To achieve reconciliation is complex and challenging under the best of circumstances.
When a simple misunderstanding occurred, a genuine accident happened, or someone made an honest mistake. It is one thing to reconcile with a spouse who unintentionally says something wrong, with a child who disappoints you, and with a friend who takes you for granted.
But what happens when we are confronted by people who are adversarial, deliberately sin against us, and intentionally bully us? What happens when we suffer injustice? And what if we are the victims of crime, are abused, exploited, or harassed?
These are some of the issues that Jesus tackles next in his sermon (Matthew 5). He talks about insults (someone slapping you in the face), injustice (someone taking the clothes off your back), exploitation (by a person in power), and other situations where people try to take advantage of us.
“You have heard that it was said, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” This ancient law served a very good purpose. The “law of the tooth” (Lex Talionis) was a measure civilizations put in place to establish justice, and to serve as a check for wild forms of revenge. The punishment should fit the crime. Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth is a law of logical consequences.
The problem is that laws are never completely successful in curbing sinful behaviour and breaking cycles of violence and revenge. It could even be misused as an excuse to seek revenge.
The measure for Christ is not logical consequences. Eye for eye is not our highest standard. It is the very least that we seek.
Christ desires more.
“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone wants to sue you for your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles … ”
Turning the other cheek does not teach resignation to evil. It teaches us not to give in to aggression. We do not hit back, nor do we run away. We stand, face the person, and confront the evil in non-defensive, non-aggressive ways.
Someone wants to sue you for your tunic is an example of injustice where someone literally wants to take the clothes off a poor man’s back by suing him for unpaid debt.
People in biblical times had two pieces of clothing: a long woven undershirt (tunic) and a loose fitting cloak that also served as blanket. Do you fight it in court or do you just give in to the injustice?
Neither. Jesus says, let him have your cloak as well. Now you have nothing. You stand naked. The injustice is exposed.
A soldier of the occupying Roman army forces a farmer to carry his bags. You are exploited by a person in power. Do you go along grudgingly, or do you resist it aggressively and put yourself in more danger?
Neither. Jesus says, go with him two miles. Overcome evil with good. Now the soldier is in an awkward position.
Reconciliation requires justice that surpasses tit-for-tat responses. Our normal reaction to injustice is some form of flight or fight.
But the gospel reveals something radical. Jesus teaches us to deal with injustice in surprising, creative, non-violent, non-aggressive, and non-defensive ways.
He teaches us to deal with adversity in ways that are surpassingly righteous.
Gerard Booy is pastor of Haney Presbyterian Church.