I wrote this in response to an email I received and thought I would share it here.
The sermon on the mount begins with the beatitudes. Blessed are the peacemakers and blessed are the merciful, and blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. But the most significant beatitude is the first one: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
The poor in Spirit are those who realize that they cannot make it on their own, they cannot do what God demands. They are the ones who pray like the tax collector in Luke, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Keep this in mind.
Now in the rest of the sermon, Jesus basically says, you thought you were doing good, but really your good doing is not enough. You thought you were doing good because you hadn’t been sleeping around, but when you think lustfully about beautiful people that also counts. you thought you were doing good by not breaking your oaths, but your yes should always be yes and your no always no. You thought you were good because you didn’t kill anyone, but if you hate or cut others down your heart is still full of murder.
Then the kicker, you thought you were doing good because you gave out justice, eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but if you really want to do good, then break the cycle of violence. If someone violates you, don’t violate them back to get even.
Now here is the important point. Jesus is not saying be a passive weakling. Jesus is saying, you as the abused person have a choice in how you are going to respond. You can choose to let your spirit be crushed, you can choose to fight back, Or you can choose to stand in the face of oppression and turn the other cheek.
the way I understand it is that Jesus is saying, you should not let the evil done to you justify doing evil against someone else. When you turn the other cheek, you stand your ground, you do not submit, but you also do not fight back.
Often times this will cause the oppressor to become even more violent, but it may also cause the oppressor to back down. By standing there, you have proved your humanity and dignity. You will not be treated as a slave.
The walk an extra mile comes from a practice where romans could demand people carry their packs for a mile, however it was illegal to carry the pack for two miles. So again, the person who insists on carrying the pack two miles, is asserting her humanity and dignity. I do this as a kindness, not as a slave. Love your enemy, Jesus goes on to say. (since the two miles was illegal, it also puts the soldier in an awkward spot of having the oppressed person having power over the oppressor)
Finally, and the most dramatic, is the man who strips naked when he is unjustly sued. It is extreme, but it is a way of bearing witness to the whole community: this person has taken everything I own, and has even tried to take my dignity. Then as now, to see someone naked is more shameful than to be naked. The abuser is now publicly exposed for his abuse, by the nakedness of the abused.
Okay, what does this have to do with the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those whose righteousness exceeds that of the pharasees (v.20)? If you want to follow in the way of Jesus, you first humble yourself, admit that you cannot live up to what is demanded. You need help, mercy and forgiveness, then with the Holy Spirit living in you, you find the strength, not your own, to love your enemies, in a way that asserts your common humanity.
The sermon on the mount is about changing the heart and breaking the cycles of revenge and retribution, by asserting human brokenness and the blessing of Jesus Christ upon those who realize their brokenness.