There may be no instruction anywhere in the Sermon on the Mount that raises more objection than Matthew 5:38–42, where Jesus calls his disciples to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. And yet, as radically countercultural as it seems, these words straight from the mouth of Jesus and are recorded for all time in the written word of God. They form an exhortation with which we must deal.
Once again, Jesus began by referencing the Old Testament, which said “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:4; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). This was a law of limitation, preventing authorities from exacting greater punishment than an offence warranted. If an offender took an eye, no more than an eye could be taken from him; if he took a tooth, no more than a tooth. The punishment must fit the crime.
The religious leaders, however, had taken these words out of context and applied them to personal injury. They had taught that, while you were limited in how you could exact personal revenge, you must do all you can to exact the fullest revenge possible. Jesus commended a radically different approach: Rather than insisting that you must take their eye for them taking yours, give them your eye and anything more they need! Rather than insisting that you have the right to slap them if they slap you, turn the other cheek. In other words, don’t retaliate just because you have the supposed right to do so.
Some have suggested that this particular law forms the backbone of every form of response to evil. For example, obedience to this law, they say, reverses the Old Testament expectation of capital punishment for murder. I’m not persuaded that that is the case. Jesus is more interested here in the way his people respond to personal injury.
To give your cloak to the one who sues you for your tunic is a radical step, which, in fact, potentially invites further personal harm. In Jesus’ day, the cloak was the outer garment that kept one warm and protected one from the elements. Even the poorest of people prioritised having a cloak. Without a cloak, you were exposed to much harm. But Jesus said, even if it means greater personal harm, be willing to go above and beyond for the sake of others.
Roman soldiers were given authority by Rome to, at the drop of a hat, conscript anyone in the empire to carry their equipment for them. This was often a huge inconvenience to the one forced to do the carrying. If you had urgent business, it was no small inconvenience to be conscripted to carry military gear for a mile. You would naturally want to resist, but Jesus says that you should, instead, offer to go two miles with the person. Over-inconvenience yourself for the sake of others.
If a person in need asks for something, said Jesus, don’t count how it might negatively affect you. Give generously.
We don’t want to get too caught up in the specific examples that Jesus offers. Instead, we want to wrestle with the basic principle: Don’t insist on getting back at others for personal injury, and don’t be happy with doing the bare minimum; go above and beyond in your willingness to show genuine care and concern for others—even those who wrong you. The examples help us to see the kind of genuinely helpful and compassionate character Jesus requires of citizens of his kingdom.
Jesus displayed this himself on the cross. Though he was suffering greatly, he took the time to minister kindly to the repentant thief, and rather than seeking personal revenge against the Roman soldiers who had crucified him, he prayed that his Father would extend forgiveness to them.
Who has personally wronged or inconvenienced you? Are you willing to respond to them with grace and, rather than retaliating, show them the love of Christ, even to your own personal injury? That is the radical kind of love that Christ calls us to in this text.