Matthew 5:38-42 – “Cheek Turning, Tunic Giving, Two Mile Going Grace”
Evening, if you have your bibles, Matthew 5:38 is where we will be. Continuing in our study of The Gospel According to Matthew. Tonight, we will look at some of the most famous verses in all of Scripture. You will hear them used and abused in all sorts of contexts, and not just church.
- Turn the other cheek.
- Go the extra mile.
- Give someone the shirt off of your back.
They have become part of modern discourse, without people really knowing who said them, or what he meant when he said them. So this is key…Jesus said them, and he was saying them as instruction to citizens of His Kingdom.
The context that Jesus has been addressing is a fiercely religious one, in his most famous Sermon on the Mount, and he was calling them away from the meaninglessness of arbitrary rule keeping and he was calling them back to the purpose and beauty of the law, which was meant to serve as A KINGDOM ETHIC. It was a counter-cultural way of freedom for the people of God to live, and a constant reminder for them of their need for grace as they had no real way of fully ever living it out in its fullness.
What Jesus was warning was that in order to live in that kingdom freedom, his followers’ righteousness needs to exceed that of the Pharisees. Ironically, for very religious people, they had tried to use the law as a way to keep GOD out of certain sections of their lives.
So, this is exactly where we are in the text. In the fifth of six statements where Jesus was correcting wrong applications of God’s law.
Heard it said…but I say to you.
- Murder – Anger
- Adultery – Lust
- Divorce – Marriage
- Oaths – Truth telling
They were seeing the law as a delineation of LINES demarcating where God sought honor and obedience and vast areas of LICENSE where they were free to live as they pleased. This was clearly shown in the text on oaths last week. According to the teachers of the day, there was a hard line at an OATH. God cares if you keep that. But there was seemingly tons of license outside of that where he didn’t seem to care if you tell the truth in everyday garden variety sort of speech.
Jesus was like, NOPE. The Kingdom calls us to more than that!
The text tonight is going to deal with how we respond when we are wronged. When people offend us or cause harm to us or abuse their power over us, how are we to respond?
A couple of things to remember tonight as we look at the text.
- Jesus is speaking to an oppressed people. We must hold that in our minds before we leap to assumptions of our own context. These people were being wronged in horrendous ways every day.
- The things he says are going to sound so foreign to us that we will end up with lots of “whatboutisms?” in our mind. Those are fine, but don’t let them undermine the power of what Jesus is saying.
Ready? Here we go.
Passage and Main Points:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 
Prepping this sermon this week has been difficult. It has been like trying to restrain a two headed venomous snake whilst blindfolded and stuck in a phonebooth. Wherever you grab it, there is something that might bite you when you aren’t looking. Part of that is just because Jesus’ ethic is so the opposite of the worlds, and so we feel like we literally don’t have a category for his teachings when they are like this.
It has also been challenging personally because I quietly quite like the idea of vengeance and revenge. One of my favorite movies was the 2004 classic “Man on Fire” with the genius Denzel Washington. In it, an alcoholic former marine takes on a cartel in a kidnapping case and kills all of them one by one. There is a part of my heart that loves that. One day, people will pay. By my hand. I will be like Denzel. But, then Jesus ruins all of that.
The text tonight has one principle and four examples of how it plays out. Let’s start with the principle. It is this…
Citizens of The Kingdom Refuse to Respond to Evil with More Evil
Look at what Jesus says…
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.
Jesus quotes directly from biblical instruction that we can find in Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21. This is commonly known as the oldest known law in the world, the Lex Talionos, the law of retaliation.
On first reading, it seems to suggest that it is a biblically justified case for justice by retaliation. Take an eye – you have to lose an eye. Take my tooth – I get to take yours. In essence though, it wasn’t actually a law of mandated retaliation, it was actually a law of restriction on retaliation. It was ensuring that people couldn’t go ballistic and respond to a grievance by escalating it even further.
Have you ever had someone who didn’t know how to respond appropriately? Every friendship group has one escalator.
Eg My friend. We were at a Christian camp once (where we were actually supposed to be leaders). Some kids threw a water balloon at him, and it landed, very effectively, on his large noggin. Late that night, he snuck around to the window of their dorm, and put a hose pipe threw the window, jammed the window shut and turned it on full blast. He ruined their entire room. He didn’t know or didn’t care about Lex Talionos. The retaliation was all out of sync with the offense.
This was a law that has entire sections on ancient Hebrew writings detailing how it is to be enacted in a community, and the entire idea is to limit the scope of retaliation in order to maintain a flourishing society.
But then Jesus responds…
39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.
Now, what on earth do we do with that? Is Jesus giving us a call to complete passivity in the face of injustice? Is that it? Well, I don’t think so. For three main reasons.
- First, this would be an instruction that would fly in the face of the rest of Scripture. Right throughout the bible the people of God are called to resist evil and to take a stand against injustice. Just read the prophets. One of the big complaints of God through his prophets is that his people have been silent and passive and haven’t resisted evil and injustice from being poured out on the weak. Jesus himself resists Satan, constantly rebukes the wicked religious practices of the day, intervenes when a woman was going to be stoned to death for adultery. Paul speaks of governmental authorities there to sometimes be an arm of God in their enforcing of the law and their resistance to evil in society.
- Second is this word that we have translated here as “resist”. The word is ἀντιστῆναι (antistenai), which speaks of actively opposing pressure or power by applying pressure or power back to it. Jesus is saying, “you don’t have to meet like with like.”
- Third, look at the immediate context. He is comparing and contrasting the incorrect posture of Lex Talionoswith a Kingdom one. Retaliation isn’t the only form of resistance that is available, there are others that Kingdom citizens pursue. I love how Eugene Peterson looked at it in his paraphrase. He says, “Don’t hit back.”Instead of instantly going to, “okay you hit me how badly am I allowed to hit you”, stop and ask if that is the form of resistance that speaks of the Kingdom.
This is the exact thinking that went on to drive the philosophy of nonviolent resistance that marked so much of the civil rights movement under leaders like Martin Luther King Jr and John Lewis. And it turns the world upside down. Peaceful resistance. Kingdom resistance. Not fixed just on fairness in response, but obsessed with grace and a higher Kingdom ethic as a response. The default question – when wronged – for a citizen of the Kingdom, doesn’t have to be, “how far can I go in retaliation?” The question can and should be, “how do I best display the Kingdom and the King it represents?
This isn’t call for Christian doormats, but it is a call to refuse to embrace the power systems of the world. The examples that follow will make that very clear.
Okay, so that’s the principle..
Citizens of The Kingdom Refuse to Respond to Evil with More Evil
How? Jesus then gives four examples, let’s go through them quickly.
But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
When Insulted, Citizens of the Kingdom Respond with Disarming Dignity
This is an interesting one for us, because a slap for us seems like an act of personal violence, but that wasn’t its most common use in the context. In the context, the slap was not primarily an act of violence, but an act of contempt and disdain and insult. A way to show that you had contempt and very little regard for the person. It was a public shaming and humiliation.
When Jesus speaks about someone slapping you on the right cheek, well this was a backhanded slap, which was considered doubly offensive, and even quadruple levels of offensive in some Rabbinic schools. Jesus’ response to this is astonishing and beautiful! Instead of seeking vengeance through slapping back, insulting back, shaming back. Rather turn. Take back your dignity by looking back in the eyes of your insulter and humanize yourself by giving them the opportunity to do it again. This will reveal their evil if they take it, and will keep you from sinking to their level.
Wink called this “nonviolent direct action,” a “practical, strategic measure for empowering the oppressed.” He said that turning the other cheek “seizes the initiative from the oppressor, overcomes fear, and reclaims the power of choice, all the while maintaining the humanity of the oppressor”
Lemme say something here quick. This is not a verse about domestic violence or abuse. I have heard it used as one in a way that keeps vulnerable people in danger. This is about insult and shaming. If you are in physical danger, let’s get you out and safe.
When Insulted, Citizens of the Kingdom Respond with Disarming Dignity
What’s the next example…verse 40.
40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
When Impoverished, Citizens of the Kingdom Respond with Virtue and Vulnerability
This is again an example that needs a bit of contextual work to get to its core. This is actually where we would get the statement that that we are left with nothing but the shirts on our back. It is really interesting. Jesus says, if someone sues you for your tunic, give him your cloak. We live with wardrobes full of clothes and so this doesn’t sound like a big deal. But people would have had a couple of maybe a few tunics. These were shirt sort of garments. But they only would have one cloak, and you weren’t allowed under law to someone’s cloak, because they were essential pieces of survival.
Look quickly at Exodus 22:25-27…
25 “If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. 26 If ever you take your neighbor’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, 27 for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. 
So, here’s the deal. The only person who would be being sued for a tunic is someone who is dirt poor and cannot repay their debt any other way. What a terrible and extremely vulnerable situation to be in. Jesus says, instead of trying to duck and dive the debt, show your absolute weakness and vulnerability totally by also offering up your last line of protection. This was in a context where this was happening a lot, and the poor were turning to deceit, trickery and sometimes physical revenge to try and pull themselves out from under the burden.
This of course mirrors how we ought to be recipients of God’s grace. Vulnerable, honest about our debt and unable to cover ourselves, totally throwing ourselves at the mercy of God for grace. What a posture!
Friends, some of you are in major financial strife. It may be that you are victims of circumstance, or a wicked system and it may well be that you just spend too much. The virtuous and Kingdom minded thing to do is not to deflect or deny your poverty, but to lay yourself vulnerable in truth.
Third one. Verse 41.
41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
When Experiencing Injustice, Citizens of the Kingdom Respond with Humanizing Humility
Israel was an occupied territory. They had been colonized by Rome and were essentially under Roman military rule. They hated it. They experienced its brutality every day. One of the crazy ways that this played out was that any Roman official could compel any subject to carry whatever load they were carrying at any time. The distance of this was limited to one mile, but Roman officials would do it all the time, and you could imagine the shame and the feeling of subjection that it brought which was the whole idea.
In this setting, Jesus’ instruction here is genius and mind-blowing. When you have your power taken away from you, take it back by refusing to dehumanize your oppressor as they have dehumanized you. Show them power through a remarkable strength of willingness to not act as they think you ought, and it will expose their weakness. The rules may be Caesar’s, but your response belongs to God, and it will show Caesar how little power he actually has.
Nelson Mandela did exactly this whilst in prison on Robben Island. He took the time to show tenderness and kindness to the guards in spite of their ongoing ill treatment of them and others. They behaved inhumanely and dehumanized their prisoners and so Mandela worked hard to humanize them through kindness and humility. As he did that, many of that began to recognize his humanity…and their own.
What a call to people of the Kingdom. We should fight injustice. We must. But not like the world. Not through retaliation.
Last one…verse 42.
42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. 
When in Positions of Power, Citizens of the Kingdom Respond with Selfless Stewardship
Jesus switches the attention here a little bit, from the poor to those with means. I don’t want to get in the weeds here, but micro-loaning was a real business, where people with means would pray on those without. It was also a way that land was getting taken up and out of family lineages as it couldn’t be sold but could be offered as loan guarantees.
So, people were using the poor while pretending to help them. Jesus says, don’t do that in my Kingdom. If you have, steward that well and for the good of others. Don’t use it for yourselves while pretending you are helping.
What an ethic.
Who could live like this? Only followers of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit and imitating their Lord.
Of him who it was said in Isaiah 50…
6 I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting. 
Our Lord who Peter described when he said…
21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When 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.
This is part of what it means to be sons and daughters of the Kingdom. You want justice? Me too. This is the way. You want retaliation? Jesus calls us to leave that up to God, and to follow him into another way. A way the world gets to see so little of. A way of love. A way of grace. The way of our King.
W. Wink, “We Have Met the Enemy,” Sojourners15, no. 11 : 15; see also “Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus’ Nonviolent Way,” RevExp89 : 197–214).