the ancient world, and in much of the modern world, manhood is about honor. Ancient heroes sought honor through their achievements on the battlefield, in verbal combat, or in sexual conquests. Once achieved, honor had to be protected, since it was in short supply. To be a man was to seek honor, and to retaliate swiftly, vigorously, and (usually) violently to dishonor.

In His ministry and teaching, Jesus launches a frontal assault on this notion of honor, and hence on ancient, and many modern, notions of manhood. As Jerome Neyrey has demonstrated in various works, Jesus’ interest in the dynamics of honor and shame is pervasive in the gospels, but it comes to a head in the Sermon on the Mount, and perhaps most particularly in the well-known instruction to turn the other check to the one who slaps you on the right cheek (Matthew 5:38-39).

It’s important to note, as most commentators do, that Jesus is not dealing with a life-and-death situation.  Getting slapped isn’t the same as being assaulted with a deadly weapon. Jesus is talking about an insult, the kind of slap that shames. A slap on the right cheek is likely a back-handed slap, and someone who slaps you with the back of his hand is saying that you’re no more than a bug to brush away. It’s equally important to note that putting Jesus’ instructions in the context of honor and shame broadens rather than narrows their scope. It makes Jesus’ teaching more applicable, not less. Few of us will ever face a mugger on the street.  Most of us will, at one time or another, be insulted.

An honorable man, ancient or modern, would retaliate with force to a slap, and an honorable Jewish man might even cite the lex talionis for support (v. 38). Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, cheek for cheek, slap for slap; he slapped me, I’ll slap him, at least once and twice as hard. Jesus requires something else of His disciples.  Instead of carrying out retribution by returning a slap for a slap, instead of returning insult for insult, Jesus calls His disciples to bear the burden of retribution and to absorb the second slap. There are still two slaps, but the two slaps fall on the same person. The “double restitution” recoils back on the disciple, who bears the punishment on behalf of the one who insults him. The disciple knows that his honor comes from his heavenly Father (cf. Matthew 6:1-18), and knows that the Father honors those who suffer unjustly like the prophets, so he can endure shame with joy.

This looks like “non-resistance,” but it isn’t.  Jesus never prohibited His disciples from resistance. Verse 39 should be translated “Do not resist by evil means” rather than “Do not resist evil.” Jesus is not telling us to just “take it.” At the same time Jesus forbids us to enter into the cycle of honor and retaliation, vengeance and counter-strike, He’s also forbidding us to do nothing.

Jesus’ instructions are practically shrewd. Instead of perpetuating insults and blows, Jesus teaches His disciples to act in a surprising way that brings an end to the cycle. Instead of a series of slaps and return slaps, there are at most two slaps, both on the cheeks of the disciple, and then it’s over. Following these instructions also, subtly, restores the dignity of the insulted disciple. Instead of being a victim of an unwanted blow, instead of being merely an involuntary object of insult or abuse, the disciple acts – he offers his cheek, he removes his undershirt, he goes a second mile, he gives to whoever demands (vv. 40-42). The slapper wants to treat the slappee as a victim, but when the slappee turns and offers his other check, the slapper is suddenly put on the spot. He has to decide whether to slap again. By turning the other cheek, the slappee has wrested initiative out of the slapper’s hands. The disciple might also expose the bully for the brute that he is, and invert the trajectory of honor and shame. One slap makes the slapper look virile, manly, in control. But slapping someone who’s asking to be slapped exposes the slapper’s cruelty. Beating someone who is fighting back enhances; beating someone who refuses to fight is shameful.

Ultimately, Jesus is not teaching us to turn the cheek because it works. It does work, because it advances the kingdom by undoing cycles of violence and anger and revenge and honor, and opening up a way of reconciliation and restoration. But Jesus ultimately teaches us to turn the cheek because by doing so we follow Him and His example. Jesus teaches us to follow His own example, the way of the Suffering Servant: “I gave My back to those who struck Me, and My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. For the Lord GOD will help Me; therefore I will not be disgraced; therefore I have set My face like a flint, and I know that I will not be ashamed” (Isaiah 50:6-7). Jesus – God Incarnate – took the second slap, endured both sides of the lex talionis, and He calls us to do the same.

Ecce homo. In fact, Behold Manhood, not the pseudo-strong manhood that retaliates against dishonor to return slap for slap, but the stronger manhood that absorbs the second slap and so embodies the righteousness of God.

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