Turn the Other Cheek
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Bible Passage: Matthew 5:38-42
This morning, we will consider only a few verses from the Sermon on the Mount. The text is short because this is an exceedingly difficult command and I want us to take it seriously. Every week, Jesus has challenged us in uncomfortable ways, and it continues today. Matthew 5, beginning in verse 38:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
Turn the other cheek. Give him your cloak. Go the extra mile. Give to the beggar. Lend to the borrower. These are difficult commands, especially for people who pride themselves in individual liberty. “If anyone FORCES you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
This bothers us and probably Jesus wants us to be bothered by it. It sounds like Jesus is commanding us to be Christian doormats.
But we need to remember the most important rule of interpreting the Bible: Scripture interprets Scripture. In other words, if you’re struggling to understand something, look at the context and look at what the Bible says in other places.
Remember, earlier in the same chapter, Jesus said that if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. No one takes that literally, so I think we should be careful here as well. And yet, Jesus said that to make sure we understand how seriously we should view our own sin.
He’s making a point here as well and as disciples of Jesus we should take these commands seriously. But we need to break it down a little bit. Let’s go back to verse 38.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
The law Jesus quotes here is a civil case law. It was meant to inform the judges of Israel. How should they handle violence between two people? God’s answer was simple. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. It sounds barbaric to our modern sensibilities, but there is actually great wisdom in this practice.
The goal was to restrain people from taking revenge or enacting vigilante justice. It also helped keep feuds from escalating, as they are prone to do. It was also not just a single case law. There were many examples of this in the Old Testament.
For instance, if someone was caught stealing an animal, he would be forced to return the animal and also give the victim a second animal. His punishment then was to suffer the same loss he tried to inflict on another person. This is found in Exodus 22:4-6.
If one man broke another man’s arm, the judge would have the first man’s arm broken in court. Leviticus 24:19-20.
If someone lied in court, they would give that person the same punishment owed to the person they accused. Deuteronomy 19:16-21
Modern societies consider these to be cases of cruel and unusual punishment, but honestly, I think there is great wisdom in this type of law. Certainly, we should yearn for an end to all violence and that is coming. But in the meantime, God has given the state authority to judge the guilty.
It is also my conviction that Jesus takes no issue here with these laws. That’s not his purpose and that’s not what he says.
Instead, what Jesus seeks to address is that the religious leaders sought to apply this law in private relationships – not only in public cases. He’s concerned with personal relationships, grudges, resentment… how we conduct ourselves when we suffer a personal offense. Most of all, what’s going on inside our heart?
Notice in verse 39, he doesn’t say that “eye for an eye” is bad law. Instead, he says “do not resist the one who is evil”. He’s urging his disciples not to retaliate – not to take the law into their own hands.
The Apostle Paul says something very similar in Romans 12:
19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It’s clear that Paul means this in a personal sense, because in the very next chapter, the very next verse, he says this:
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.
The teaching is clear. God uses human authorities to apply civil law, but disciples of Jesus have a different responsibility. We have a different law to apply.
Turn the other cheek. Give him your cloak. Go the extra mile. Give to the beggar. Lend to the borrower.
And yet, we need to use some discernment. This can get very complicated very quickly if we try to tease out every possible application.
Is he saying that we should subject ourselves to physical abuse? If I’m walking down the street and I see a man attacking a woman, is my only responsibility to call the authorities? Would it be wrong for me to intervene?
Should I give money to every beggar I meet? I get calls occasionally from a man that we helped years ago at our mother church. Since that time, we realized that the man is actually a very successful con artist. Should I continue giving in that situation?
Some of these problems are resolved when we look more closely at what Jesus is actually saying. For instance, turn the other cheek has a context.
Consider the type of blow that Jesus is actually referring to. If a right-handed man strikes someone on the right cheek, then he is actually using the back of his hand. In the first century, as it is today, such a blow was considered an insult. Think of it more life Will Smith smacking Chris Rock.
In other words, this was not just any physical assault. This was an attack on the man’s honor and what Jesus is commanding is that we do not seek to defend our honor with violence. Suffer the insult.
Verse 40 has a similar meaning. If someone takes you to court, they are publicly accusing you of wrongdoing. And notice that Jesus does not qualify this. It doesn’t seem to matter whether I’m being falsely accused. He’s tells us to resist the temptation to fight for our honor.
Verse 41 is particularly difficult, as I mentioned earlier. And there was a common scenario for this verse. Roman law allowed soldiers to force local citizens into carrying their equipment for up to a thousand paces. In other words, a foreign army could force you to carry the means of your own oppression.
And Jesus says, quite clearly, that we should turn that coercion on its head by voluntarily going an extra mile! That’s a tough one.
And finally, we come to verse 42. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
At face value, this seems simple, but we need to consider a few things.
At that time, it was widely assumed that poor people were under a curse from God. Of course, that was bad theology, because God had been very clear in the Old Testament that He wanted His people to care for the poor. And we know that poverty can be very complicated. Sometimes people make bad decisions, but sometimes they have suffered from other people’s bad decisions.
And yet, this was the common assumption in the first century. Poor people were poor for a reason. It was their fault. They were cursed with poverty. They didn’t deserve money.
Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler? It happens later in Matthew – in chapter 19. A man comes to Jesus asking what good thing he must do to gain eternal life. Jesus told the man that the one thing he lacked was that he needed to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. He couldn’t do it. Why? It wasn’t just because he loved money.
Think carefully. How do most rich people get rich? Most would argue that they got their wealth through hard work. Obviously, that’s not the case with everyone. Some people inherit their money, but somewhere in their family history someone worked hard to gain wealth and there is usually a lot of pride associated with that kind of effort.
This is especially true in honor and shame cultures, like the American South. People tend to have a strong sense of pride in what they’ve worked for. And we live in a democratic republic.
Imagine how much more difficult it must have been for a Jew to get wealthy in the Roman Empire! Assuming the rich young man was a Jew, he or someone in his family worked very hard to gain this wealth. From his perspective, human effort and willpower earned him his status. He was not about to throw it all away to the poor, who had not worked to earn that money.
Even the way he words his question to Jesus demonstrates this attitude. “What good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” But Jesus teaches that this attitude keeps us from understanding the economics of God’s kingdom. Even the disciples struggled with the situation and Jesus responded by telling them a very powerful story.
He says imagine a landowner with a vineyard. He needs workers, so he goes to the market at around 6am and hires some men. They agree to a fair wage and head into the field.
The landowner goes back into town a few times during the day and hires more workers under the same arrangement. But as the day progresses, he doesn’t lessen the pay. Everybody gets the same wage. Even the workers he hired an hour before sunset got a full wage.
As we might expect, the workers he hired at 6am are upset when it’s time to get paid. They felt entitled to more, even though they agreed to the wage they got. They’ve worked a full 12 hours and the last people hired only worked 60 minutes. But the landowner replies that he has a right to be generous to the latecomers if he chooses and he has not been unfair to the other workers. No one forced them to work.
But we don’t like this at all. We want to be paid in direct proportion to the work we do, and we want everyone around us to be paid in the same way. If our boss is going to be extra-generous with someone else, he’d better be extra-generous with us.
But this attitude makes it very difficult for us to understand the grace of God.
So, what do we do with Matthew 5? Remember the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount. This is about kingdom living. This is about living a life produced by repentance and faith. This is about seeing fruit, or evidence, of a grace-shaped life – not because you have to, but because you want to. Again, it is about the heart.
The basic principle, I think, is this: followers of Jesus are being called to a gracious economy in our personal interactions.
If I can be so bold, we are being called to live as if we have no rights in this world. No right to comfort. No right to property. No right to wealth. No right to honor.
The civil authorities may preserve such rights on our behalf, and they should. Ultimately, justice will be served by God. But WE are being called to voluntarily self-sacrifice, voluntarily surrender our rights in love. And of course, that’s what Jesus calls us to – because that’s exactly what He did for us.
Jesus laid down His right to crush His enemies with the snap of a finger. A legion of angels stood ready to annihilate the people who spit on their King, stripped and flogged Him, pressed thorns into his head and mocked Him, then nailed Him to a cross. He has the right to destroy me with a Word, but He laid it down to receive me as a friend.