“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Matthew 5:39-42).
Jesus gives radical examples of not resisting evil—so radical that, over the centuries, many Christians have tried to reduce them to something manageable. They have said that these examples are metaphors, not to be taken literally. They look for excuses, ways to explain that Jesus does not mean what he says. We accomplish the good deeds we can, and then we claim that we have turned the other cheek and have gone the extra mile. At the same time, we justify ourselves for not giving to everyone who asks. We tell ourselves that blind obedience to this rule would enrich liars and con artists while forcing our own children to starve.
Can we compromise the teachings of Jesus and still call ourselves his followers? Can we remove the challenge of selfless living from Christianity and still call ourselves Christians? Jesus calls us to forget ourselves, even to allow ourselves to be abused by the world. Trying to make his rules less radical is the equivalent of denying Jesus, saying that we do not know who he is.
Turn the other cheek. If other people want to hurt you and insult you, allow them to hurt and insult you. When you fight back, you are no better than they are. Most religions recognize this principle. “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus said. Now he demands extreme meekness from his followers.
Give up your cloak as well as your tunic. The tunic is just a shirt—desirable to have, but not necessary. The cloak is a coat to wear in cool or rainy weather; at night it becomes a blanket. The cloak is much more valuable than the tunic. To surrender more than was demanded from you is meekness to the point of absurdity. Still, Jesus requires this from us.
Go the extra mile. Roman soldiers could force subject people to carry a burden for them, but only for a distance of one mile. Simon of Cyrene was grabbed from the crowd and required to carry the cross of Jesus (Matthew 27:32). Most people probably would agree that the Roman law was unjust, even with its one-mile limit. Instead of preaching against the law, Jesus tells his followers to do twice as much for others as the law requires.
Give to everyone who asks. Do not keep anything for yourself. Do not judge the honesty or the worthiness of the person who asks to borrow from you. Money and property are not as valuable as love for God and love for every neighbor. If we resent the way other people ask for a portion of our money or our property, we have forgotten to love those neighbors as much as Jesus loves us.
We can try to adjust these laws to meet our diminished level of goodness. Instead, Jesus wants us to use these laws to judge our poor amount of goodness. His perfect standard is far beyond the reality of the way we live our lives. When we acknowledge the difference between his standards and our accomplishments, then our eyes are opened and we see our need for a Savior.
The scribes and the Pharisees constantly rewrote God’s laws to make them practical. Jesus goes the opposite direction. He tells us to be like God even when being like God is not practical. As we realize how badly the world has twisted our thoughts and perceptions—how hard it is for us to be meek and generous, loving and selfless—we see why we need Jesus as our Savior. His radical perfection is the only antidote to our shortcomings. Jesus lived up to his own standards. He turned the other cheek. He went the extra mile. Now Jesus gives us credit for his perfect goodness. Our sins have been removed, so that God sees in us the perfection of his Son. J.