You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone want to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
If I am going to be completely honest with you, I find this part of the Sermon the hardest of all. At first glance, it seems to be that Jesus is saying to us that we can be a doormat to anyone or everyone. Certainly, at this point, the Pharisees and teachers of the law who hear these words will be most perplexed.
As with the other texts we have looked at recently, Jesus begins by drawing attention to a text from the Old Testament, and which has been used as guidance and instruction for the Jews for hundreds of years. And after quoting it, as before, He shows a different standard that is expected. And this time it is completely unexpected, because He appears to be contradicting the Old Testament scriptures.
I don’t know how to reconcile the contradiction, if I am honest. Because this time Jesus does not show a deeper and better standard, but rather talks about another way to live entirely. The closest that I can come to reconciling the two is to think that Jesus was saying, you can continue in the old way if you wish, but it will not achieve you anything. It will not bring you closer to the Father and it will not help you enter the Kingdom. So I show you a better way.
Some commentators about the ongoing mess in the Middle East, especially that which is in and surrounds the modern nation of Israel, suggest that some of the problems stem from this same quote that Jesus gives here. That of returning ‘eye for eye’ in the conflict with the Palestinians, according to this way of thinking, is perfectly justified. But one thing that is plain to see is that it also helps to maintain the conflict and to breed more mutual hatred, and more of the feelings of wanting to avenge deaths, on both sides of the conflict.
So one thing that would certainly be different in the application of Jesus words is a potential break of the cycle of revenge killings. Of course it would not happen overnight, because the conflict has been happening longer than most of us have lived, and so there would be many who will be quick to say ‘it doesn’t work!’
And then there are those who would say that the words of Jesus cannot possibly refer to national defence, but must refer to how individuals behave. I don’t know that we have enough in scripture to prove and defend such a viewpoint. Yes, I can think of certain Old Testament passages that would defend it, but the way I see Jesus challenge the literal interpretation of the Old Testament time and again makes me wonder at the value of these Old Testament proofs of thought when they are used alone. The challenge and the difference in the way of thinking that Jesus presents to us is so huge! And even so unexpected.
Certainly it can be seen in Jesus own life how he did not resist his accusers, how he did not struggle against the beatings and the whipping, how he did not curse or speak out against his abusers, and how – even in the midst of his sufferings on the cross – he prayed for the forgiveness of them all. And we have been teaching in the church how Jesus is the example for us all, and quoting that scripture about taking up our cross daily…
And so I look at the church today, and I see the Christians who defend the right to own a gun. And those who speak about ‘payback’ to the Islamic world for their ‘crimes.’ And then I look again at this passage… There is a major inconsistency here.
And this is something that has been greatly pressing on my heart for a long time now. How is it that the church, or certainly a very great portion of the Protestant church especially, teaches and approves of things that seem totally contrary to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount? And over time I have been led to certain conclusions. That there is the danger, for instance, in fundamentalism to forget the context of the totality of the scriptures and to find interpretation in isolation. Sometimes that isolation is even taken out of the context of the immediate passage of scripture that the chosen text comes from (as I was at pains to point out when I wrote the study about what Jesus said about marriage and divorce).
So Old Testament legalism is very much alive and well in the church as a result. This legalism is also part of a tribal defence system used in building the young nation of Israel after the Exodus. And yet, even within those laws, there are laws about protecting the stranger and the visitor to the land. About helping and not resisting those in need. So even when looking at only Old Testament thinking, I see a system within many churches that picks and chooses which of the laws they feel most comfortable about.
Let me be clear here: it does not matter which area of legalism you are tempted with – whether sexual, whether speaking truth, whether financial, whether how you dress and appear in public – there is one thing you must understand about this. If you enter into legalism at all, then ALL the laws are necessary. You will be back in bondage to a system that was fulfilled and finished in Jesus. He came not to abolish anything in the law and prophets, but to fulfil them. And in the teachings we have already seen in this series so far, we can see that He revealed that even those who follow all the laws to the letter, yet they fall short of the standards required to enter the Kingdom. So good luck with your legalism, because you will bind yourself in chains again, chains that Jesus has broken, and you will make it so much harder for yourself and your congregation to enter the Kingdom.
And in addition to the above, I increasingly find such congregations lacking in expressions of genuine love and compassion. And from these congregations there are many preaching a prosperity gospel, living in mansions like kings, while there are those in their congregations who can barely find a crust of bread to stave off the pangs of hunger. These same ‘big name’ speakers using photo opportunities with poor children in Africa or South America to advertise the need of funds for their ministry, while at the same time planning the next huge extension to their mansions.
Truly, these people have their rewards. But as Jesus said elsewhere, don’t build mansions on earth where thieves break in and steal, and where mould and moths corrupt, but build your treasures in heaven. Because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
So what has all of this got to do with today’s text? These are simply a few examples of the difference between the ways of Jesus, and the human ways that result from literalism and legalism. Jesus is speaking directly contrary to those things, and this particular passage is the most challenging. If anyone applies these words of Jesus literally, then they are considered to be complete idiots, having lost their minds. The natural man wants to protect themselves and what is theirs. It would be seen that such behaviour is leaving not only yourself, but all your friends and family open to abuse.
And yet, Jesus literally showed us by the example of His own life that He did as He spoke here. He literally did not return evil for evil. He literally turned the other cheek.
Before, in other parts of this section of the Sermon, I was quick to point out how everything can be brought to the cross, how we receive our righteousness not by works, but by identifying with the crucified and risen Christ. But here, to say the same thing is quite challenging. By identifying ourselves with Christ in this way, we must also be prepared to walk the kind of path that He walked. And that is one of not repaying evil for evil, but only giving good.
This same teaching is also central to the philosophy of universal unconditional love. I have made a personal vow to live that way. But it has its cost. People certainly understand that there is a possibility to take advantage of you. I have lost count of the number of times I have just been used, or that people tried to use me. It is also quite a lonely path, despite that it is about loving universally and without judgement all who God brings to you as you walk the path of your life.
At the same time, there is something powerful here. I have seen God defend me. It is hard to explain. And I have seen both ministry and power of the Spirit grow more deeply. I don’t say any of this to brag, just to say that I have seen through personal experience that there is a personal positive empowering that comes from God.
I would encourage you to link this passage with others from the Sermon and even elsewhere in the teaching of Jesus, because it is part of a general theme. He tells us, for instance, to love our enemies. He said that if we only love ourselves, our families and our friends, then how are we different from any sinner? Our love and righteousness demands to be more, and so we should love our enemies also. And this is not natural – our whole being can rebel at such words and against today’s text.
And it is with that thought that I would again turn to the Cross. Those thoughts against this teaching come from the old and natural man that was born as part of a fallen species. But after receiving in myself the work of redemption and sanctification that comes as a result of the wonderful sacrifice of Jesus, then I am now no longer part of that fallen species. I am made new in Jesus, a citizen of Heaven, and in the remaining time on earth I am an ambassador of a different Kingdom.
None of us is made completely perfect, because we have not yet been clothed with our new bodies. So of course there is much that others can point to and say that we fall short. This passage is the big challenge for me, as I said at the start. It is not something I can naturally do. I can only ask each day for the Lord to let love and to let forgiveness rule in my heart. And also to pray for safety, for myself, my family, my friends – and yes, even for my enemy and those who would just use me.
This is a challenge, but God is the one who strengthens us to walk the true path.