There’s a lot of great songs about grudges. I’ve always like that Alanis Morissette song “You Oughta Know”—when she says, “Everytime I scratch my nails down someone else’s back, I hope you feel it”—that’s so cold. Taylor Swift sings, “She should keep in mind there is nothing I do better than revenge”—she’s made a career out of breakup songs: “Bad Blood,” “Picture to Burn,” all her other songs. Remember the old Nancy Sinatra song, “These boots are made for walking and one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.” That’s a grudge. Carly Simon dated the actor Warren Beatty and then wrote the song, “You’re so vain you probably think this song is about you, don’t you?” Even Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is a payback song.
But movies is where grudges are really close to my heart—a bunch of my favorite movies are basically just revenge fantasy—like Gran Torino and Unforgiven. True Grit. Robocop. Kill Bill Volumes one and two. Gladiator. Memento. Payback. Taken. Man on Fire. Death Wish Charles Bronson and the new Death Wish with Bruce Willis—sweet revenge. Sean Connery in the Untouchables, “He puts one of yours in the hospital, you put one of his in the morgue!” The original Mad Max Road Warrior. Star Trek the Wrath of Khan. Even my favorite movie, The Princess Bride is based as much on revenge as it is true love—”Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.”
We love a grudge. We love to think about getting even. We’re pretty sure what Jesus actually meant was, “Do unto others before they do something to you.” But then we come to Matthew chapter 5 starting at verse 38—and it kinda “Jesus Jukes” everything.
Text: Matthew 5:38–42 “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. “
This is the Word of the Lord—thanks be to God.
“You have heard it said”—when Jesus says this He’s always talking about the popular religious teaching of the day, but in this case He’s also quoting Scripture. Exodus 21:24 says retaliation should be “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Should be. Must be. Leviticus 24:20 says to repay a “fracture for a fracture, whatever one person does to injure another person may only be paid back in kind.” Deuteronomy 19:21 says “Show no pity for the guilty… life for life, hand for hand, foot for foot.” So is Jesus arguing with the Old Testament? Like, “Yeah, so when God said those things He didn’t really mean it. He was just having a bad day.” Because that’s how a lot of people look at the Old Testament—like the New Testament and the Old Testament are saying two entirely different things—but they don’t, and that’s not what Jesus is doing. He’s not refuting it, or contradicting it—He’s clarifying the original intention of the teaching compared to the way it was currently being taught.
The Intention of the Law We can learn from this, because we take a lot of Jesus’ teaching—even from the New Testament—and either ignore it or twist it to mean whatever we want it to say. The original intention of these laws of retaliation was exactly the opposite of how they were being used. They had twisted it to mean something like, “do what you gotta do, and be sure to get even” which is as far from the actual intention of God’s law as it could possibly be. These laws were supposed to limit how far people could go when they went looking for revenge—because revenge always tends to escalate. You kill John Wick’s dog and he’s gonna murder you and your entire family, burn down your house and put your friends in a blender—which he’ll probably feed to his new puppy. Someone breaks our kid’s tooth or pokes them in the eye and we want to break their head—no one just wants an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We want revenge. The second thing the Old Testament sets up with these laws is to make a foundation for human dignity and equality. Every person was to be treated equal in value, regardless of social, racial, or economic status—people like to take jabs at the Old Testament like it’s this barbaric irrelevant document, but that’s only because they’re misunderstanding what it’s really saying and how it laid the foundation for all human civilization. So Jesus is pointing out some of the ways the teachers of the day had been misreading it and explaining the true intentions behind God’s commandments. And like He always does, he makes it more hard core than they could have ever imagined.
You want to follow Jesus? Okay, Jesus calls His disciples to reckless generosity and an almost naive selflessness—be ready to let people take advantage of you. How does that sound to you? Ridiculous? Outrageous? That’s how it sounded to the disciples, too. And He might be exaggerating to make a point—I mean, this is the guy who said to cut off your own hand if it causes you to sin—but that doesn’t mean He’s not serious. He wants to reform our instincts—we gonna naturally be quick to anger and revenge and grudges—that’s our home base—it’s not in our nature to sacrifice for others. It’s the same idea St Paul is talking about in Romans 12:18 when he says to not repay evil for evil but to overcome evil with good—you know, “leave vengeance to the Lord.” Be ready to let people take advantage of you.
This isn’t gonna be easy. Following Jesus is never the easy way—but it’s the right way, it’s the only way that works. Let’s say someone tries to rip you off, they insult you, or you think they’re trying to take advantage of you in some way—err on the side of not getting even, not getting offended—it’s completely against our natural instincts but let them take what they want, let them take advantage of you. Does that sound crazy?
Insult vs Threat Jesus isn’t saying we can’t defend ourselves, or more importantly, that we can’t defend our loved ones when there’s a real threat—that’s a completely different issue—but an insult is not a threat. Disrespect is not a threat. At least not to anything but our pride. A slap on the cheek is not assault—no matter what our outrage culture says—a slap on the cheek in an insult. It’s meant to sting, not to do damage. Jesus says we’re to take an insult and let them slap the other cheek—not only put down our sports team and mock our political affiliation—gasp!—but call our kids ugly and make “your momma” jokes, too. Proverbs 26:4-5 “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” We don’t have to jump into every disagreement with both feet. Wisdom knows how to keep from escalating a conflict—how to keep the drama from coming to a boil.
We know these things. This is a very well known and quoted section of Jesus’ teaching—it’s where we get the phrase “turn the other cheek,” “go the extra mile,” “give the shirt off their back.” We know these things, we just don’t do them.
And it was a lot harder for them than it is for us. Roman soldiers could grab any random Jew on the street and demand whatever possessions they had on them. Can you imagine how furious that would make you? Some soldier walks up to you and says, “Nice phone. Give it to me.” “And I’ll take your bike and your watch, too.” “And your shoes.” “And your sandwich, give me your sandwich.” They had the legal right to take whatever they wanted—and Jesus is basically telling his people to suck it up and give it to them. They could also grab any Jew, male or female, and force them to carry their stuff—but the law said they could only force them to carry it one mile. So Jesus is saying, “Yeah, it’s not cool that they can do that, but if they do, if the evil person does that to you—don’t just go one mile, go an extra mile.” If they demand your shirt, give them your coat, too. If they slap you on the cheek and call you names, keep your mouth shut and let them slap the other cheek as well.
Be prepared to let them take advantage of you. It’s not what they wanted to hear—just like we don’t want to hear it. Why would He want His followers to be taken advantage of? What good could possibly come of it? We like other Bible verses a lot more than we like this one. We like the one that says to sell your coat and buy a sword—that sounds more like the Jesus Texas Ranger we’re more interested in following. That’s who they wanted Jesus to be, too. They wanted the Messiah to be a conquering war hero king who was gonna teach the Romans a lesson. And He did teach the Romans a lesson, it just wasn’t the lesson they were hoping for.
Because we all know what happens when we let people take advantage of us, right? If you let people slap you and insult you? If you let people push you around? Jesus was gonna show His people just how far He was willing to practice what He preached—how far He’d let people push Him around. They were gonna come for Him in the middle of the night and Peter was gonna draw his sword and fight back—but Jesus would stop him. They were gonna take Him and insult Him and mock him and strike Him on the face, with their fist, and it was gonna draw blood. They were gonna make Him carry a cross all the way to Golgotha and then they were gonna nail Him to it. And He was gonna take it—they would take the shirt off His back—He was gonna go the extra mile and take the sin of the world world on Himself as He took it all—all our sorrow and pain and shame. But as He was being taken advantage of, instead of crying for revenge, He was gonna say, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The moment you realize He did that for you is the moment everything in your world is gonna change. It’s the moment you’re saved by grace through faith—when you see the connection between what Jesus did for you and what He’s calling you to do with your life. It’ll all start to come together—to make sense.
Jesus is calling you to be prepared to let people take advantage of you. To stop keeping score. To stop aggressively defending yourself when people challenge you—or passive aggressively. To be sacrificially generous.
Of all the teaching of Jesus, is there anything more difficult for us hot blooded Americans to accept than these words? We think it’s a virtue to be offended when someone disrespects us—when someone threatens our rights or our possessions. This teaching of Jesus is so countercultural—it goes against our grain—it’s offensive to us. Jesus wants us to let people take advantage of us—that’s not the Bible verse we have highlighted, it’s not the one we print over a sunset and hang on our wall. We don’t like it—we rather fight than let someone take advantage of us, disrespect us. This isn’t the Jesus we like to talk about—it’s not the Jesus we wanna listen to. We wanna put our fingers in our ears, pop some corn and watch our revenge fantasies, put on headphones and listen to our breakup songs. We wanna slap them back, if they get on their high horse we’re gonna get on our higher horse, we’re not gonna carry their crap the extra mile, we’re not gonna carry it the first mile. To hell with them. We avoid eye contact with the people on the corner who are gonna ask us for money. We let it go to voicemail when someone calls who we suspect wants to borrow money. We end relationships with people if we feel like “they’re trying to take advantage of us.” We’ll even stop talking to our own family members if we think they’ve been disrespectful to us. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
It’s the American way—”walk tall and carry a big stick,” we don’t get mad, we get even—but our rugged selfish individualistic worldview just isn’t compatible with a God who gave His life for us—a God who let Himself be completely taken advantage of by us. And why did He do that? He did it so He could give you what you need. So that you could be shown grace and mercy and forgiveness. He’s not like us, He’s not petty. He’ll go the second mile for you, and the third, and as far as you need to go. When you get mad and slap Him in the face—and every time we sin, that’s exactly what we’re doing—He turns the other cheek. He’s not offended. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” He doesn’t avoid eye contact when you come to Him asking for something—if you ask anything according to His will, He is glad to give you the desires of your heart. He’s not asking us to do anything that He’s not constantly doing for us, times a million.
This whole “turn the other cheek/let people take advantage of you” thing has been criticized by people for a long time. But no one thinks it’s a bad idea because it’s too low, or vile, or unworthy—people don’t like it because it’s too high, too lofty, too hard. Like it’s impossible to live life with this high of a standard—but I think the opposite is true. I think it’s impossible to live life unless this is your standard. It’s the only way life works.
What is terrorism if it’s not just the lowest form of revenge and retaliation? I’ve heard all my life that their will never be peace in the Middle East—why? Because no one is will to let anything go. Everyone wants blood for blood. There is no hope in revenge.
So it’s up to us to be the ones who show the world a better way. Jesus wants us to let people take advantage of us so they might catch a glimpse of the hope we have in Him. Our hope isn’t in this world, or its treasure, or the respect we can get from people, or in revenge—our hope is in the Kingdom of God. Our hope is in the Lord. Our hope is that by giving our life to Jesus and following Him—our life will have meaning and abundant joy—not by holding on to worldly things but by letting go of them—we don’t have to hold on so tightly to this life because we have the promise that because we’re connected to Jesus we’re gonna rise from the grave just like He did. He wants us to be willing to let people take advantage of us so that they’ll believe us when we say our hope is in Him and not the things of this world.
Not everyone’s gonna listen. Sometimes people are just gonna get away with it and never notice that we were trying to tell them about Jesus. It’s gonna happen—we just plant the seeds, it’s not up to us to make them grow. That’s God’s job. Our job is to be prepared to let people take advantage of us so that when we’re walking with them—when we’re going that second mile—we can confuse the hell out of them by showing them kindness and pointing to Jesus. AMEN