The Other Cheek and the Second Mile
“Eye for an eye.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Go the second mile.” Phrases that have seeped into popular language and are used every day by people, many of whom might not even know that these words go back to Jesus, or even further.
Those last two are nice phrases, right? When someone else turns the other cheek or goes the extra mile, we really like it. We really appreciate it. But I wonder how we hear these words this morning in the context of the Sermon on the Mount.
We’ve been unpacking this Sermon on the Mount together since the beginning of December, and have heard loud and clear the authority and power of King Jesus ringing out in these words of His. We know by now that Jesus does not make suggestions or give us ideas. He speaks as a King and we obey.
So what are we to make of these commands here in this passage today? And how are we to respond? Those are the questions we’re going to explore today.
Let me give you a bit of an outline for this morning. In verse 38 Jesus once again points back to the teaching from the law or prophets that He is responding to, like He’s been doing in this whole section of the sermon. Then in verse 39 He gives His new authoritative teaching for His disciples to obey.
And then in the rest of verse 39 down to verse 42, Jesus gives four examples of what obeying Him on this matter looks like. Four pictures of what His teaching looks like in the real world.
After we walk through that, we’ll step back and ask a series of questions to better help us understand who this teaching of Jesus applies to, and what it means for us today.
So hopefully that’s easy to follow. Lets begin with verse 38, where Jesus points back to the teaching of the law and prophets.
“You Have Heard That It Was Said”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (Matthew 5:38).
This is a direct quote from three Old Testament texts, which are summed up well by Leviticus 24:19-20: “If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” (See also Exodus 21:22–25 and Deuteronomy 19:21).
This sounds pretty awful to our ears, doesn’t it? You hurt your neighbour and break his arm, and so the punishment is that your arm gets broken. He knocks out your tooth, and so they come with a hammer and a chisel and take out his. Yikes. We might find this appalling.
And yet, in truth, this law was incredibly merciful—even loving. Just imagine for a moment the ancient world without this law. Imagine two neighbours get into a squabble, and one guy punches the other, knocking out his tooth.
As the toothless neighbour nurses his sore mouth, what’s going on in his normal, sinful, human heart? He’s growing in anger and vengeance towards his neighbour. He’s thinking, “I’m going to teach that guy a lesson and show him not to mess with me again.” So he goes out the next day and beats his neighbour up, knocking out all of his teeth.
Then the neighbour’s family says, “We’re not going to let our brother get treated like that,” so they come the next day and do something even worse, maybe burning down one of his barns.
And it either escalates into a feud like the Hatfields and the McCoys, or it simmers down into a long, slow resentment where each person looks for little opportunities to get their revenge on the other person.
It’s a story that’s been told time and time again all over history. It’s how the sinful human heart works. We want to hurt those who hurt us and we want to see them hurt more than they hurt us.
And so to prevent this, God gave this law to His people. This law stops revenge and vendettas right in their tracks. It takes matters out of the hands of the individuals and gave it all to the courts. It was up to the courts, not the private citizens, to deal out these punishments.
This law satisfied justice for the injured person by making sure that every wrong was paid back. But most importantly, it stopped the cycle of escalation by making sure that nobody would get it worse than they had given it. It kept things from spinning out of control and growing into a feud.
So that’s how we should understand this law. Just like the law about divorce, just like the laws about oaths, this “eye for an eye” law was given by God to limit the effects of sin and wickedness in His people. It put a cap on how bad things could get.
See, we often forget that the people back then did not have the Holy Spirit the way we do today. Even those who trusted in the Lord did not have what we experience today. And on top of this, there were many among the people of Israel who did not have faith in the Lord.
And that’s why the promise of the New Covenant was so precious. Several times now we’ve pointed back to those wonderful words from Jeremiah 31 where God promised a New Covenant that would be different and better than the Old Covenant. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:33–34).
In the Old Covenant, God’s instruction was out there somewhere, written on tablets of stone. In the New Covenant, God’s instruction is written on each heart by His Holy Spirit.
Now right here I had about five minutes of stuff in my notes about church membership. And you might be wondering, “what in the world does this have to do with church membership?” And my answer is check the church website this week. I’ll explain it there. But for now we need to move on.
But the idea I want us to focus on here is that with the arrival of the New Covenant, these laws about divorce and oaths and eye-for-an-eye are not needed anymore.
Think of human wickedness like a river that’s going to flood a town, and these laws are like a big dam holding that river back. Some guy wants to hurt his neighbour, and this “eye for an eye” law is the only thing stopping him.
But now Jesus, in His life and death and resurrection and Holy Spirit, has taken care of that river of human sin. He’s dried it up. He’s given His people His spirit and written His instruction right on their hearts and so that big old dam is simply not needed anymore.
“But I Say to You”
And that’s the background for Jesus’ words in verse 39. Verse 39: “But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the one who is evil.’”
In other words, forget about the eye-for-an-eye stuff. It does not apply anymore. That’s not the way disciples of Jesus do things from now on. We don’t demand that someone get paid back for every little thing they did to hurt us. We don’t need these laws to limit revenge and retaliation because disciples of Jesus simply won’t take revenge or retaliation.
But what’s the alternative? How do disciples of Jesus respond? Jesus’ answer: we “do not resist the one who is evil.”
And you can just imagine people thinking, “What is He talking about? Is He serious? Instead of standing up for our rights or getting revenge, we just let people hurt us? He can’t really mean that, can He?”
What do you think? Jesus can’t mean that, can He? Let’s find out. Lets look now at the four examples Jesus gives for what He is describing here.
The first example comes in this second half of verse 39. “But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). That’s what it means to “not resist the one who is evil.” If someone slaps you, instead of slapping back, just turn your head so they can slap you again. Give them another surface to strike.
There’s some interesting cultural background here. Most people are right-handed, and so a slap on the right cheek would most likely be a back-handed slap. In the ancient world, that was probably not so much a matter of physical assault as much as an insult. In fact, in some Jewish settings, a backhanded slap was the greatest insult you could give someone.
So this isn’t so much about someone beating you up as much as someone making you look stupid. And when someone makes you look stupid, every instinct in our sinful human hearts wants to stand up for ourselves. Wants to prove ourselves. Wants to reclaim our honour and remove the shame and show everyone how not stupid we are.
But Jesus says that His disciples are not to do that. If someone gives you one of the worst insults possible, you’re simply to turn your head and let them do it again. That’s what it means to “not resist the one who is evil.”
The second example comes in verse 40. “And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40). The setting here is legal. For whatever reason, someone has sued you in court and they want to take your tunic.
Poor men in this place in history typically had two main pieces of clothing. A tunic, which was like a really long shirt that went to their knees or so, and then a cloak that they’d wear on top of that.
According to the law of Moses, you weren’t allowed to take someone’s cloak from them, because they needed it to stay warm at night (Exodus 22:26–27, Deuteronomy 24:13). But Jesus says that if someone does want to take it from you, then as a New Covenant disciple of His, you just to let them. And yep, you’d walk out of the courtroom in your underwear. That’s what it means to “not resist the one who is evil.”
The third example comes in verse 41. “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matthew 5:41).
This is a verse that can make us scratch our heads. What does this mean?
What it’s talking about was a familiar practice to Jesus’ original hearers. In the Roman Empire, there was a law that said that at any point, a Roman solider who had a heavy load could force anybody to carry that load for them for a maximum distance of one mile.
A Roman mile was a bit shorter than an American mile, but still it was just shy of 1.5 km long. That’s about from here to just past the IGA.
And at any point, you could be going about your day, and a Roman solider could make you pick up a heavy pack and carry it all the way from here to the IGA. No questions asked. You weren’t allowed to say “no.”
This is the background to Matthew 27:32: “As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross” (Matthew 27:32).
In the original language, that word “compel” is the exact same word used by Jesus here in Matthew 5:41, and it’s talking about the same practice. Those Roman soldiers could just point to this random guy and say “carry this cross” and he had to do it for up to a mile.
How do you think the Jewish people liked this law? Hint: not very much. They hated it. It was an infringement on their rights and freedoms. It was a constant reminder that they were under the thumb of Rome. And, on top of this, by carrying a load for a soldier, they were actually helping him out. They hated it.
But Jesus says not to resist the one who is evil, and if forced to go one mile, to go two. So if you were walking out of the EBC building here on a Sunday morning, and a Roman soldier met you and said “carry this pack for me,” and you struggle up the hill and get to the IGA, right when he starts looking for another person to take a turn, you say, “I can do another mile.” And you keep going another Roman mile, which takes you almost to the Dairy Queen. And then you walk all the way back and get on with whatever you were doing.
That’s what “going the second mile” is talking about. Doing double of what that really difficult law required, without without complaining or fighting back.
This kind of puts the whole mask-wearing thing into perspective, doesn’t it? This is what disciples of Jesus do. This is what it means to “not resist the one who is evil.”
There’s a fourth example Jesus gives in verse 42. “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42). The people of Israel had no welfare system, no credit cards, and no disability insurance. If you had nothing, you needed to either beg or borrow from your neighbours.
Many people I know are offended and freaked out by the sight of a beggar. Being asked for money by a beggar can be a really uncomfortable experience. When we moved to Regina I remember someone saying that the city was so much better than it used to be because there weren’t beggars everywhere.
But the picture we get from the Bible is that begging was very common. They seem to be almost everywhere. And borrowing money from your neighbours was apparently quite common as well. Which is why so much is said about it in the law and in the book of Proverbs.
And Jesus says that His disciples, following this pattern of not resisting the evil person, will give to the one who begs from us and not refuse the one who wants to borrow from us. When asked, we’ll just give.
Is This for Real?
So there we have it, folks. This is the teaching of Jesus on this matter of revenge and retaliation. Instead of demanding repayment, instead of standing up for our legal rights and taking our neighbour to court to make sure he pays for what he did to us, disciples of Jesus are to have a radical attitude of non-resistance. This means letting ourself be insulted and perhaps even injured, letting our very clothes be sued off of our back, giving to an oppressive military force double of what they demand, and generously giving and lending to those who ask.
And if you’re anything like me, there’s some stuff going on in your head right now. Remember what we talked about a few weeks ago? The “what about” question? This passage makes me want to ask all kinds of “what-abouts.” Are you serious, Jesus? You really want me to do that?
What Jesus describes here is radical and painful and difficult and so above and beyond anything else that we see or experience in this world. Obeying him literally would open us up to incredible discomfort, incredible shame, incredible suffering, perhaps even incredible poverty. As I studied this passage this week, I found myself challenged again and again.
And once again, as I read commentaries and study resources, I found people saying the same kinds of things that I’ve heard before. “Jesus is exaggerating. He doesn’t literally expect us to stand there and take a slap, or go naked, or literally carry a heavy burden three kilometres. These are exaggerated examples in order to make a point.”
And I don’t buy it. It’s tempting to buy it, because it would let us off the hook from radical obedience. But I don’t buy it. Because if Jesus is just exaggerating, then what is He even teaching? What does it even mean to not resist the evil person? If He’s exaggerating then He’s not saying anything at all.
And what makes us think He’s exaggerating? Just because it makes us uncomfortable? Just because it seems extreme? Are we the ones in charge who get to decide how far we’ll obey this man named Jesus?
The main reason why I don’t buy that Jesus is exaggerating is that Jesus Himself did these things literally, on His way to the cross.
Matthew 26:67–68: “Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?’” And Jesus just stood there and took it, just like Isaiah had prophesied centuries before: “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” (Isaiah 50:6).
John 19:17: “So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.” Jesus evidently wasn’t strong enough and Simon had to carry the cross. But before then, Jesus submitted to this oppressive government and walked as much of a mile with this heavy load as he could.
“When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be’” (John 19:23–24).
Jesus was crucified with no clothes on. They took his tunic and they took his cloak and He let them.
So yes, Jesus means for us to obey His commands literally. Because He did, and He expects us to follow His example. Listen to these words from 1 Peter 2:19-23:
“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:19–23).
Those little words “In his steps” were the spark for the whole “What would Jesus do” fad back in the 90s. Some of you are too young to remember everybody walking around with “WWJD” bracelets on their wrists.
You want to know what Jesus would do? He would let himself be crucified without fighting back. He would take the slap and the insults and the nails and not fight back. And He calls us to do the same.
“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).
It’s so easy to say “Ya, I’d be crucified with Jesus. I’d let the government lead me away and nail me up naked” because it seems like it would never happen to us. But it starts here. It starts with taking an insult. It starts with not fighting for our rights like everybody else does. It starts with going the second mile when an oppressive government infringes upon our personal freedoms. It starts with generosity to everyone, including the “evil” ones.
This is what disciples of Jesus do. This is what Christians do.
But How Far?
But the questions don’t end, right? Because I’m sure some of you are thinking, “How far does this go? Is there ever a place for us to stand up for ourselves?”
I talked to some people this week about this message and that’s the first question most of them asked. “Are we ever allowed to defend ourselves?”
And I’m not criticizing them, because it’s one of the first questions I ask. If Jesus means for us to take Him seriously, then how far does this go?
And here’s the thing: there are some answers to these questions. I had a bunch all typed up. There is material in the Bible that shows us the types of situations where this doesn’t apply and where some other principles kick in.
But I made a decision as I mulled this over too week: I’m not going to share that material this morning. I’m not going to talk about all of the exception clauses and the times where standing up for our rights might be the okay thing to do, for two reasons.
First, Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus just said this and moved on. Jesus left His disciples to stew and chew on this hard teaching.
Second: if we hear these words of Jesus, and our first thought is “But can I never stand up for myself?” then that is a sign that we’re not getting it. We’re not really taking Jesus’ teaching to heart.
I’d suggest that the whole point of Jesus teaching is that this wouldn’t be the first question we’d ask. A heart that has been shaped by Jesus and His teaching doesn’t rush to find the fine print and say “Yeah, but, what about this situation? Do I have to turn the other cheek then?” A heart that has been shaped by Jesus hears these words and says something more like “Ok. If that’s what you want from me, my Lord and my Saviour, I will count it a privilege to follow in your steps, even if it hurts.”
So of course there are situations where we do more than just stand there. But I’m not going to talk about them this morning. Because I think we need the raw power of Jesus’ words to land on us with its full force this morning. I think we need to fight back against that part of us that wants to fight back. We need to silence our inner “but what about?” We need to resist the temptation to explain away the words of Jesus. We need to cultivate contentment with what Jesus has said and what Jesus has chosen not to say.
So watch the blog this week. I will post some of that material I typed up, probably around Thursday or so. But until then, let’s let this truth simmer in our hearts.
Pacifism and Government Roles
I’m going to make one exception this morning. There is one specific question I want to address, and that is the question of pacifism. If Jesus said to turn the other cheek, does that mean that countries should not go to war with each other? Does this mean that Christians should not serve in police or military roles? Does this mean that nobody should ever use violence even against people like Hitler?
I recognize that I’m speaking to a number of Mennonites this morning, and that pacifism and non-violence are quite associated with the Mennonite people. And I admire the courage of the many Mennonites who held to their convictions and conscientiously objected during the great wars of the last century.
I respect that, even though I don’t agree with the pacifism. Perhaps I’m biased: my grandparents lived through WW2 under Nazi occupation in Holland. They loved the Canadian solders who set them free. That story has shaped me.
And some of you might say: “How can you be okay with solders and tanks and bombs when Jesus says to turn the other cheek?”
My answer is that Jesus is not addressing governments here on how they are to respond to a dangerous aggressor like Hitler. He is talking to individual people about how they are to respond when they are tempted to take revenge on the people who hurt them.
And what we see in the Bible is that there is a difference between what people should do and what governments should do. Just think of Romans 12:19-20 which says, “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.’ 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’” (Romans 12:19–20).
That’s what you and I should do. But in the very next chapter, Paul writes about government rulers and says, “he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4).
As individuals, we do not take vengeance when we are personally harmed or insulted. But the government is actually responsible, before God, to take vengeance out upon the evildoer.
So we should not take Jesus’ words in this passage to mean that police officers and soldiers are always wrong to use force. And I don’t agree that Christians can’t be soldiers or police officers. Luke 3 tells us about some soldiers who came to John the Baptist to ask him what to do, and He didn’t tell them to quit the army (Luke 3:14).
So here’s the big idea here: these words of Jesus are for us as individuals in our individual lives, not for governments in their government business. And so it would be incorrect of us to expect the government to act in a way that an individual is supposed to act.
As I I say these words, I want you to know that I’m not just critiquing pacifism. Many people today on the political left have taken these words of Jesus and tried to apply them to governments. There’s a long history of that here in Saskatchewan. Tommy Douglas was a Baptist pastor just like me, and his type of politics at least seems to suggest that government should always turn the other cheek. That the government should go the second mile and let people take advantage of them and that governments should give and lend and borrow without expecting anything in return.
And I would say that this is the mistake made by many on the left. They take these personal standards, meant for individual disciples of Jesus, and try to apply them to the government.
But let’s be honest. We’re here in Nipawin. Most of you listening are not on the political left. You are on the political right. You are mostly small-c conservatives.
And in reflecting this week, it dawned on me that conservatives on the right tend to make the opposite mistake as those on the left. The left thinks that the government should act like an individual disciple of Jesus. The right thinks that individual disciples of Jesus should act like the government.
For example, I’ve heard some good Christians say, “You should not give money to panhandlers and beggars. They should take responsibility for themselves and not rely on others to bail them out of their bad decisions.”
That’s good conservative politics right there. But Jesus did not tell us to act like a conservative government. He told us to act like His disciples, which means giving to the one who asks of us.
Another example is COVID-19 and mask-wearing. I have heard so many Christians complaining about our freedoms being taken away, many of them refusing to wear a mask because nobody can tell me what to put on my face.
Again, that’s good conservative politics. But you are not a conservative government. You are a disciple of Jesus. And Jesus tells us to carry the heavy load for the Roman soldier for two miles, not just one.
Can you hear what I’m saying? Individual responsibility, standing up for freedom, strong military, strong borders—all of that may be good politics. Those might be the right things for the government to do.
But we are not the government. We are disciples of Jesus. And when slapped, we turn the other cheek. When sued, we let them take our tunic. When forced to carry a heavy load one mile, we’ll carry it two. When asked, we’ll give.
So to sum up this little part, I would say to my friends on the left, “Don’t expect the government to act like an individual disciple of Jesus. That’s not biblical.” And I would say to my friends on the right, “Don’t expect an individual disciple of Jesus to act like a government. That’s not biblical either.”
Let the government do what the government is supposed to do, and let us disciples do what Jesus has told us to do.
What Enables This?
Let’s end this morning with one final question. What enables this? Because, on the one hand, on a purely human level, this sounds pretty terrible. If you just let people insult you and take advantage of you, “Just let people take advantage of you!”
What makes this kind of attitude possible? What enables us to joyfully obey Jesus on these very difficult commands?
My answer? The Beatitudes. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:5, 9-11).
What enables us to be meek, standing there and taking the slap or letting them literally take the clothes off of our back, and not fight back? It’s not just gritting our teeth and being miserable. It’s believing the promise that the earth is our inheritance, and that we’re going to be known as sons and daughters of God, and that we’ve got an incredible reward in heaven.
If you believe that, you’ll be willing to give up a lot. You’ll be willing to live with insults and you’ll be willing to be radically generous. You’ll be willing to put on a mask. You’ll be willing to let a lot go for the sake of Jesus.
Jesus, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame (Hebrews 12:2). Believing in joy set before us will enable us to endure whatever God sends our way, no matter how scornful or shameful it ends up being.
So let’s pray now that God would help us get this. Let’s offer ourselves to Him and ask Him to take us and make us His disciples, through and through. Let’s not hold anything back, but offer ourselves to Jesus completely this morning, whatever the cost.
When we arrive in eternity, it will all be so completely worth it.