“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. 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 5:38-42 ESV)
Evil will become powerless when it finds no opposing object, no resistance, but, instead, is willingly borne and suffered. Evil meets an opponent for which it is not a match. Of course, this happens only when the last remnant of resistance is removed, when the urge to retaliate evil with evil is completely renounced. Then evil cannot achieve its goal of creating more evil; it remains alone. – The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer wrote these words sometime before 1937. At this point Jews were being singled out and excluded from the professions and from government roles. They were not yet being rounded up for imprisonment and death. I cannot imagine how much Bonhoeffer must have wrestled with these words as he watched evil grow in a country he loved. He wrestled with how to love his neighbors, the Jews of Europe, while loving God and following Jesus. His choice was to work for the death of Hitler and for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler he was executed. This was not a theoretical or purely intellectual exercise.
We have the same struggle. Jesus’ words apply to everyone of us. We are fortunate if we do not daily encounter a situation where our natural instinct is to retaliate for a wrong done to us by someone. Jesus’ instruction goes to the core of a different way of relating to the people around us. I’ve never encountered anyone who is comfortable with these words. Commentators go on and on trying to find a way to soften or limit them. Paul didn’t. In Romans 12:14-21 he repeats Jesus’ words and concludes with, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21 ESV) Peter didn’t. In 1 Peter 2:19-25 he takes Jesus’ words and example and applies them our work relationships calling us to unjust suffering.
Jesus never says anything lightly and He certainly knew what these words of instruction were going to cost. From His arrest to the crucifixion Jesus lives out His words in the Sermon on the Mount. What does this mean for us. To me it means that we are to be peacemakers and not fighters. Not passive doormats, but active workers for peace. We are to use the strength and security that we have in Jesus to love and bless everyone we encounter. One of the hardest things for me to remember is that I cannot control the response of another person. I might respond in the most loving way possible and still get hit on the other cheek. It takes strength to suffer unjustly. May God grant us that strength.