June 13, 2016

When one thinks of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes are typically what first come to mind. The Beatitudes are the introduction to the sermon, but they are quickly followed by the six Antitheses, 28 verses which put flesh on the bones of the Beatitudes.

The word "antithesis" may be unfamiliar, but the sayings of which they are comprised are not. They follow the format, "You have heard that it was said . . .; but I say to you . . .".

For example, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5.27).

It is often thought that the Antitheses toughen up the moral demands of the Jewish Law, that they establish a higher standard, even one that is beyond human. However, one ought to be careful with that line of thinking. For one thing, there were rabbis in Jesus' time who had similar interpretations of the Torah.

Second, the Antitheses should not be interpreted as inviolable precepts. When Jesus advises turning the other cheek, it should not be seen as a counsel for victims to passively accept abuse.

Indeed, the Antitheses call for something more than a rote adherence to a series of moral commands. They outline a fundamental reorientation of social relationships and call for a rooting out of any system of domination of one group over others.

If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well. - Matthew 5.40

'If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.'

Matthew 5.40

The Antitheses imply a person's internal disposition is what needs to be reformed; that sinful dispositions give rise to sinful actions while holy dispositions lead to respect for the dignity of others. They imply that it is not enough to avoid murdering others; one ought to avoid anger and should seek reconciliation with those you have harmed.

Still, an ethic of turning the other cheek, never getting angry and giving your cloak to someone who is suing you to get your coat seems unrealistic, too much to bear and a path to letting the bullies run the world.

Walter Wink, an American Methodist theologian and political activist, argued against the view that Jesus' counsels were "the basis for systematic training in cowardice." Rather, they should be seen as a call for a creative non-violent response to systems of oppression.


When Jesus advises turning the "other" cheek, for example, it should be seen as a response to a perpetrator who seeks, not to injure, but to humiliate the victim.

According to Wink, if a victim, after the oppressor slaps their right cheek with the back of their hand, then turns the left cheek, he or she is saying, "Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I am a human being just like you. You cannot demean me."

The bully has lost their ability to humiliate their victim.

Likewise with Jesus' admonition, "If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well" (Mt 5.40).

Wink notes that only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but a coat to give as collateral on a loan. When the loan cannot be repaid the debtor is hauled into court. He responds by saying, "You want my robe? Here, take everything!"

Standing naked before the court, the debtor would shame his creditor, but also expose the Roman imperial system which forced peasants off their land and even drove landowners into debt to pay heavy taxes.

In Wink's view, Jesus' advice serves "to break the cycle of humiliation with humour and even ridicule, exposing the injustice of the system" (Engaging the Powers, 185).


Jesus, of course, does not advise armed insurrection against Roman or other forms of oppression. Neither does he suggest those being oppressed or bullied be passive doormats.

Jesus' non-violent approach is not a way to avoid conflict, but a way to engage the oppressor creatively. In fact, his advice may even exacerbate conflict in order to bring it into the open. Non-violence, Wink wrote, "is not idealistic or sentimental about evil; it does not coddle or cajole aggressors, but moves against perceived injustice proactively."

Wink's explanation is not relevant for all six Antitheses. "Adultery of the heart," for example, is surely not a result of Roman oppression. Viewed more broadly, however, his analysis can be extended to say that following the Law involves respecting the full dignity of every person.


No one should be treated as an object in any dispute. The battle against evil should get at the roots; focusing on the symptoms will achieve little.

Jesus prefaces the Antitheses by saying he has not come to abolish the Law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. He is not setting up a stricter form of legalism, but is calling for deep adherence to the covenant. Such fulfillment means reforming our hearts, but it can also mean challenging social injustice in creative and non-violent ways.