Turn the Other Cheek | Matthew 5:38-42

Dear Friends of Jesus Christ,

In the mid 1980s, a Movie called “Witness” was released. The Main character in the film was a man named John Book. Book, played by Harrison Ford, was a hard nosed, but good, police officer from Philadelphia. (Leave slide up till next slide)

Due to corruption in the force, Book was forced to go undercover in Amish country. He went there to protect himself, and to protect a small Amish boy, who was a witness to a murder carried out by a crooked cop.

It took a little while, but Book eventually settled into life in Amish country. He got used to the clothes. They gave him a hat. Everyone seemed to appreciate his work ethic and carpentry skills.

Life was simple for the Amish in Pennsylvania. But it wasn’t always easy. They were often made fun of for the way they dressed and for their insistence on travelling by horse and buggy. Furthermore, everyone in town knew that the Amish were committed to non-violence, so occasionally, people would test the limits of their pacifism.

One day, a group of young trouble makers, approached a group of Amish men. They were taking a break. Eating ice cream on the sidewalk. The young men started to insult the Amish. They jeered at them, pulled off their hats. And then, one of the young men grabbed an ice cream cone and began to smear it in an Amish man’s face.

The Youth’s laughed. The Amish men went quiet. This was familiar territory for them. They were well practiced in the discipline of turning the other cheek.

After smearing the ice cream in one man’s face, the youth tried to do the same with John. The trouble was that John wasn’t schooled in the discipline of turning the other cheek.

Enraged, John broke character and beat the living tar out of this young, unsuspecting punk.

Its funny. But was that the right thing to do?

What would you have done in that situation?

Getting even, enacting payback. That seems to be our natural impulse. You hit me, I hit you. You send me a nasty email, I send you a nasty email.

This tit for tat response pattern is formed early. As soon as my kids were able to crawl they were able to enact revenge. And they do so every chance they can get.

Making the other pay comes naturally to us. Its non-violence and kindness in the face of evil, that needs to be learned.

Let’s sit at the feet of our master, and let him teach us the better way.

“You have heard that it was said,” says Jesus, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” Matthew 5:38

This ancient principle was written into Israel’s justice system. Perhaps its clearest formulation is found in Deuteronomy 19. Speaking to judges, those charged with carrying out justice, Moses says this:

“You must purge the evil from among you… Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” (Deuteronomy 19:10-21)

The idea that grounds this principle is a good one. The idea is that the punishment should fit the crime. If you steal your neighbour’s cow, you owe your neighbour a cow. If you rear end your neighbour’s car, you owe them a new bumper.

This law taught basic justice. It taught people that actions have consequences. It helped to restrain evil in the land.

Additionally, this principle mitigated against people enacting revenge in an unruly way.

I mean, the experience of injustice produces such a primal response in us. Its hard to react in a measured way. I mean, when someone slashes my wrists in a hockey game, my first reaction is not simply to tap them back. I want to take them down. I want two eyes for the eye that I lost.

That’s how it goes with revenge. But this principle restricted that urge to get more than even.

And its important to know that Jesus isn’t throwing away this principle in the sermon on the mount. The principle is still good, especially when it is followed by those responsible for determining justice.

For instance, Jesus would never tell judges to implement a turn the other cheek policy. Imagine that. Imagine if a corrupt investment manager took off with someone’s life savings. And the judge said to the victim. “That person took your money, now give him your house as well.”

That kind of application would encourage evil in society.

Paul says in Romans 13, that the sword of justice is given to the ruling authorities by God himself. And its their responsibility to make sure that justice is done in the land.

Jesus wouldn’t disagree with this. His main audience is not civil servants carrying out the duties of their office. His main audience is you and me, his disciples.

And disciples, says Jesus, are supposed to abide by a deeper principle. We should be less occupied with retributive justice, and more focussed on creative witness to the radical grace of God shown in Christ.

You have heard that it was said. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a 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. Matthew 5:39-42

Do not resist an evil person. Wow! Do not resist an evil person.

The greek word translated “resist” is hard to translate. It means “to stand against” or “to oppose.” The idea here is… when you experience evil or wrongdoing “don’t dig in your heals.” Don’t “put up your fists.” Instead of standing against the evil person, stand against your urge to get even, and engage the evil person.

Its not that Jesus wants us to dismiss evil. To say, “that’s not such a big deal”. No, smearing ice cream in someone’s face is totally wrong and we’re not supposed to shrug that off. But neither are we to repay evil with evil. Instead, we are to overcome evil with good.

Jesus gives us a few examples to fuel our imagination.

If someone slaps you on the cheek. Turn your face, and let the person slap your other cheek.

If someone takes your outer-garment, give them your undergarment as well.

And If someone forces you to walk one mile, walk with them for two miles.

Give to those who ask of you. Even the greedy ones. Don’t turn away from the one who want to borrow from you.

A few things to notice about these examples:

Firstly, notice that Jesus invites us to avoid both the fight response and the flight response. Fighters tend to be aggressive. When they’re slapped, they slap back. Jesus says no to retaliation. But Jesus also says no to people who fight in passive aggressive ways. Flighters. People who check out. People who run away and try to ignore an evil person.

Jesus invites us to a response that is neither vengeful nor cowardly. He calls us to courageous, creative, non-violent engagement.

And the creative aspect is important too. There’s something unexpected about turning the other cheek. And if someone steals your outer garment, and you give them your underwear as well. That’s going to surprise people.

Instead of choosing a cold response to match a cold crime—‘an eye for an eye’— Jesus calls us to throw a surprise party. To show up in a creative way that causes the evil person to take pause.   

These 4 examples shouldn’t be over interpreted. Nor are they an exhaustive list. Jesus gives them to us to help us think about our own lives. Our own situations: How might I show up in a non-violent way, in a way that disrupts evil, and surprises evil with good. 

A good modern example of Jesus’ teaching here is found in a children’s book called “The Hug”. The author of this book is Geraldine Wolters. Great author. Maybe I can get her to sign my copy after the service.

“The Hug” is the true story about a Kindegarten classroom that decided to fight bad behaviour with hugs.

Tim was always acting out in class. He would hit other students and kick other students. He had a hard time handling himself when things didn’t go Tim’s way.

Mrs. Klein tried really hard to manage Tim’s behaviour. She’d talk with him, give him time outs, take away art time. But still Tim caused trouble in her classroom.

Not knowing what else to do, Mrs. Klein invited her class to think creatively about the situation.

“What should we do?” She asked.

“Maybe you could give Tim a time out?” One of the students suggested. “Maybe you should send him to the principal’s office?” Another said.

The trouble was that Mrs. Klein had already tried all these things.

Then, a boy named Matthew spoke up: “What if we gave him a hug?”

“You mean” said Mrs. Klein “that every time Tim hits or kicks, we should give him a hug?”

“Ya” said Matthew.

All the Kindegarteners agreed that this was worth a try.

A few hours later, Tim hit one of his classmates. “Alright everybody,” said Mrs. Klein, “You know what to do!” And one by one they all went over to give Tim a hug.

In no time at all, Tim behaviour had changed. He stopped hitting and kicking.

That’s a creative, courageous, non violent solution. A solution that bears witness to God’s grace.

This is a great example. But of course, life tends to get a bit more complicated the further we get away from Kindergarten. T

I’m part of a dad’s group that meets on Saturday mornings. I really enjoy it. Every week, I have a good conversation with someone. This week, I talked with a new dad named J.J.

J.J. asked what I did and I told him that I was a pastor. “What’s that like?” He asked. And so I told him what I do. I said a bunch of things. But one of the things I said is that part of being a pastor involves encouraging a community to become more like Jesus.

You know, he said. That’s a good goal. But I have a real hard time with that turn the other cheek business.

And then he proceeded to tell me how he had recently been betrayed by one of his good friends. It happened about a year ago. The friend promised something significant. J.J. reorganized his life with that promise in mind. But the friend pulled back his promise. He never followed through.

I could see J.J. working to control his anger.

“J.J.” I said. “You won’t believe this, but I’m preaching on that passage tomorrow.”

“Really” he said.

“Ya… but I don’t have any easy answers to give you,” I responded. “Being betrayed sucks, and its not easy to turn the other cheek.” 

Could this be the most difficult teaching of Jesus. Could there be anything more counterintuitive and contrary to our nature?

If we are to make any progress in putting this teaching into action, we need more than good, creative, ideas. We need a power at work in us that we cannot conjure up on our own. We need Christ and all his benefits; we need Pentecostal fire burning in our bones.

The only way that you can show creative love to an enemy is if you come to grips with the creative love that God has shown to you in Christ. You have to see yourself as the enemy. And then feel the embrace of God in the Cross of Christ.

And what’s more, it takes great security of identity in order to throw a surprise party for your enemy. You need to know, deeply, that your life is hid with God in Christ. That nothing can separate you from his love.

You also need to know that Jesus sits on the throne, and will one day return to judge the living and the dead. Injustice is too real an experience to shake off. One of the ways we can disrupt the anger is by reminding ourselves that its God’s job to avenge, and that he can be counted on to act justly.

We need Christ and all his benefits.

But we also need the Spirit’s power.

Prior to Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples were constantly reaching for the sword. When Jesus wasn’t welcomed in a Samaritan village, James and John asked Jesus if they should call fire down from heaven to consume the people. Jesus rebuked them.

Then when Jesus was being arrested, Peter reached for the sword and cut off a guards ear. Jesus told him to put the sword away.

These disciples heard Jesus sermon on the mount, but weren’t quite capable of putting Jesus teaching into practice. But after Pentecost, things changed. And one of the hallmarks of the early church is that they were known for their love of enemies. They forgave their enemies, took care of their enemies when their enemies were sick, took in their enemies unwanted children, and refused to respond violently to those who persecuted them.

What happened? What changed. They had received the Spirit. The same Spirit that was with Jesus during Jesus’ ministry on earth. And together, with the Spirit’s power in their hearts, they led a non-violent movement that is still impacting the world today.

One of the greatest displays of creative, non-violent action in the 20th century, was the civil rights movement of the 1950s. Pastor Martin Luther King Jr. became the spokesperson of that moment. And he insisted every step of the way that that movement not devolve into a descending spiral of violence. Instead, he advocated a non-violence approach to witness.

One day, while in prison, Martin Luther King wrote these words:

While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you…Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community… and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

That’s the aim of Jesus teaching. The double victory. The goal is not to heap burning coals on our opponents head, although that may be a byproduct. The goal is to win their heart and to prick their conscious by creative displays of love. That’s how Christ wooed us.

May Jesus empower us all for this radical ministry. Amen.


About engagingthestory

I am a Husband of one wife, a Father of two children and a Pastor of one Church. Life is good. Currently I live in Victoria, British Columbia--a great place to live if you, like me, enjoy hiking and sipping high quality beer.
This entry was posted in Matthew, Sermon on the Mount, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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