Updated: Jul 28
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9 NIV)
The first reading in Immerse: Kingdoms, Joshua 1-10, was hard for me. Amidst the inspirational verses about being strong and courageous because the Lord is with us are some brutal directives to destroy whole cities, “leaving no survivors.” Our small group members all agreed that it wasn’t a directive for personal conduct; even at the time, the Israelites were instructed not to murder. But we grappled with various explanations and justifications, acknowledging that God was punishing sinners by way of the Israelites’ conquest.
Fourteen hundred years later, in the Roman Empire—famous for inventing ever more gruesome ways to torture and kill people—a baby was born who turned the old ways on their head. Jesus grew up and started preaching things like, “But… many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30 NIV), and “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35 NIV). He also used two phrases whose translations have become such common sayings in English that people hardly think about their origins: “go the extra mile” and “turn the other cheek.”
We often hear “going the extra mile” as if it were positive, about someone who put in extra effort to help a person or project succeed. But it’s actually from the part of the Sermon on the Mount that addresses loving your enemies. In that time, a Roman soldier could force certain men to carry his equipment for a thousand paces (mille passus, the origin of our word “mile”). As you can imagine, it was an unpopular law, but Jesus says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles” (Matthew 5:41 NIV).
In the same section, Jesus also says, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39 NIV).
I believe it was Brian McLaren who explained that this action was a way to expose the injustice of the other person without committing wrongdoing oneself. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be pushovers, accepting the violence done to us without protest, but he clearly commands us not to retaliate. Instead he shows us the radical third way: to offer the evil person a further opportunity to do you harm, which demonstrates that you know the other person was wrong but are intentionally not striking back.
Like bearing a soldier’s burden two miles instead of one, turning the other cheek shows that you refuse to cave to oppression and violence, but also refuse to become an oppressor or violent yourself. Paul reiterates this command: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20 NIV). How can we find the strength to do something so contrary to human nature? From God, because he did it first. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV).
When Jesus instituted the New Covenant, in which his sacrifice paid the penalty for our sins and freed us from the burden of the old law, he changed everything. Love became our obligation—our obedience to God and the way we identify ourselves as Christians (John 13:34-35). That’s why one of the blessings Jesus proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount was this: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9 NIV).