Matthew5v38to42: GO THE EXTRA MILE

Introduction. Read Matthew5v38to42.

This challenging passage illustrates what it means to have a generous spirit. It is the spirit that doesn't:

  • Retaliate.

  • Insist on its rights.

  • Give the bare minimum.

  • Refuse assistance.


(A) Don't retaliate.

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you: Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Mt4v38and39.

(1) What this doesn't mean.

Jesus is not asking us to abandon common sense! This provocative statement doesn't mean that:

    (a) A nation takes no action to defend itself from an aggressor or to prevent crimes against humanity like ethnic cleansing. It is no use talking softly and reasonably to leaders like Adolph Hitler - Neville Chamberlain tried that!

    (b) Society takes no steps to defend itself. If murder, rape, theft and fraud went unpunished then sadly there would be a lot more of it. The break down of law and order leads to anarchy and the survival of the fittest.

    (c) Individuals are never punished. It is necessary to punish children to discipline them. This is what the writer to the Hebrews believed. See Heb12v4to13. It was because this was widely accepted that the author of Hebrews could assert: The Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son. v6.

    Punishment can be redemptive - it can bring a man to his senses. A young man who I once taught in Sunday school went off the rails. He got married, drank too much and to fund his drinking habit pilfered 1000 from his employer. Although this was his first offence he was sentenced to a year in Norwich prison. It was the shock he needed. Since his release over 30 years ago he has set up his own business and been a model citizen.

(2) What it does mean.

    (a) On a personal level. Jesus warns us against the spirit of retaliation. A slap on the cheek is not life threatening. It is an unexpected hurt, an insult, humiliating, annoying and a blow to our pride.

    There used to be an advert on commercial TV in this country for a fizzy drink called Tango. It consisted of a mad orange creature running round and asking people if they had been 'Tangoed.' If the answer was, "No" the creature slapped the respondent in the face and said, "You have now." This caught on in a big way in schools! One boy - Peter Goodrum - had the temerity to come up to me in the playground and say, "Mr Reed have you been Tangoed?" and slap me hard on the cheek. Needless to say I slapped him back - harder!

    It is a natural reaction to slap back. If we are hurt we aim to get our own back - to make the offender pay - to pay back with interest.

    There is another TV advert running at this present time. I think it is for Toyota motorcars and it is based on the spirit of retaliation. The advert shows a lovely young woman flying her boyfriend's model aircraft and deliberately crashing it. Then there is a flashback to an earlier incident where the boyfriend gives the door of her beloved Toyota car a hard kick to close it.

    Jesus doesn't want us to be like this! He says, "Don't retaliate." This is one of Jesus' teachings that I have found very, very difficult to obey! It took me many years to realise that retaliation is wrong. My problem is that I tend to respond instantly to an unexpected hurt. If I give myself time to calm down I can usually avoid lashing out - but it is not something I find easy! I played competitive hockey for 50 years and acquired a reputation for giving as good as I got.

    (b) On a national level. I believe that Jesus' teaching on retaliation is relevant on a national level. It is permissible to win a war against an aggressor or criminal regime but it isn't permissible to operate on a tit for tat basis. Some historians claim that Churchill permitted the saturation bombing of Dresden in the Second World War to pay the German's back for the blitz on London. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed as Dresden went up in flames. It is unlikely that their deaths prevented many Allied casualties. If this was a simple matter of retaliation it does not redound to the glory of Britain. It would have been understandable but wrong to treat Japanese prisoners of war in the inhumane way that they treated British prisoners.

(3) Retaliation makes a bad situation worse.

This is why retaliation in sports like football is prohibited. Whenever the spirit of retaliation prevails in a game of football, violence escalates and the game ends in a brawl.

The same thing can happen in families and churches. Two people fall out over something trivial and this gives rise to an escalating series of reprisals. Before long others are drawn into the conflict, divisions harden and church unity is destroyed.

Retaliation is so often disproportionate. Dinah's brothers avenged the rape of their sister by putting to death every male in the city of Shechem. They justified their action to Jacob by saying: "Should he (Shechem) have treated our sister like a prostitute." Gen34v31. When Nabal rashly refused David's request for provisions during his days on the run David reacted by telling 400 of his men to put on their swords and set off to teach Nabal a lesson. It would have been a very painful lesson but for the intervention of Nabal's wife - the lovely Abigail.

It is so easy to overreact when we receive an unexpected hurt. When we fly off the handle for next to nothing we can do irreparable harm to our churches.

(4) Retaliation was not Christ's way.

In Isaiah we read: He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent so he did not open his mouth. Is53v7.

Jesus did not come to earth to pay men and women back for the sorrow they have caused God. He did not come to retaliate but to reconcile. Reconciliation is impossible without grace and forgiveness.

If we are upset by, and feel alienated from, a fellow Christian we need to show grace and forgive. If instead we retaliate there may be short-term satisfaction but there will be no lasting reconciliation. I like the story about the poet John Clare's childhood sweetheart, Mary Joyce. Once John hurt Mary Joyce by accidentally hitting her in the eye with a green walnut and because he did not want to be thought a sissy he laughed with the other boys who thought it funny. He brooded over the incident all night and the following morning waited anxiously at the churchyard gate until Mary Joyce arrived. There was no need to explain or apologise. She understood. He was forgiven.

For 60 years Japan has remained a staunch ally of the United States in spite of losing to that country in the Second World War. This must be due in part to the enlightened way that General McArthur managed the occupation of Japan between 1946 and 1952. Once the war was over the U.S.A adopted a spirit of reconciliation rather than one of retaliation. For example, the Japanese economy was sustained by a grant of 500 million dollars annually. The United States made a substantial contribution to the rebuilding of Japan - and it has paid off!

(B) Don't demand your rights

If someone takes your cloak do not stop him from taking your tunic. v29. And if someone wants to sue you to take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. Mt5v40.

(1) An explanation.

In the days of Jesus the courts could take a debtor's tunic for payment but not his cloak as well. The tunic was a light inner garment. The cloak was a large thick robe worn by day and used as a blanket at night. A man without his cloak would be naked by day and cold by night. The law protected the poor man - it gave him the right to keep his cloak. See Ex22v26and27.

In Britain today there are many laws in place that give men and women important rights. On the whole we should be grateful that these laws exist! However, Jesus taught in a very provocative fashion that there are dangers in being a rights centred society.

(2) The downside of being rights obsessed.

    (a) It makes people unnecessarily cautious. If individuals consider that they have a right to compensation when anything goes wrong insurance cover has to be obtained for slightly risky events. So we have the abandonment of things like pancake races because the cost of insuring against accident is too high. I read in today's Daily Telegraph that a survey has shown that many men are afraid of saying what they really think in the workplace for fear of being politically incorrect.

    (b) Mischievous complaints make service providers cynical. A few days ago a man took Marks and Spencer to court because he trod on a grape in the store car park. He claimed that the squashed grape on the sole of his shoe contributed to an accident in which he wrenched his ankle. The man lost his case. Incidents like this - and there are many - make companies wary about all claims for compensation - whether justified or not.

    (c) It can create a tense and legalistic environment. In some schools it is impossible for a teacher to place his hand on a pupil's shoulder without being told, "Get your hand off me. I know my rights. I'll get you into trouble." I think it is difficult for a teacher to be happy or to be at her best amongst pupils like that.

    (d) In my experience those who are most insistent about their rights are not equally concerned for their responsibilities. Football managers who are very vociferous about their star player's right to protection from the referee don't have much to say about their own players responsibility not to dissent from referee's decision.

(3) Some rights to treat cautiously.

A Christian should be wary of exercising the following rights: to say what he thinks, to be consulted, to be kept informed, to be upset, to choose and of precedence.

The right of precedence is both widespread and pernicious. George Thomas, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, saw fit to record this incident in his autobiography. In the last week of April 1976 Thomas read to the Commons the resignation letter of Sir David Lidderdale as Clerk of the House after 42 years service. Immediately afterwards he read the resignation letter from Mr D.C.L. Holland the Chief Librarian who had a total of 32 years service.

Sir David complained bitterly that Thomas had read the letter from the librarian at the same time as his own. He also said that when the time came for a motion of thanks to be put down in the House his name should not be linked with that of anybody else. He considered the Clerk of the House was a very special position.

Reading this you probably think, 'How petty can you get!' But this is how 'great' men are. I was amused to learn from a TV documentary on the last days of the Second World War that Admiral Karl Doenitz, briefly Hitler's successor as German Head of State, was furious because he was imprisoned in cell 7. He considered, such was his importance, that he should be held in cell 1.

The right of precedence is not absent from the church by any means. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they loved the chief seats at feasts. In hierarchical churches like the Church of Rome the right of precedence is strongly developed. It upsets me to see the Pope on his throne, receiving pilgrims on their knees. That is not how his Master received supplicants! However, it doesn't pay for any of us to be complacent; the right of precedence can be exercised from the pastor who has to do all the preaching in his church to the lady in charge of the flower arrangement rota. I heard recently of a woman who began attending a new church and asked to go on the flower rota. She was told, "Sorry but it is full up." How can a rota be full up! I wish we had some new members of our congregation who asked to go on the graveyard grass cutting rota - that is not full up!!

(C) Go the extra mile.

"If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." Mt5v41.

In the time of Jesus Judea and Galilee were in the Roman Empire and as such subject to Roman Law. This Law permitted a soldier to compel a member of the public to carry a load for one kilometre. Needless to say this was not a popular law and deeply resented by many Jews. There were three possible reactions to this law:

(1) Evasion.

I daresay some Jews would hide when Roman patrols were about or, if they were nabbed feign disability. Nothing changes. Today motorists use forged disabled cards to avoid paying parking fines!

We can imagine what nationalistic Jews said to justify themselves for getting out of carrying a load for one kilometre: "The Romans are our enemies, We didn't ask them into our country. What have they ever done for us."

Of course it was not true that the Romans had done nothing for the Jews. They improved roads and the water supply. They introduced a common currency which facilitated trade and maintained law and order. Jesus told the Jews to recognise what the Romans had done for them when he said: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are Gods." See exposition on Luke20v20to26.

Today in Britain there are those who share this attitude to:

    (a) Taxes and customs. Many wealthy people avoid paying tax by using what are called tax havens. I don't understand exactly how this works but to quote Wikipedia: A tax haven may be a state, country, or territory which maintains a system of financial secrecy, which enables foreign individuals to hide assets or income to avoid or reduce taxes in the home jurisdiction.

    I remember many years ago going on holiday abroad. My friend and fellow Christian bought a very expensive overcoat in France. When checking in through customs he was asked if he had anything to declare. He replied: "No." He obviously had smuggler's blood coursing through his veins!

    Rich people might argue that taxes don't benefit them. They object to taxes being used to support the work shy and benefit scroungers. This is a poor argument. Taxes are also spent on defence, law and order, the emergency services, the environment, research and development - which benefits everyone.

    (b) Rules and regulations they don't like. We had a good example of this recently where Volkswagon rigged their cars to pass emissions tests. It is scandalous that a prosperous and prestigious company should try to get around regulations that they did not approve of.

    Yet many of us have much the same attitude to 'Health and Safety' issues. We are inclined to ignore them. I received advice from the moderator of our association of churches to check the headstones in our graveyard to see if they were secure. I was not very enthusiastic about doing this! However, my attitude was dead positive compared to the attitude of almost everyone else who attended our church. Reluctantly I did a little test and found that some of the headstones were incredibly dangerous. Indeed, one particularly heavy stone toppled over after I had given it a little tug and nearly took my foot off.

    I didn't welcome 'Health and Safety' procedures being introduced into schools. I was near to retirement when this happened and so I got away with doing nothing except pray for God's protection. I wasn't being very sensible. What would I have done if one of my pupils had an allergic reaction on one of my many field trips?

    (c) Payment of bills. I know people who pay their bills as late as possible. This is a kind of theft. What is even worse are those who make frivolous complaints in the hope of getting a refund. I knew a man who would complain in a restaurant about the quality of a meal in order to avoid paying. Another individual who booked his holidays with travel companies would take photographs of the accommodation and facilities in order to complain and get some monetary advantage. Pathetic!

(2) Give the bare minimum.

Some Jews who really hated being pressed into carrying a burden for the despised Romans and were unfortunate enough to live next to a main road, would knock in posts to mark the distance of 1 Kilometre from their house in both directions. They would carry a load from their dwelling to the Kilometre post and not one metre further. Most Jews would do what they had to do and nothing more.

This attitude is still very much around today:

    (a) In giving to charity. Some people in Britain are opposed to charities. They believe the state should be responsible for doing what charities do. That is what they pay their taxes for; to finance care for the elderly, to fund research into cancer, to provide for the terminally ill, to relieve poverty in the Third World and so on. These folk will not give to charity. They've done their duty by paying their taxes. No second mile for them!

    (b) In payment for work done or the provision of a service. In our country a firm needing to contract work out will by and large give the work to a company who quotes the lowest price. They will look for someone to undercut a firm who for years has provided satisfactory service. This is not the Japanese way. Many major Japanese industries need numerous component parts made by small companies. What they value is loyalty, quality work and excellent service - more than price.

    It is sad when people pay the least they can get away with. Such folk would never tip. Why not cheer some low paid worker up who has provided good service by leaving a tip?

    There are plenty of companies who will only pay the national minimum wage - no more and no less - notwithstanding how profitable they are. It is a sad reflection on employers that there has to be a national minimum wage. My father would have profited from such legislation when he was a Grace Baptist pastor in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The apostle Paul was very keen that Christian teachers and preachers were well payed. See exposition on 1Cor9v1to18.

    (c) Knocking off work dead on time. George Eliot's lovely novel, 'Adam Bede' begins with five men working in the roomy workshop of Mr Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder in the village of Hayslope. After some conversation the church clock began to strike six. Before the first stroke had died away, Sandy Jim had loosed his plane and was reaching for his jacket; Wiry Ben had left a screw half driven in, and thrown his screw-driver into his tool-basket; Mum Taft, who, true to his name, had kept silence throughout the previous conversation, had flung down his hammer as he was in the act of lifting it; and Seth, too, had straightened his back, and was putting out his hand towards his paper cap. Adam Bede alone had gone on with his work as if nothing had happened. But observing the cessation of tools he looked up, and said, in a tone of indignation, "Look there, now, I can't abide to see men throw away their tools i' that way, the minute the clock begins to strike, as if they took no pleasure i' their work, and was afraid o' doing a stroke too much."

    This incident in Eliot's book illustrates perfectly the sort of attitude Jesus was opposed to. There are employees who would never do more than they were paid for.

(3) Go the extra mile.

There was a big difference between carrying a load for the legal distance and going the extra kilometre. The first kilometre was compulsory and a obligation. The second kilometre was voluntary and an opportunity.

When might a man be willing to go the extra mile? He might do it to spare someone else carrying the load - someone old and frail who has been commandeered to take over from him. Simon of Cyrene might have been prepared to go the extra mile seeing the state Jesus was in.

There are times we need to go above and beyond the call of duty:

    (a) In our secular work. I certainly did, along with many more, during my career as a teacher. Huge numbers of children benefit from teachers running clubs and activities after school for which they are not paid a penny.

    (b) When helping people. Every fortnight I take an old colleague to Waitrose to do her shopping. I get impatient at the time she takes looking for bargains. I am loath to go the extra mile! It is a good job that the Good Samaritan went several extra miles to help the man who fell foul of the thieves.

    (c) In Christian service. We all know men and women who go the extra mile in Christian service. David Piper was for many years the administrator for our small association of churches. He was paid to do three days a week. David worked until midnight those three days so in effect he put in a week's work.

    There are some pastors who feel if they have preached twice on a Sunday that is all they need to do. My father was a Baptist minister and he attended all the meetings and activities of the church. He enjoyed being with his people. He went the extra mile. Nothing was too much trouble. The extra mile provides us with the opportunity of going beyond the call of duty and pleasing Jesus.

(D) Renounce the spirit of possessiveness.

Give to the one who aks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. Mt5v42. "Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you do not demand it back." Lk6v30.

(1) A word of caution.

This statement of Jesus cannot be taken too literally. I don't think that there is too much danger of that! Common sense tells us that if this command was taken at face value there would soon be two groups - the idle rich who ask and take and the industrious poor who earn and give. Paul who was not much given to paradox wrote: If a man will not work, he shall not eat. He writes more besides about the idle poor in 2Thes3.

(2) A warning against possessiveness.

Jesus must mean something when he says: "Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you do not demand it back." v30. I think Jesus is warning against possessiveness - a trait of small children squabbling over their toys in the nursery - a trait that can persist into old age!

    (a) Some folk are very possessive where money is concerned. They have earned it and intend to hold on to it for as long as they can. They are certainly not going to give their money away to people who don't deserve it.

    There are Christians who are poor at parting with money under any circumstances. They are reluctant to pay wages, bills and taxes. I was talking recently to a friend about a Christian farmer now long dead. He would never pay for casual labour until you knocked on his door and asked for it. He would stand humming and hawing about the number of hours worked. Then he would fish out a matchbox and pencil and calculate carefully to the nearest penny how much he owed. His worst nightmare was to pay a shilling more than necessary.

    (b) It is also possible to be possessive about property and possessions. Jesus said, "If anyone takes what belongs to you do not demand it back." There are quite a few Christians who fiercely defend the inerrancy of Scripture who treat this command of Jesus with what amounts to contempt. Jesus was saying, "Don't be the sort of person who says, 'That's mine - give it back.' or 'That's mine - get off.' or 'Why didn't you ask if you could borrow it?'"

    A long while ago now, during my days as a sports organiser at a Christian camp, I can remember chasing a couple of children during a wide game over a field of stubble. The farmer, an elder of the local Plymouth Brethren Church, caught me in the act. He gave me such a telling off and made the children and I retrace our steps. Let me make it quite clear: We were not doing any damage at all. The crop had been harvested and the field was waiting to be ploughed. The farmer was being possessive. He was angry because we were trespassing on his land. We had no right to be on his land! That is precisely the attitude Jesus spoke against.

    Just after Christmas this year I was given a complimentary copy of a Christian magazine. It contained a series of testimonies that I found very encouraging. I found it helpful to quote from the testimonies in two expositions on Luke's gospel. I then e-mailed the editor of the magazine to tell him how much I appreciated the testimonies and that I had made use of them on my website. I received a very cold, brusque e-mail in reply asking me to remove the quotations from my website as I was in breach of copyright. The editor claimed he had a duty to protect the intellectual property of his authors. Now I daresay I was partly in the wrong but there is no doubt that the editor was not acting in the spirit of Christ's command - "If anyone takes what belongs to you do not demand it back." It is quite as bad to be possessive about intellectual property as it is any other kind of property. I cannot imagine the apostle Paul claiming that the epistle to the Romans was his intellectual property and prohibiting anyone making copies of it.

(3) The generous spirit.

When Jesus said: "Give to everyone who asks you, ... ." he is surely urging us to be generous. Let me give a few examples of the generous spirit to take away the sour taste of possessiveness:

    (a) I have noticed that the Brockley cricketers are quite willing to share their kit. If someone needs a pair of pads or a bat they pick up what is available - and hope for the best! There are very rarely any incriminations. I have been told on more than one occasion - try my bat JR. Sad to say it no longer makes much difference what bat I use! The reason for the fairly relaxed attitude taken by my fellow cricketers to their kit is the existence of team spirit. If you subscribe to the team ethic - 'one for all and all for one' - you cannot be possessive about your kit.

    (b) Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, showed incredible generosity by not patenting his intellectual property but making it freely available to all. The wonderful thing is that millions contribute to the World Wide Web in the same spirit. It is a free source of knowledge and exemplifies the truth of the Beatitude, "Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy." Mt5v7. (See, 'The reproductive power of kindness')

    (c) There are several characters in the New Testament who are mentioned for their generosity: Barnabas, Dorcas, Lydia and Mary who poured out the precious ointment on Jesus. It is people like Dorcas who are truly missed when they are taken home to glory. Luke records: All the widows stood around him (Peter), crying and showing him the robes and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was still with them. Acts9v39.

    Very few mortal men gave more than Paul. He could write with authority: Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2Cor9v6to15.

    No-one has given more than Jesus. "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." Mark10v45. So, he is able to say:

              "I gave My life for thee;
              My precious blood I shed,
              That thou might'st ransomed be,
              And quickened from the dead.
              I gave my life for thee:
              What hast thou given for Me."