Matthew 5:38-48


By Richard Niell Donovan

This is a tough scripture! Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said,
‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’
But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil;
but whoever strikes you on your right cheek,
turn to him the other also”

A friend of mine, a fine Christian man, was struggling with this text. He didn’t like the “turn the other cheek” idea very much. He finally resolved it! He said, “If someone strikes me on one cheek, I will turn the other. But if he strikes me on that cheek, watch out!”

But Jesus doesn’t stop with “Turn the other cheek!” He says:

“If anyone sues you to take away your coat,
let him have your cloak also.
Whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.
Give to him who asks you,
and don’t turn away him who desires to borrow from you”

He also says:

“Love your enemies…
and pray for those who… persecute you”

I must admit that I find this scripture as difficult as most of you. There are enough sociopaths running loose out there that we need to be able to defend ourselves.

• “Turn the other cheek” can be an invitation to abuse. “Turn the other cheek” opens the door to the Hitlers and Stalins and Pol Pots and Slobodan Milosevics of the world to rape, pillage, plunder and kill.

• “Give to him who asks you” can be an invitation to bankruptcy—and can be bad for the beggar as well as for the giver. I never give beggars money, because I assume that their next stop may be the liquor store or the drug dealer. Besides, I am always distressed that most beggars seem to have money for cigarettes, if not for food. But I do give them food anyway.

• “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” asks more than most of us are prepared to give.

But Jesus said all those things, so we need to take them seriously. You see, in this Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching us new ways to relate to each other. I am reminded of the saying that I learned at Promisekeepers:

“Jesus loves us too much
to leave us the way we are.”

And so he does. Jesus always challenges us to grow tall—and spiritual growth is always painful.

A little earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God” (5:9) Then throughout the Sermon on the Mount, he teaches us how to take the initiative in making peace.

He says,

“If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar,
and there remember that your brother has anything against you,
leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way.
First be reconciled to your brother,
and then come and offer your gift”

He teaches us to take the initiative to make peace. He teaches us to take the first step. That isn’t easy!

He says:

“Whoever compels you to go one mile,
go with him two”

In that day and time, the Romans had conquered Israel. Roman soldiers had a right to compel the Jewish citizen to carry his pack for one mile. At that point, the soldier had to find another citizen, because the law required only one mile. Mileage markers along the road helped them to keep track.

One mile doesn’t seem very far to us, because the mileage markers along the interstate highways pass by quickly. We pass tenth-of-a-mile markers every six seconds. We pass mile markers every minute. But walking a mile is a different story. The mileage markers go by slowly when you are walking. Add a forty pound pack, and the mileage markers go by even more slowly.

Jesus was talking to men who had carried a soldier’s pack for a mile. He was talking to men who had resented every inch of the way. He was talking to men who had watched carefully to determine exactly where they could set down the soldier’s pack. To these men, he said:

“Whoever compels you to go one mile,
go with him two”

Jesus said:

“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you,
do good to those who hate you,
and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you,
that you may be children of your Father
who is in heaven”

Benjamin Franklin said:

“Love your enemies,
for they tell you your faults.”

Eleanor Doan said:

“Love your enemy—
it will drive him nuts.”

Loving our enemy has the power to change our enemy. Loving our enemy also has the power to change us. Hatred is poison. It poisons relationships. Most of all, it poisons the person who hates. Have you ever known anyone who could not let go of their hatred? Have you ever known anyone who remembered every grievous thing that had ever happened to them? Their hatred eats away at them like a cancer. It destroys them like a poison.

Jesus calls us to let go of the sickness. He calls us to get rid of the poison. He calls us to forgive our enemies. He calls us to do the impossible. And then he makes it possible. When we accept his help, he makes it possible for us to forgive.

A minister, Woody Garvin, spent his first years in ministry working among the Native Americans on the Hoopa Reservation in northern California. He tells the story of two young men who grew up in his congregation.

Gerald Marshall was reared by his mother, Marie, a single parent. Gerald was somewhat retarded mentally, but he did all right. He worked at the post office as the night custodian, and served as a leader in the little reservation church.

Pliny Doud was the other young man. His father, George, was also a single parent, and had raised Pliny. Pliny drifted away from the church. He started drinking heavily, and fell in with a rough crowd. One night, he and his friends decided to have some fun. They went to the post office to harass Gerald Marshall, the night custodian.

But things did not go well. Gerald became confused, and began to resist. One thing led to another. Pushing turned to hitting. When it was all over, Gerald was lying on the floor. He didn’t move. The other boys ran. When someone finally found Gerald lying on the floor, he was dead.

Both the Marshall family and the Doud family had been members of the little reservation church. Both families left the church after the murder. Sometime later, Marie Marshall, Gerald’s mother, began to attend church again. So did George Doud, the father of the boy who had killed Marie’s son.

One day, George came late to church and searched for a place to sit. The little church was nearly full. There was only one seat available. It was right next to Marie Marshall. So George sat down. It was Communion Sunday. Woody Garvin, the pastor, wondered what would happen when the communion elements were passed. What he saw was this: When the bread was passed, George Doud handed Marie Marshall the bread and said, “The love of Christ be with you!”

And Marie responded, “And also with you!”

When he handed her the cup, he said, “The peace of Christ be with you!”

And she replied, “And also with you!”

Christ always challenges us. He always calls us to be better than we are. He loves us too much to leave us the way we are. Sometimes he asks the impossible. But then he makes it possible.

May the peace of Christ heal your relationships. May the peace of Christ make you whole.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2007 Richard Niell Donovan