The gymnastics teacher was a bully. We were in the second year of secondary school and were taught gymnastics by a Man With a Mission: he would turn us, sissies that we were, into real men. Thorough discipline was indispensable. In five minutes we had to change clothes, hang clothes neatly on the coat rack, shoes exactly side by side with the tips against the wall. He came to check. If he found a pair of shoes that did not live up to his expectations in terms of arrangement, he would swing them as far as he could into the playground. The owner could then go get them and then put them down as they should be.
One time we had to rope climb: work yourself up along a thick rope to the rather high ceiling. Pull up with the arms, clasp the rope between the lower legs and push yourself up. Each took turns. Then it was up to a boy who remained standing in front of the rope. He didn’t dare. Such a weakling, the gymnastics teacher would take a swing at him. “You go into the rope,” he roared. Roaring, that was somehow part of making real men of us. The boy refused. “Climb!” shouted the teacher. But the boy refused again. The teacher lashed out and punched the boy in the face. That came on! Nowadays such a teacher has an immediate lawsuit on his leg, but back then, in the 1970s, such things sometimes happened.
The boy was startled. But also angry. He yelled at the teacher, “You dare! Such a big gentleman against a little boy! You can do that can’t you? Here – he said, pointing to his other cheek – hit again, please, hit again!” It was mouse quiet in the gymnasium. And the teacher? Who, for the first time, didn’t really know what to do. He stood there with his virile body, somewhat awkward, somewhat threatened. “Go to your seat,” he saved himself from it.
It has been about fifty years since this incident, but I have always remembered it. I think Jesus meant something similar by “turning the other cheek to someone.” Sometimes that is the only weapon you have against someone stronger than you. You can then use that weapon to embarrass the other person, to disarm them.
Whether it is always wise to turn the other cheek is another question. That’s what this book is about.
Daniel De Waele
Turning the other cheek to someone who slaps you in the face, not getting angry with someone who treats you unfairly or unseemly but forgiving him or her, not looking at someone else’s seductively beautiful wife (or handsome husband), not divorcing your partner, speaking the truth always and everywhere, and finally: loving your enemy wholeheartedly, that’s what Jesus apparently expects from his followers. He summarizes those expectations once again clearly: it is about being perfect, just as God is perfect. To be perfect? As God is perfect? Not surprisingly, many consider these commands of Jesus quite difficult to accomplish. In any case, they are topics about which there are quite a few misunderstandings among Christians. And frustrations. What on earth we should do with these words from the Sermon on the Mount in our daily lives, that is what we are talking about here. Six difficult sayings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount are dealt with in this book.
A first – introductory – chapter tells us that in 2,000 years of Christianity, the Sermon on the Mount was never taken for granted by believers; it was never, “we’ll just do that.” People have struggled with it, tried to live up to it, set it aside anyway, or put it in perspective. We give a brief overview of how believers throughout time have dealt with the Sermon on the Mount.
A second, short chapter explains a few technical things: what “antitheses” are, what is meant by “iota and tittle,” by “the fence around the Torah,” what a “hyperbole” is, what the difference is between “halacha” and “agada,” etc. This helps to properly understand what follows. Those who wish, however, can take the bull by the horns immediately and read, as they choose, a chapter that most interests or concerns them. Those chapters are:
On getting angry and forgiving. Is it okay for a Christian to get angry with another person? Is it okay to hurt another person as a result? Is there such a thing as justified anger? Did Jesus ever get angry? Should you just forgive the other person immediately? Also, do you always have to reconcile with each other, in order to be able to move on together? What happens if you don’t express anger? Can you be angry with God? Do you dare to be angry with God?
Looking at another person’s wife. What is that, adultery? And what does adultery mean in your heart? How beautiful, (or: how seductive?) may a woman make herself up? What about obsessional fantasies? What do you do when lust continues to stir?
Divorce causes suffering. What did Moses say about divorce? How did the Jews interpret these words of Moses and what did Jesus say about them? Does Jesus give us a “law” about divorce? And if so, how to deal with such a law? What are the specific difficulties of a modern marriage?
How honest should you be? What did Jesus say about making vows and swearing oaths? Was Jesus himself always honest? Can a lie also be justified? Where does the idea come from that you must always speak the absolute truth? Is it wise to wear a mask; or is it better to be an open book?
Should a Christian just let himself be done? “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” what does that mean? And what doesn’t it mean? Turning the other cheek to someone, how do you do that? And are you even supposed to do that? When do you go a second mile with someone and when don’t you? Should you act like “a sheep being led to the slaughter,” as is said of Jesus? Should you emulate him in this or is it better to just defend yourself against all kinds of allegations and attacks anyway?
Loving your enemy. How to understand that? Who is that anyway, your enemy? What is the difference between loving and suffering? What is meant by piling fiery coals on someone’s head? What does loving yourself have to do with loving your enemy? Finally, here is a testimony from someone who lived through this in a concentration camp.
Now be you perfect! Jesus calls us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. What does that mean? And what does it not mean? In this context, what does the story of the rich young man, to whom Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, .
In a final chapter, On the heart of the matter, we consider whether we should see Jesus’ words as a “law” and reflect on the striking longing for the “law” among many believers. At least with a law, you know exactly what to obey, what to do and what not to do, and that reassures many. But if Jesus is not concerned with a law, how should we understand his words, and above all, how can we put them into practice?
My hope is that the reader or reader will be made to think through this book, and above all, that they will discover that the words Jesus speaks in this part of the Sermon on the Mount are meant to set man free, not to impose even heavier burdens on him or her. The tenor of this study can still best be described with what Jesus says: “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Then you will truly find rest, for my yoke is gentle and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30).