Dear Sisters and Brothers,
You can be pretty sure that if Jesus gives you a task, it will be challenging. Many religions of the world pose challenges that require self-control and discipline of their believers, but the teachings of Jesus call for change that some people find overwhelming.
The first thing to keep in mind is that we are not working to be “good enough.” The salvation that we have in Jesus is based on his goodness and not our own. All of our work to become better people is a response to God’s love, a “thank you,” but not an attempt to earn the love we already have.
So we set to work to follow the teachings of Jesus. The only way to follow these teachings is by depending on God’s love and the gifts of his Holy Spirit. God’s love is the only thing that enables us to meet these challenges.
In our next verses, Jesus modifies the law from the time of Moses. The law had been about retaliation and self-control. Retaliation for any wrongdoing was not to exceed the original action. So if someone attacks you and you lose an eye, you cannot take more than one of his eyes. If someone hits you and knocks out a tooth, you cannot knock out two of his, but one is allowed. If someone steals from you, you do not kill him. If someone builds a shoddy structure that collapses on your son and kills him, you are not allowed to kill more than one of his children. As you can see, the days before God gave the law to Moses, even moral behavior was exceedingly brutal. It is hard to imagine that this code of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” made the world a safer place, but it did. The main point was that physical confrontations were not allowed to escalate into feuds or vendettas. It did not promote revenge but tried to limit it.
So, it is this law that Jesus changes.
“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 wants 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.
This is very challenging, but very simple: Don’t seek revenge and don’t answer an evil person with their own sick behavior, which is violence. By “turning the other cheek” you are rejecting your persecutor’s worldview.
This does not mean you have to like evil behavior.
This does not mean that you should be a victim. You can distance yourself from people that are too much for you.
It means that if you maintain this self-control you will maintain the moral high ground and you will disrupt their cycle of violence. It won’t necessarily change them, but it will change you.
The basic premise is that the greatest gift you have is the faith, love, and hope that God gives you. The greatest danger is not that you will suffer violence, but that you will become violent. So you “turn the other cheek” to resist temptation. Remember the rule is “do to others what you would have them do to you,” (Matthew 7:12) The rule is not “do to others what they do to you.” The pleasure of hitting back is not worth the pain of becoming a violent person. That faith, love, and hope from God is much more valuable than the inconvenience of walking an extra mile or losing an article of clothing.
In the midst of this difficult passage, some scholars have pointed out that Jesus is using a bit of humor when he says, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.” Shirt and coat are not the best translations here, because men only wore two pieces of clothing in those days; a piece of faded cloth in the form of a nightshirt (or gown) and a cloak. It is a ridiculous image, but the meaning is that if someone takes half your possessions give them all. It would certainly confuse a thief.
Here you have part of the explanation why so many Christian denominations and orders have formed monasteries and convents. Much of what Jesus says suggests that a purity of devotion would lead to non-violent communities without personal property. You may have trouble imagining Joe the mechanic turning the other cheek, but you wouldn’t expect a monk to hit back.
The next verses are also a challenge to our normal way of thinking:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
God does not love us or hate us because of what we do. God loves us because his intent was to have children that he could love. In the same way, we are not expected to love or hate people because of their behavior. So we may all be the children of our heavenly Father, we are given the task of treating all people as our beloved brothers and sisters. Just as we appreciate it when people do unpleasant tasks as an act of kindness to us, God is pleased when we show our faith by showing love to people it would be easier to hate. Anybody can love the people who love them, but Christians are called to love people who hate them.
These teachings of Jesus shape our belief and commitment. Here is a quote from section one of “The Book of Order of the Moravian Church” (2006):
“Our Lord Jesus entered into this world’s misery to bear it and to overcome it. We seek to follow Him in serving his brothers and sisters. Like the love of Jesus, this service knows no bounds… Together with the universal Christian Church, the Unitas Fratrum (Moravian Church) challenges humanity with the message of the love of God, striving to promote peace in the world and seeking to attain what is best for all.”
A Question to Ponder: Have you ever seen a violent person calmed down by kind words? How would you feel if you found out an old rival was praying for you?