Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

A Methodology for Detecting and Mitigating Hyperbole in Matthew 5:38–42

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

A Methodology for Detecting and Mitigating Hyperbole in Matthew 5:38–42

Article excerpt

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Matthew 5:38-42 is regarded as one of the hard sayings of Jesus.1 Interpreters must not only reckon with the teaching on non-resistance/non-retaliation in the face of evil, based on the infinitive (...) used with negative imperatival force, they must also confront the positive imperatives that follow: отрifiiov ... a

Interpreters who opt for a literal interpretation typically do not engage with the full force of these positive statements.5 Or, in some cases "turn the other cheek" is said to be exemplified by Jesus's own sufferings (Matt 26:67-68; 27:30; 1 Pet 2:23), echoing Isa 50:6: "I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting."6 What the passion narrative demonstrates, however, is that Jesus suffered abuse, not that he intentionally solicited further abuse by his behavior, as Matt 5:39b would literally require.7 Therefore, appealing to Jesus as a model does not adequately deal with the positive statements.

A few interpreters seek a "greater good" inherent, though unexpressed, in the prescriptions of 5:39b^-2. Donald Hagner, for instance, proposes that by acting in such a surprising way toward their abusers, Jesus's disciples model the gospel's grace to them.8 Or perhaps, as Gordon Zerbe suggests, such actions cause abusers to reflect on their behavior and, consequently, to consider changing it.9 Victims could conceivably benefit as well. By turning the other cheek, giving one's cloak, or going the extra mile, a victim refuses self-pity and may gain a sense of dignity and control:

Why, then, does Jesus counsel these already humiliated people to turn the other cheek? Because this action robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, in effect, "Try again. Your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. I deny you the power to humiliate me. I am a human being just like you. Your status (gender, race, age, wealth) does not alter that fact. You cannot demean me."10

Let us briefly consider the viability of the "greater good" interpretation. While the potential for a beneficial effect on the abuser must be considered, it is far from certain that the abuser would be positively impacted. Admittedly, continuing to engage an abuser in the ways that Jesus outlines might not only be futile but might even be perceived as provocative, placing the victim in even greater peril. As for the victim, it is difficult to envision Jesus teaching non-resistance to evil as an avenue toward self-enhancement or as a way to simply make the best of a bad situation. Where else does Jesus recommend actions to increase the dignity and control of his disciples? On the contrary, he calls them to lose control and to risk humiliation for his sake (e.g. Matt 10:25; 16:24-25).

A more viable option is to view the passage figuratively, that is, as an instance of hyperbole. Several interpreters regard verse 40 to be hyperbolic, as freely giving up one's cloak (ígáfiov) in addition to the undergarment (xiTWvá) would render a person naked.11 Some also acknowledge the impracticability of unlimited giving to beggars.12 W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, however, characterize the entire passage as hyperbolic: "The import of the following sentences [vv. 40-42] is lost if one attempts to take them literally. …

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