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Pointers along the way #455

Impossible commandments?
- Jacob Ninan

If someone takes your shirt, give him your coat also. If someone asks you to go with him a mile, go two. If someone strikes you on your right cheek, offer him the other too. Give to everyone who asks. If your eye offends you pluck it out. Etc. These are portions of the Sermon on the Mount. How on earth can we obey such 'commands'? Many people try to bring out contexts and cultural backgrounds to explain how we can obey them. Some wise guy has gone so far as to say that only a left handed person can slap us on our right cheek, and that such occasions are rare! But at the end of it all, we are very confused.

The problem is that we take these words of Jesus too literally. Some of us actually treat every statement in the Bible with a scientific precision that is simply not there. Many times we don't take into consideration the figures of speech and the poetic licence the authors used or the literary genre under which the book or passage falls. For example, can we take verses from the Book of Proverbs (e.g., 22:6) as promises from God when we should know that proverbs are just statements of observations (sometimes mixed with poetic licence, e.g., 18:21), that are generally true but which can have exceptions?

If we look at the above statements from Jesus, do we really think that Jesus expects us to obey them literally? In the case of plucking out our eyes practically no one will imagine so. When we think about it we can also see that no one can really manage to give to everyone who asks. If we thought that at least this difficulty would not apply to turning the other cheek, we would be shocked to see that Jesus Himself didn't do it when He was struck by an official in front of the high priest (Jn.18:22,23)! When we seek to understand the Bible we need to do much more than just look at the words.

If we look at the passage in Mt.5:38-48 we can see that basically Jesus was trying to teach us about our attitude to those who mistreat us. It is not a set of commandments to be obeyed literally. Don't we understand that loving our enemies can't mean liking them? It means forgiving them and returning good for all the evil they do to us. If we want to do this, we would have to overlook the many wrong things they have done for us and not ask for an eye for an eye, or in other words, think of demanding justice. So then we would need to be willing to suffer injustice (as all the examples show us), and still seek to do good to them. Isn't this the message we get from this passage? Instead of this we waste our time figuring out how to obey them!

Using exaggerated statements to bring home a point was a pet approach that Jesus took many times. Think of how difficult it is for a camel to go through a needle's eye as an illustration to show how difficult it is for people who are rich in themselves to enter heaven (Mt.19:24). Why don't we get to the real point instead of trying to find explanations for the needle, Jewish customs, etc.?


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