Dear readers, I present to you a momentary departure from my general MO of discussing politics and pro-life issues.
The Sermon on the Mount is easily one of my favorite (if not most favorite) parts of the Bible. Specifically the verses found in Matthew 5.
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile,* go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors* do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?* So be perfect,* just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” — Matthew 5:38-48
Christ had a penchant for revealing the truth in both simple and complex ways that seemed to always defy expectation, and this is no different.
In part, Jesus is presenting us with a very literal and difficult challenge—one that requires us to rise above our very nature as humans. But at the same time, we can’t really get a complete understanding of what’s being asked of us until we look beyond the surface and approach the scripture in a more contextual sense. Let’s break it down a bit.
Turning the Other Cheek
Let’s start with the first few lines in this series:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. Matthew 5:38–39.
What is Christ saying here? Is it call to practice nonviolence and pacifism? Or is it a metaphor? The truth is actually somewhere in-between.
Pay close attention to the fact that the author specifically describes being hit on the right cheek. This is a subtle, but important, detail, because in Jesus’ time, you would never use your left hand to strike someone. It was considered unclean. So to hit someone on the right cheek would require you backhand them, which was (and is) a sign of contempt and disrespect — something a master would do to his slave.
So if we look at the verse from this perspective, we start to get a clearer picture of the challenge Christ is presenting, starting with a command on how we are to act in the face of undeserved degradation and disrespect.
But as we read on, things become clearer—and more expansive.
“If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile,* go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” Matthew 5:40–44
And here we’re really getting to the heart of the matter: love, mercy, & forgiveness.
These three words get thrown around a lot. So much they can start to lose their meaning. Regardless, they are what make up the truly radical nature of Christianity, because Christ isn’t just admonishing sinners and calling people to simply be good. He’s telling us to go further, to love all of God’s creation — perfectly, unconditionally, and without reservation. Not just our family and friends, but our enemies as well.
He’s calling on us to show mercy, even when we don’t necessarily have to. He’s challenging us to rise above our natural inclination to vengeance and retribution and forgive—even if we’re justified under the law to take action.
The Call to Holiness
One of the biggest, most common mistakes people make is believing that Christ somehow nullifies the laws of the Old Testament. But that’s not what’s really happening here. In fact, Jesus is pretty explicit about this earlier on.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” Matthew 5:17-18
You’ll notice a pattern found throughout the Sermon on the Mount. Christ presents a portion of the law (“You have been told”) followed by an additional command (“But I say unto you”). This shouldn’t be read as a contradiction of the Old Testament, but, as Christ says, the fulfillment of God’s perfect will.
Through his call for us to be greater, to be holy, Christ reveals to us the whole of God’s plan for his people.