The most unreasonable thing Jesus ever said

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Did Jesus really mean turn the other cheek?

a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on February 19, 2017

by Fr. Nathan R. Hale

Passage: Matthew 5:38-48


During the Middle Ages, Francis of Assisi was a man of wealth and a man of war. As Muslim military forces threatened the Christian world, many (including Francis) took up arms to defend their own lives, their families, and their way of life from Islamic rule.

Many of us in today’s world can sympathize.

Recently a prominent pastor proclaimed from the pulpit that the answer American Christians should support in response to radical Islamic terrorism today is—quote—“bombs and borders.”

This seems realistic and reasonable, at least in the short term.

Weapons and war.

Sometimes responding in kind is the only way we know how to try to deal with evil.

But is it the way of Jesus?

The reason our Gospel passage today, Matthew 5:38-48 is so important is because Jesus offers us a way to be victorious over evil that doesn’t look like the victory we would expect or think of.

Instead of “bombs” he says, “…Do not resist the one who is evil… (Matthew 5:39, ESV)

Instead of “borders” he says, “…if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also…” (Matthew 5:39–42, ESV)

Instead of taking up weapons and going to war, Jesus says

…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:44, ESV)

Who would of thought of that? Not me! I can barely keep it together when somebody cuts me off on the freeway! About two weeks ago somebody rear-ended me when I was at a standstill at stoplight. I did the whole “what was that?” hand gesture in the mirror. I was getting pretty heated. Then I remembered I was wearing my collar and my demeanor changed real quick. After I pulled over I was all, “oh it’s no problem, that’s cool, God bless you”. The way I approached the situation changed drastically when I realized who I was representing.

Don’t hear me saying that I think I’m awesome at this love your enemy stuff. That person wasn’t even intentionally trying to hurt me and I had words for them in my head. And I’m supposed to love someone that’s actually out to get me!?

I know that the topic of loving our enemies can be hard.

So, if I say something in the next 20 minutes that rubs you the wrong way or causes offense, please let me know so I can apologize and make it right. It’s never my intent to say something to simply to stir up controversy or give anyone a hard time.

However, if you hear Jesus saying something in this passage and in rest of the witness of the Scripture that rubs you the wrong way or causes offense, please, give him some room.

I’m going to do my best to point you constantly back to what Jesus has said. I love you too much to not tell you why I’m convinced he means what he says when tells us to turn the other cheek and actively love our enemies.

Not resisting evil, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies is—to us—probably the most unreasonable thing Jesus ever said.

The turn the other cheek part especially rubs us the wrong way. We’d never think of it, and we don’t particularly like it.

I’ve never seen another passage of Scripture so explained away by so many people.

Just about every modern commentary I own says there’s no doubt that Jesus wants us to love our enemy practically and actively—as individuals—but that doesn’t apply to us when acting as citizens of an Earthly nation (say, as the man or woman that flips the switch on the electric chair).

To be fair, that’s very reasonable.

Others say we’re to model non-resistance, but only to an extent. There comes a point where if our life is sufficiently threatened, whatever violence we do in our own defense is our attacker’s fault. After all, what choice do you have if your life or the lives of those you love is threatened?

That’s reasonable.

These are positions that can be argued powerfully and convincingly. Not only that, they are held by many loving, sincere Christians that are a lot smarter than I am.

These are thoughtful, reasonable qualifications to Jesus’ clear command to love our enemies and turn the other cheek.

Yet I remain convinced that Jesus said what he meant and meant what he said, primarily because those qualifications aren’t in the text.

The passage is actually fairly straightforward.

Jesus is continuing his Sermon on the Mount, expounding and explaining the Old Testament law.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Jesus gives the familiar rule; a principle designed to limit retribution and make sure the punishment was proportionate to the crime. In the ancient world this wasn’t the barbaric command we sometimes think of it as. Jesus isn’t criticizing this law so much as expanding it.

“But I say to you…”

You see, the command that comes next is the clarification and qualification we should pay attention to. It’s the statement telling us what this law means in regards to the ultimate reality that we’re to live in:

“Do not resist the one who is evil…”

The Greek word for resist here is anthistemi, which throughout the Bible usually refers to violent resistance or revolt.[1] In other ancient Greek works like the histories written by Josephus, the same word is almost always used to denote violent action. In other words, this does mean in the original language what it sounds like it means. Jesus is prohibiting violent action in the fight against evil. To drive the point home, Jesus gives a real-life example:

“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38–39, ESV)

This isn’t an exaggerated scenario; this was a particular kind of insulting slap. If you are hit on the right cheek by a right-handed person, it would be with back of their hand. In Jewish culture this would have been seen as particularly shameful.

I’ve heard it argued that since this was an insult and not an all-out attack, we can’t consider this the same way we would, say, an unprovoked, closed-fist punch. The problem with that is that in Jewish culture, shaming someone was worse than just hitting them, so there’s no lesser offense here.

Jesus goes on to talk about how this idea of non-resistant, active love would look like in other areas of life:

And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well…”

In first-century Palestine, losing your tunic (which was kind of like an undershirt) was bad, but not that bad. Losing your cloak (like an outer coat) on the other hand, was a big problem, because for many it was their only protection from the elements at night.

One scholar says to would be as if someone were attacking you unfairly via the legal system to take your bike, and you not only relented, but gave them your car too!

“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

This likely refers to the Roman law that allowed soldiers to compel their Jewish subjects to carry their heavy stuff up to one mile. Jesus says they should do double duty for their foreign oppressors.

“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:40–42, ESV)

We need to remember here that Jesus is still giving examples of what it means to not resist an evil person. He’s talking about a person that doesn’t deserve your financial help, or is asking when they know it will do you harm.

Jesus says to give anyways.

The unambiguous picture here is going above and beyond with love, giving more of your life, not taking some or all of theirs by retaliating or withholding in every situation.

Refusing to hit back. Easing the burden of an oppressor, relinquishing an especially treasured possession to someone already taking advantage of you, giving to the person who doesn’t deserve your generosity.

The point Jesus is making is that it’s impossible to love someone and actively harm them at the same time. He is showing that love always entails actively working for someone else’s good, instead.

I can’t give you an exhaustive survey of the related Scripture this morning, but I want to give you two other places Jesus rejects violent retaliation and one place Paul reinforces this idea of actively loving your enemies.

When Jesus is arrested by the Jewish authorities, Peter draws a sword to defend him. Never in all of history has there been a more justified use of force in human terms.

There’s never been anyone more innocent than Jesus.

But “…Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52, ESV)

This isn’t just a correction for Peter. Jesus says “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” This is a universal denouncement of using instruments of violence.

Then, when Jesus is brought before Pilate, he says

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting” (John 18:36, ESV)

If Jesus’ Kingdom is everywhere his will is being done by his servants, and Kingdom servants don’t fight with violence, this means it’s never God’s will for his people to use violent force.

That’s the world’s way, not Jesus’ way.

In Romans 12 Paul explicitly says,

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…Repay no one evil for evil…never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God… To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:14–21, ESV)

Jesus doesn’t just go around talking about this kind of unreasonableness. He lived it out.

He gave us the great example of enemy-love in his own death for us on the Cross. In what must have been the most painful moments of his life, Jesus asks forgiveness for the very people torturing him to death instead of retaliating (Luke 23:34).

You might be tempted now to say, “but that was Jesus’ mission, to die for the world, not mine!” That’s a reasonable thought, but Peter said in his first letter,

… you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps…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 2:21–23, ESV)

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright reminds us

Jesus’ teaching isn’t just good advice, it’s good news. Jesus did it all himself, and opened up the new way of being human so that all who follow him can discover it.[2]

The Good News is although he gave himself over to death for us, Jesus was Resurrected. It’s because of that we have assurance and hope that whatever suffering we endure, even death, God can and will bring new life out it. That’s what God does.

Do you believe it?

We live in a time of political, cultural, and relational conflict that is very rarely loving. All sides consider the other their enemy and treat them as such.

But imagine if you and I were different. Imagine if our church consistently modeled love in disagreement as a ministry! Imagine if were known as place where people could come watch and learn how to make peace instead of resort to violence.

It would take time and imagination. We’d have to walk the walk and talk the talk, and we’d have to rely a whole lot on the Holy Spirit. But that sounds like Kingdom work to me.

Remember Francis, the warrior? Well, he couldn’t reconcile his military life with the call of discipleship, so he put down his sword became the great preacher and missionary we now know as Saint Francis of Assisi.

He ended up trying to broker peace with the Muslim military forces, and although he was beaten and imprisoned in the process, his preaching about the grace of Christ moved a Muslim military commander to release him, and send him off with gifts, and from the time forward slow progress was made toward a more peaceful relationship.[3]

I know I haven’t even begun to address all the questions this passage stirs up. What about the criminal that breaks into your home and threatens your family?

What about Hitler!? What were we supposed to do with him!?

To be honest, I don’t know if I have great answers for all those questions.

I just know that even though it might seem unreasonable to me in my human wisdom, the plain reading of the teaching of Jesus is that we’re to follow his example of shocking, creative, self-giving love, especially for those that would do us harm. Yes, that makes me nervous. No, I don’t know how I would handle every conceivable situation. But I know God used Jesus’s death on the cross to save me from my sins and then raised him for my justification. I know he sent his Holy Spirit into my heart. I know that means whatever the circumstances, you and I belong to Jesus, and nothing can change that.

As you wrestle through this, remember this is a place where it’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay to not be sure, it’s okay disagree with the pastor, and it’s ok to explore further. I hope to continue this conversation with you over time.

Most of all, remember we’re not called to be successful or effective; we’re called to be faithful…so we can show Jesus and all his love and grace and mercy to the world.

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10, ESV)

Amen.

[1] This section on the Greek word anthistemi and the Jewish cultural conventions surround a back-handed slap depend heavily on Preston Sprinkle’s book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, Chapter 7: Love Your Enemies

[2] Wright, T. (2004). Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (pp. 52–53). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

[3] This story was retold from Shane Claiborne’s blog: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shane-claiborne/st-francis-radical-christian-peace_b_992545.html