38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”Matthew 5:38-41
I’ve just returned home from London after another very trying day on the train. At times I just cannot believe how rude my fellow commuters are. Whether it’s barging to get onto the train in front of everyone else, fighting their way to get a seat, or just protecting their own space by keeping elbows firmly jabbed into the person they are sat next to, they really are quite a crowd. Of course, most of these people are, I have no doubt, lovely people, but commuting by train seems to bring the worst out in everyone. The problem is that as soon as one person starts acting in this aggressive fashion, the people around them feel that they have to act in a similar way if they are going to get onto the train and get a seat. The cycle of rudeness spreads, and before you know it, travelling by commuter train at rush hour becomes the perfect demonstration of human nature at its very worst.
Jesus did not teach about train etiquette, but he did, in the Sermon on the Mount, teach a way to avoid this escalation of rudeness, violence and abuse. He referred to the teaching of Deuteronomy 19:21, when the guidance to the judges of Israel states, ‘show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot’. This was practical advice for the time, since it prevented a spiralling war of revenge by imposing a punishment that exactly met the offence. But this advice did not go far enough for Jesus.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has told his followers that the moral and ethical behaviour that God expects his followers to observe goes beyond anything that might be deemed fair by the world. And this passage of teaching is no exception. Jesus doesn’t settle for the principle of an ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’. He expects his followers to go over and above this, and offers three examples. If anyone insults you by slapping you on the right cheek, don’t slap them back, but offer them the other cheek to slap too. If someone in court seeks to humiliate you by taking everything you have – and then your shirt from your back as well – give them your coat too. And if anyone forces you into undertaking a task for you – as a Galilean might be forced to carry a Roman soldier’s pack for a mile – then do twice as much as they ask of you.
The rationale behind this extreme teaching, it seems to me, is twofold. Firstly, responding in such a positive fashion to challenging circumstances defuses the whole situation. The person offended might ordinarily seek some kind of revenge against the ‘evil person’ who is making such unreasonable demands, but by not doing so, and instead going above and beyond what is asked, the spiral of revenge is halted. Secondly, such a positive response to unfair requests turns the humiliation full circle. No longer is the victim facing humiliation. Instead, the one making the demands is humbled by the response they receive, and through such extravagant actions exposed to the love of Christ.
There is no denying that the expectations Jesus has of his followers in this passage of the Gospel are challenging. In our fast-paced world we have little time or respect for unreasonable demands. Yet in such times as ours Jesus’ teaching here is doubly valid. Just think how our trains, our roads, our offices – our whole society indeed – would be transformed if we heeded Jesus’ words here. Why not reflect today how you can turn the other cheek, hand over your coat, or go double the distance, when unreasonable requests are made of you?