(A reflection on our Gospel of Matthew course)
“Turn the other cheek” “Go the second mile” “If they ask for your shirt, give them your coat too”
We have all heard these phrases before; at some point even possibly from our own mouth. There is a risk here though worth looking into. We are in danger of taking this teaching out of context when it is used as a piece of advice in response to someone who has sought guidance on a problem. It could be an example of a Jesus teaching turned into a cliché, quick fix answer. The method of using these verses in such a light manner strips it of its ability to stir emotion. It causes us to lose perspective on what this means.
What if the problem you were facing with a friend had to do with lusting or a pornographic addiction? Would the words, “Pluck ‘em out,” leave your mouth? Or if a friend who was a recovering alcoholic told you they’d had a drink the night before, would you casually inform them it’s “Time to amputate”? Of course not, because that wouldn’t be helpful at all.
I believe our intentions are good. We see the beauty of the imagery Jesus portraits to us in these verses. We read these words and can almost embody the oppressed in that moment. We are able to envision ourselves summoning up the courage to put Jesus’ words into action. In the light of our active imagination, we’re filled with the full genius of what Jesus is asking us to do. We’re given a glimpse of what it must feel like to take the power from an oppressor by simply going the extra mile.
But there is a chasm between what we have historically done with these verses and the truth found when we allow them to penetrate our minds. The chasm is life experience, and therefore truly knowing the meaning. Without putting our beliefs into action they lack the ability to transform us. Preparing for this message, I tried to come up with applicable examples of when we are faced with an opportunity to live out this teaching—apart from the un-ideal work environment—I was stumped. Through this thought process, what I began to realize is that we cannot relate, because the majority of us are not oppressed.
I imagine the missionaries in China or the Middle East don’t use the phrase “Turn the other cheek” without a heaviness of heart and a fair amount of fear. The reason we don’t say to friend, who just confided in us they are having an affair, that it is time to ‘Gouge ‘em out’ is because this situation is real to us. In that moment, we are living out the implications of a marriage covenant being torn and at a time like these our words matter. Real situations require real responses.
Our lives are so blessed we fail to understand just how blessed they are. We drive—in a vehicle we own—to a store (a store with shelves full of un-diseased low cost food) and on the way we are cut off by a distracted person talking on their phone while driving. We slow down and move to the other lane, pointing out to ourselves the ability we posses to turn the other cheek … all the while, ignoring our self righteousness of course.
Now, I don’t say this to deter us from continuing to engage in the world by choosing grace over anger. In my own opinion, a Christian with road rage is no Christian at all. I’m also not suggesting we leave the second mile to those in countries where oppression is a far too common occurrence. I believe there is an alternative to be considered within the text that could give us a new way to use the teaching more wisely.
When we study the Sermon on the Mount, we find that these three verses on retaliation are placed among a set of verses in this chapter addressing the Old Testament law. Jesus is giving us an image of the bondage we are living in right now on earth and contrasting that by revealing to us the radical beauty we can expect in the coming Kingdom. And when we hear Jesus speak about the coming Kingdom—we listen. We listen because this should be our template for the life we are striving to live now. By living lives in a coming Kingdom fashion, we are bringing heaven to earth and what could be better than that?
So in verses 17-47, Jesus is speaking about Jewish law and sets up each by giving the traditional mindset for the people of the day. First, he speaks about anger. He tells us murder should be so far off our radar it can barely be seen, not something requiring a stone carving to implicate to us it’s evil. Smart guy this Jesus. Jesus takes it further though, because that is where we are going in this coming Kingdom … further. He says we shouldn’t be angry … ever. If we get angry or feel anger coming on, we are to drop everything we are doing until it’s resolved.
Second, he teaches on adultery and divorce in marriage. The message is clear … if you feel like meeting your needs outside your marriage, whether it be a temporary fix or a permanent removal, don’t do it. He addresses that maybe there was a time it was done in a different way, but not where we are going it doesn’t. In fact Jesus tells us that if you have to perform eye removal surgery on yourself with a rusted old kitchen knife feel free. Do what you need to do, because these things aren’t coming to the Kingdom.
Then we learn to be a man of good character. Be reliable. Be straightforward. Don’t be the person who “promises to make it happen,” or “puts your word on it”. Apparently, in the coming Kingdom when we say we are going to do something—we do it. End of story.
So Jesus tells us about the old way of life and then about a new way of life. About the old law, then the new law. The old covenant, the new covenant. And it is at this point when we are taught about giving away more than is demanded. Going the extra mile, no matter the circumstance. It would seem to me, however, that with the description he has given us so far in regards to the coming Kingdom this whole idea is pointless. It’s pointless because the coming Kingdom doesn’t have oppression, does it? What is there to learn about the treatment of our oppressors when this won’t even be an issue in the next life? I believe the answer is found in the verses that follow:
“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.”Matthew 5:43-44
In the previous kingdom we loved our neighbor, in the coming Kingdom we will love our enemies. Does this mean we will we have enemies in heaven? I think it is difficult to have enemies without anger, so my thought is no. I also don’t envision us to all be joyful zombies roaming around thoroughly satisfied with the company of every person we are around. We have personalities in this life, and I fully expect personalities to be present in the next life. It is likely that, although all living in peace, we will be among some people we like more than others. What does it look like to live, interact, and spend eternity with people that have starkly different personalities than your own?
I believe we learn what it is like when we take the opportunity to give our cloak when we are asked for our coat, turn the other cheek when were slapped in the face, and when we go two miles instead of one. These things teach us how to live in love and peace, regardless of our genetic makeup and preferences.
Jesus is teaching us about relationships. So the next time I come home after a draining day and my daughter asks me (for the 100th time that week) to play Barbie Uno—instead of saying, “Okay, but just one round” I will respond with “You know it! How about best two out of three?” And I will remember this the next time I’m in line at the grocery store, in a hurry and I’ve chosen the line with the chatty cashier. I will pause and recognize this person as a Kingdom brother or sister and listen to them for a while. And the next time I’m at a church meeting and the hand of someone who seems to always rub me wrong raises their hand; instead of looking for the moment I can jump in with my own thoughts, I will ask them questions to allow them to further clarify their own ideas.
There are opportunities for us to live in coming Kingdom ways every single day. Jesus invites us to live in the freedom of this Kingdom now, but challenges us in the ways we are to go about doing so. We will see His Kingdom come when we seek to be His teachings in what we do. The truth of the good news isn’t found in the ability to repeat pieces of Christ’s words, but rather in the determination to work at living life with the good news as our model.