It is surprising to me the number of people who will quote this verse as a defense of retribution, violence, and vengeance believing they are taking a biblical position. It seems that we are much more likely to take seriously the scripture passages that justify contentious behavior and enemy-making above those that deconstruct ideas of violence, retribution, and hatred.
I believe that our problem is not that we do not understand God’s heart regarding violence and retribution. It is more basic than that. I believe that we do not understand God’s intention for us regarding relationships with all people.
Much of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a discourse on relationships; especially relationships with those people we dislike. Jesus turns the traditional idea of justifiable retribution on its head. When Jesus says, “Do not resist the evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” (Matt 5:39) he is telling his hearers that they have had it wrong. Eye for an eye is not good. Vengeance is not good. Holding people in contempt is not good. The attitudes and action that we reserve for our enemies are not good.
Very few Christians today would admit to having enemies, yet our words and attitudes betray us. Twenty-first century Christians assign many people to the category of enemy: atheists, liberals, pagans, homosexuals, Muslims, secularists, scientists, academics, environmentalists . . . For many of us, that list is very long. And it seems that that the “holier” we try to be, the longer the list of enemies becomes.
When we see another person as an enemy, we cease to see them as human. We see them as an issue, a deception, a heresy, an obstacle, a stumbling block, but not a human being deserving of love, respect, and understanding. This is the underlying problem that Jesus is addressing as recorded in Matthew 5. Jesus’ admonition to love your enemies is not just an encouragement to be nice. Jesus wants his followers to see all people as human. Jesus wants us to remove people from the category of enemy and see them as people deserving our kindness, conversation, generosity, and mercy.
Going the Extra Mile
The term “go the extra mile” has become a part of our cultural lexicon, and is usually used to mean putting in a bit more effort than is required. The term originates with Jesus, and his intention was much more scandalous.
First century Israel was occupied by Rome, so in addition to the Jewish law, Israelites were bound by Roman law. Roman soldiers were allowed to recruit the help of any resident of an occupied nation. This person could be required to carry the soldier’s equipment for one mile, but not more than one mile. This aided the Roman military but kept residents from being abused.
In Matthew 5:41, Jesus says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Jesus is instructing his followers on how they should treat their hated Roman occupiers. They were obligated by law to go the first mile, but not the second. No one would ever dream of going a second mile. Going a second mile would be giving up ground to the enemy.
The first mile is required. The second mile is a choice. The first mile is imposed upon me. The second mile requires me to give up my own desires in favor of my enemy. The second mile is transformative. The second mile requires me to give up my victimhood status. During the first mile, I can gripe, complain, and slander my persecutor. During the second mile, I must lay down all my negativity and hatred. The second mile transforms my position from contentious to relational. To go the second mile I cannot stand my ground or fight for my rights.
A couple months ago I was sharing about this topic and relating it to the church’s struggle with gay marriage. A participant said, “So maybe that means we should not only let the law be changed, but we should also make the cake.”
Loving our enemies means that they cease to be enemies. It can be terribly difficult to change our relationship with certain people, but we must. This is what it means to follow Jesus.