By Robert More
In Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Fortress Press, 1992) and The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (Doubleday, 1998), theologian Walter Wink offered an interpretation of Mt 5:38-41 that has been quite influential in the later work of theologians and others writing about gospel nonviolence. For example, Terrence J. Rynne echoes Wink’s interpretation in his Jesus Christ, Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace (Orbis Books 2014).1
Taken from the Sermon on the Mount, the passage reads as follows:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”2
I am not a theologian like Wink and Rynne, and they may be right about the import of Jesus’ teaching in this passage. But I think there are good reasons to be skeptical about Wink’s interpretation. Let us consider the passage verse by verse, following Jesus’ summary of the lex talionis in verse 38.3
39a “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer.”
According to Wink,
The Greek word translated “resist” in Matt. 5:39 is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti). What translators have overlooked is that antistenai is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way opposing armies would march toward each other until their ranks met. Then they would “take a stand,” that is, fight. Ephesians 6:13 uses precisely this imagery: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand [antistenai] on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm [stenai].” The image is not of a punch-drunk boxer somehow managing to stay on his feet, but of soldiers standing their ground, refusing to flee. In short, antistenai means more here than simply to “resist” evil. It means to resist violently, to revolt or rebel, to engage in an armed insurrection.4
It is undoubtedly true that Jesus is ruling out violent resistance in verse 39a. But Wink wants to limit the prohibition to violent resistance because he will argue that verses 39b-41 call for “aggressive nonviolent actions.”5 We will evaluate Wink’s view of those verses shortly. But it is worth noting at this point that other eminent Scripture scholars interpret verse 39a more broadly.
For example, according to John P. Meier,
What Jesus is forbidding is any seeking of retaliation, retribution, or compensation whatsoever. It is this basic system of retribution set up by the Torah which Jesus rejects for his disciples.6
Meier interprets verse 39a in light of verses 38 and 40:
In the judicial context of 5:38, the difficult phrase of 5:39, m? antist?nai t? poner?, probably means: do not contend at law with your legal adversary, the same idea which is present in verse 40a, t? thelonti soi krith?nai, “the one who wishes to contend with you at law.”7
John L. McKenzie, on the other hand, interprets verse 39a in light of what follows in verse 39b:
The customary principle of self-defense is rejected by this saying of Jesus; and the customary principle is not replaced by another principle of self-defense. . . . The statement is simply not to resist “evil” or “the evil one” . . . .8
39b “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . . .”
Wink’s argument about verse 39b places great emphasis on the mention of the right cheek in Matthew’s account. Wink says, “To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks . . . .”9 Thus, the only way to hit the other’s right cheek is by a backhanded blow with one’s right hand.
The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place.10
Jesus is telling his hearers, Wink says,
“Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.”. . . By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again. . . . The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality. This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship.11
I see several potential problems with this analysis. First, Luke’s version of the same saying is simply, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also . . .” (6:29); so it seems risky to attach so much importance to the specification of the right cheek in Matthew.12
Second, Wink implies that people in Jesus’ day fought only with their right hands, which seems highly implausible. If a master had such disdain for a servant that he was prepared to deal him or her an insulting blow, would he refrain from using his left hand because it was unclean?
Third, it is simply not true that one cannot use one’s right fist to strike the right cheek of another. Admittedly, it would be more natural for one to hit another’s left cheek (or nose) with the right fist if the two people were squarely facing one another. But even then, the other’s right cheek could be struck with one’s right fist; and such a blow would be easy if the assailant were standing even slightly to the other’s right. Nothing in the verse requires us to assume the assailant is standing at an angle from which it would be impossible to strike the other’s right cheek with the right fist.
Fourth, it is also not true that one cannot backhand another with the right hand once the other has turned his or her left cheek toward the assailant.
Fifth, nothing in the verse indicates that the assailant is a superior asserting his dominance. Jesus simply says, “If anyone strikes you . . . .” Wink has narrowed the context of the verse because of his insistence that the blow could only be a backhand from a superior.
Sixth, in Wink’s view, Jesus is advising his hearers on how to prevent a second blow, since supposedly it would be beneath the superior’s dignity to hit the inferior’s turned left cheek with his right fist. But if that were true, why would Jesus not have advised his hearers on how to prevent a first blow, saying, e.g., “If someone raises his hand to strike you on your right cheek, turn your left cheek to him instead”? It seems much more likely that Jesus is advising his hearers to offer to take a second blow, thereby showing they will not be provoked into responding in kind to a first blow.
Seventh, it would have taken Jesus a few seconds to utter verse 39b before moving on to verses 40-42. Wink’s theory requires the hearers to grasp immediately the full significance of Jesus’ mention of the right cheek, a point that takes Wink several paragraphs to explain and that escaped the notice of theologians and preachers for almost two millennia.13
A much more straightforward reading of verses 38-39 is that violence is to be suffered, not answered with more violence, which is how McKenzie interprets it.14 Wink appears to have read a lot more into the text than is there.
40 “[A]nd if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well . . . .”
Regarding verse 40, Wink writes,
Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence is set in a court of law. A creditor has taken a poor man to court over an unpaid loan. . . . Deuteronomy 24:10-13 provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening so the poor man would have something in which to sleep.
. . . .
Why, then, does Jesus counsel [the poor, when sued for their outer garments,] to give over their undergarments as well? This would mean stripping off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked! Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness (Gen. 9:20-27). By stripping, the debtor has brought shame on the creditor.
. . . .
. . . This is guerrilla theater!15
I see several potential problems with this interpretation as well. First, Wink reverses the word order in verse 40 because he thinks Matthew has it wrong and, I submit, because the original wording does not fit Wink’s rhetorical purposes. As McKenzie explains, the garments mentioned in this verse are the tunic, “a long shirt worn next to the body” (which the NRSV oddly translates here as “coat”), and the cloak, “a heavier outer garment that protected against cold and rain.”16 In Mt 5:40, Jesus talks about giving up one’s cloak in addition to the tunic that has been demanded, whereas in Lk 6:29, Jesus talks about giving up one’s tunic in addition to the cloak that has been demanded. Wink considers Luke’s version more accurate on this point, since the cloak would have had greater value as collateral for a loan.17
But Matthew generally seems well versed in Jewish practices of the day, so it seems likely he was familiar with Jewish lending practices. In that case, Matthew would have understood Jesus to be making a different point from the one offered by Wink, e.g., if someone demands something you have of lesser value (the tunic), give him that and something of even greater value (the cloak).
Second, it is unlikely that verse 40 involves the courtroom drama Wink describes. Jesus says, “if anyone wants to sue you,” not “if anyone has sued you”—the lawsuit is prospective. The thought is consistent with Mt 5:25, where Jesus advises his hearers to settle with their opponents before getting to court. In the parallel saying in Luke, there is no mention of a court at all (“from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt,” Lk 6:29).18 If there is no courtroom scene, then there is no stage for the “guerilla theater” Wink imagines.
Third, Wink says that Jesus’ hearers are “impoverished debtors, who have nothing left but the clothes on their backs.”19 And of course, if all you own are the tunic and cloak you are wearing, the result of giving them both to a creditor would be nakedness. But nothing in the passage indicates the hearers—Jesus’ disciples (Mt 5:1)—are that destitute. In Mk 6:9 and the parallel verses in Mt 10:10 and Lk 9:3, Jesus tells the Twelve not to take a second tunic with them on their missionary journey, which indicates they had other tunics they could have taken.20 Giving up a second tunic one was not wearing would not result in nakedness.
Fourth, Wink claims that, although nakedness was taboo in Judaism, “shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness.”21 In support of this claim, Wink cites Gen 9:20-27 and Isa 20:1-6. One can certainly find Bible verses where blame is imputed to someone who looks on or uncovers another’s nakedness. But there are many Bible verses that depict nakedness as shameful primarily for the person unclothed, most notably Gen 2:25-3:10, but also, e.g., Dt 28:48, Isa 47:3, Ezek 16:37-38, Nah 3:5, and Rev. 3:17-18.
Isa 20:1-6, which Wink cites, belongs in this latter category as well: the prophet walked naked for three years as a sign of the shame that will befall Egypt and Ethiopia, on whom Judea would be foolish to rely for defense against Assyria.22 The image of Wink’s naked debtor marching shamelessly out of court and even leading a “procession” of friends and neighbors down the street23 strikes me as fanciful.
Again McKenzie’s interpretation is more straightforward: “the disciples are told not to meet legal action with legal action, but to yield what is contested and even beyond what is contested.”24
41 “[A]nd if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
Wink’s interpretation of verse 41 continues the theme he sees in the prior verses:
Going the second mile, Jesus’ third example, is drawn from the relatively enlightened practice of limiting to a single mile the amount of forced or impressed labor that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. . . .
What we have overlooked in this passage is the fact that carrying the pack a second mile is an infraction of military code. . . .
. . . .
Imagine, then, the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack, and the civilian says, “Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.” Why would he want to do that? What is he up to? Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire’s strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will this civilian file a complaint? Create trouble?
From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative.25
Two potential problems may be noted here. First, in an endnote to his earlier work, Wink acknowledges that no direct evidence exists of a Roman law limiting impressed service to one mile. But he says that “scholars have almost universally inferred from the wording of the text (correctly, I believe) that some such rule was in force.”26 That may be a possible inference from verse 41, but it is certainly not a necessary one; and yet in his later work, Wink presents it as a “fact that carrying the pack a second mile is an infraction of military code.”27
Second, even if a law existed that limited forced labor to one mile, no violation would occur if someone voluntarily carried a soldier’s pack a second mile.
Wink thinks the point of Mt 5:41 is to “surpris[e] the occupation troops by placing them in jeopardy with their superiors.”28 Rather, Jesus’ point seems to be simply that one should render service beyond what is demanded, consistent with the command in verse 44 to love one’s enemies.29
42 “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Wink does not include verse 42 in the list of “aggressive nonviolent actions” he interprets Jesus as recommending to his followers. But he sees it as an appropriate addition to the sayings in verses 39-41.
Jesus counsels his hearers not just to practice alms and to lend money, even to bad risks, but to lend without expecting interest or even the return of the principal. . . .
. . . For the risky defiance of the Powers that Jesus advocates would inevitably issue in punitive economic sanctions and physical punishment against individuals. They would need economic support . . . .30
That is a reasonable explanation, if one accepts the premise that Jesus advocated defiance of superiors, creditors, and the occupying authority in verses 39b-41. But the verse also makes complete sense without Wink’s explanation. Requests for money, whether as alms or loans, are not to be refused.31
Two other serious objections to Wink’s interpretation should be considered. First, for Wink, turning the other cheek is a tactic for defying one’s master; handing over one’s tunic is designed to bring shame and ridicule on the creditor; and going the extra mile serves to throw the soldier into “uncertainty and anxiety.”32 If so, it is hard to see how these acts of one-upmanship (especially the latter two) are consistent with loving one’s enemies, which Jesus enjoins on his hearers in the very next set of verses, Mt 5:43-48.33 Loving one’s enemies entails doing good to them, as the parallel verses in Lk 6:27-36 make explicit.34
Second, Jesus never models the kind of behavior Wink imagines him to advocate in this passage. In Jn 18:22-23, Jesus does not literally turn the other cheek when struck; but Jesus otherwise models the teaching in Mt 5:38-39 by accepting his suffering and not responding with violence or recrimination (see Mt 26:53; Lk 22:51, 23:34; Jn 18:36). Jesus often challenges his opponents verbally (e.g., Mt 15:1-7, 23:13-36; Lk 11:39-52) and in prophetic action (Mt 21:12-13 and parallels), but he never holds them up to ridicule.
Jesus’ point in Mt 5:38-42 appears to be that we are not to retaliate for evil done to us, and when someone imposes on us, we are to accept the imposition and even go beyond the minimum demanded. As Wink correctly observes, Jesus is advocating a “third way” between fight and flight.35 But the motivation is very different from wanting to win a psychological victory in the struggle against domination: it is “that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45).
Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore36
March 18, 2017
1The Powers That Be, 98-111; Jesus Christ, Peacemaker, 67-72. In “An Overview of Contemporary Scriptural Exegesis and Ethics on Jesus’ Nonviolence”—a background paper for the Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference held in Rome in April 2016—Rynne cited Wink’s “definitive contributions” and “pioneering exegesis and theological analysis” (p. 2) and provided a summary of Wink’s interpretation (p. 4). Sr. Anne McCarthy, OSB, another participant in the Rome conference, presented Wink’s interpretation in her talk for an October 2016 webinar of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. (The background paper and webinar (the second in the series) are both available at https://nonviolencejustpeace.net/.) John Dear, yet a third participant in the Rome conference, has likewise adopted (and arguably embellished) Wink’s interpretation, The Beatitudes of Peace: Meditations on the Beatitudes, Peacemaking and the Spiritual Life (Twenty-Third Publications, 2016), 125-28.
2 New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), as quoted by Wink. Verse 42 adds, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
3 For fuller statements of the law of retaliation, see Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:17-21, and Dt 19:16-21.
4 The Powers That Be, 99-100 (bracketed text in original).
5 Engaging the Powers, 184.
6 The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel (Crossroad, 1991), 261 (emphasis in original). The “basic system of retribution set up by the Torah” is the lex talionis summarized in verse 38.
7 Ibid., n. 35.
8 “The Gospel According to Matthew,” Jerome Biblical Commentary (JBC) (Prentice-Hall, 1968), 72.
9 The Powers That Be, 101.
11 Ibid., 101-102.
12 Similarly, in Mt 5:29-30, Jesus talks about “your right eye” and “your right hand” causing one to sin, whereas in in the parallel sayings in Mt 18:8-9 and Mk 9:43-47, Jesus speaks only of “your eye” and “your hand.” The specification of the right-sided body parts in Mt 5:29-30 does not appear to carry any particular significance.
13 One could speculate that Jesus might have provided a longer explanation in his original discourse, and Matthew’s and Luke’s common source Q has reduced it to a brief statement. That possibility cannot be excluded, of course; but there is no end to the speeches that could be put in Jesus’ mouth using such speculation. Wink anticipates an objection to the novelty of his interpretation and offers an explanation: “These sayings [of Jesus] are, in fact, so radical, so unprecedented, and so threatening, that it has taken us all these centuries just to begin to grasp their implications.” Engaging the Powers, 184. And yet, he suggests, Jesus’ hearers understood them instantly.
14 JBC, 72.
15 The Powers That Be, 103-105.
16 JBC, 72.
17 Engaging the Powers, 178.
18 Here the “coat” referred to in the NSRV is the cloak. Even though Wink thinks the word order in Lk 6:29 is more accurate, he otherwise prefers Mt 5:40 because Luke “does not preserve the legal setting” that Wink needs for his interpretation. Engaging the Powers, 178.
19 The Powers That Be, 103.
20 See also Lk 3:11, which talks of people having two cloaks, which presumably would have been a lower priority than having two tunics, since the latter needed to be washed more frequently and were less expensive to obtain.
21 The Powers That Be, 104; Engaging the Powers, 179.
22 Gen 9:20-27 is weak support for Wink’s claim, if it is support at all. Noah lay drunk and naked in his tent, and his son Ham saw him in that state. Noah later cursed Ham but blessed his two other sons who had covered their father’s nakedness. Even if Ham was at fault for failing to cover his father, the shame was Noah’s.
23 The Powers That Be, 105.
24 JBC, 72.
25 The Powers That Be, 106-108.
26 Engaging the Powers, 371 n. 17 (parenthetical in original). Wink provides no citations.
27 The Powers That Be, 106 (emphasis added).
28 Ibid., 110.
29 The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 15 NT, suggests a possible additional motivation: sparing another from impressed service.
30 Engaging the Powers, 183. Wink relies on Lk 6:35 and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas 95 for the points about not expecting interest or even repayment. Ibid. 374 n. 33.
31 JBC, 72-73.
32 The Powers That Be, 108.
33 Wink is aware of the problem and asserts there is no inconsistency. Indeed, he says, “Both sides must win” in these confrontations, Ibid., 110. But his earlier descriptions of the actions leave little if any room for such an outcome.
34 See also Rom 12:17, 21; I Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:9.
35 Engaging the Powers, 186-89.
36 The views expressed in this paper are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of Pax Christi Metro DC-Baltimore.