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Turning The Other Cheek: Wise Or Otherwise?

Matthew 5:38-48

April 15, 1947.

That day ought to be celebrated as a special day of remembrance in the history of this nation for on that day a black man and a white man together changed a game and a nation forever.

April 15, 1947.

On that bitingly cold afternoon, Jackie Robinson took the field for the very first time as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. In that stunningly, dramatic moment, he shattered racial barriers and opened the door for African-Americans to participate openly and freely at the highest level of professional sports in our country. But what happened that day not only impacted the sports world, it also changed the course of this nation’s history. We tend to exalt Martin Luther King, Jr. as the dominant force in the Civil Rights movement in this country, and that he was—but the reality is that Dr. King could never have done what he did had Jackie Robinson not done what he did a decade earlier. The whole story is told in a remarkable book by a professor at Princeton University, Dr. Arnold Rampersad. The book is entitled “Jackie Robinson: A Biography.” Whether you are a sports fan or not, it is a great read.

April 15, 1947.

On that day a black man and a white man together changed a game and a nation forever. The black man, of course, was Jackie Robinson. The white man was Branch Rickey, the President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Branch Rickey was both a great baseball man and a deeply devoted disciple of Jesus Christ. His Christian faith led him to the conviction that the color barrier in baseball had to be broken and that he was the person to do it. He knew that he had to pick just the right player to accomplish this revolutionary change—a player who not only was an extraordinary athlete but also a player who had the spiritual strength to withstand the pressures, prejudice, and persecution which surely would come. Branch Rickey’s eye fell upon Jackie Robinson. Robinson was a dynamic young player, but much more to Rickey’s purposes, Jackie Robinson, first from his mother and later from a black Methodist minister who befriended him during his troubled adolescence, had been given a strong faith in Jesus Christ and a belief that God had great plans for him in his life. So it was that Branch Rickey called Jackie Robinson into his office, and an amazing conversation took place. It is said that on small moments history turns. Well here was a small moment, but it turned history. Branch Rickey said to Jackie Robinson, “I know you are a good ball player but what I don’t know is if you have any guts!” Robinson immediately stiffened but Rickey quickly said, “I’m looking for a ball player with guts enough not to fight back.” Suddenly, surprisingly, shockingly, Branch Rickey then stripped off his coat and began to act out the kinds of abuse he knew Jackie Robinson would have to face. Verbally he poured out venom on Robinson. At one point he even swung his pudgy fist toward Jackie Robinson’s head. Then he screamed at Robinson, “Do you have courage enough not to fight back?” Jackie Robinson calmly replied, “Mr. Rickey, I read the Bible. I know how Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek. I know how to do that.” Now on the coffee table in Rickey’s office was a book which was quite popular at the time. The book was entitled “The Life of Christ.” It was written by a man named Alfred Edersheim. Branch Rickey picked up the book, sat down next to Jackie Robinson, and the two of them read together a passage from that book where the author referred to Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek as the most revolutionary of all His teachings. It was at that point that the two men struck a covenant with the Lord and with each other, went on then to strike a blow for justice on the baseball field, and ultimately struck the spark which launched the Civil Rights Movement in this country.

April 15, 1947.

Jackie Robinson taught us all a pivotal lesson by showing the world the power of Jesus’ teaching about “turning the other cheek.” Now, there are many in our world who argue that turning the other cheek is not very wise. They say that if you follow that teaching life will run you over, or run you down, or run you out. So I put the question to us all today: Turning the other cheek—is it wise or otherwise? Well let’s look together at the words of Jesus to see if we can find the answer.

First, when Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” He means that we are to respond to harshness with kindness.

In other words, don’t retaliate! Now it is very important to know exactly what Jesus meant when He delivered this revolutionary teaching. You see, when you read Jesus’ words in the Bible, He clearly refers to being struck on the right cheek. Now in order to be struck on the right cheek, you must (unless you are confronting that rare left-handed person) be struck with the back of the other person’s hand. In Jesus’ day, being struck by the back of the hand was not an act of attack: it was an act of insult. So Jesus was saying that insults and slander ought to be ignored. Don’t return hurt for hurt. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Don’t feel that when someone hurts you, you have to get even. Don’t let someone else’s actions determine your own. Have the courage not to retaliate. When you encounter hurts, or slanders, or insults in your journey through life, respond to that harshness with kindness. Don’t retaliate. Jesus, of course, was the perfect example of this gracious spirit. When you look at the life of Jesus from beginning to end, you begin to realize that He was constantly attacked verbally. He was insulted practically every time He turned around. Slanders were forever being directed against Him. Yet Jesus never once responded to that hurtfulness with a harshness of His own. Never once did He retaliate. He was way too big, way too strong, way too courageous to ever do anything like that.

Now wait just a moment. We must be very careful here. That does not mean that we are to be passive, or weak, or spineless. It doesn’t mean that we are to be doormats in life. Four words—passive, weak, spineless, doormat—not a single one of those words could ever be applied to Jesus. Jesus was anything but passive, weak, spineless. Jesus was anything but a doormat. No, Jesus is calling us here to strength and courage. Jesus knew that it takes an extraordinary strength and courage not to retaliate when hurt is being inflicted upon you. Anyone can lose his or her temper. Anyone can demand their “pound of flesh.” But it takes a very special person indeed to possess the inner strength and courage required to respond to harshness with kindness. Jackie Robinson was a big man—a man of great strength and courage because he refused to retaliate against the insults and the slanders which were heaped upon him. Turning the other cheek: Is it wise or otherwise? You tell me.

Next, when Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” He means that we are to respond to abuse with grace.

In other words, don’t hate! When you stop to think about it Jesus’ whole life was filled with abuse. His life began under the threat of death from King Herod. In His own hometown when He began to preach, they seized Him and He barely escaped being stoned to death. He was verbally attacked, cursed and beaten, stripped and spat upon. He was nailed to a cross and left to die the most hideous and painful death imaginable. Yet how did Jesus always respond to abuse? With grace. When the soldiers came to arrest Him, He never retaliated—in fact, He told Peter to put away his sword. When the soldiers nailed Him to the cross, He never responded in hatred—in fact, He said, “Father, forgive them.” There was another Roman soldier that day on Cavalry. He saw it all, and he heard it all. After he had seen it all and heard it all, he said it all when he said, “Surely, this Man was the Son of God.”

Many years later another soldier said something quite similar. The soldier’s name was Napoleon. He put it like this, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires built upon force. Only Jesus Christ founded an empire built upon love, and at this hour, millions of people would die for Him.” Thus spake Napoleon. Look at what has happened since. The empires of Napoleon, Alexander, Caesar, and Charlemagne have long since disappeared into the dusts of history. Only the empire of Jesus Christ remains, and today, not just millions, but billions of people would die for Him. Love is the most powerful force in all the world. It is infinitely more powerful than hate. I believe that when Jesus called us to turn the other cheek, He was calling us to respond to abuse with grace. He was saying to us, “Don’t hate.” So turning the other cheek—is it wise or otherwise? You tell me.

Then, when Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” He means that we are to respond to adversity with perseverance.

In other words, don’t quit! For years after that April day in 1947, Jackie Robinson endured almost unspeakable prejudice and persecution. Taunts and threats marked virtually every day of his life as a major league baseball player. When you read about it in detail -page after page after page—it will reduce you to tears. Yet through it all, Jackie Robinson never quit. He persevered, and because he persevered, he prevailed. Dear friends, when life knocks us flat, we have two choices. We can quit on life—we can give up, give in, give out—or we can get back up, dust ourselves off, and go on living creatively and confidently in Jesus Christ.

Maybe the best example of that second choice that I have ever encountered is a Scottish Presbyterian preacher named George Matheson. He was born in 1842 in Glasgow, Scotland, and by the time he was in his teens, he showed great promise and potential in life. He went off to college, and there he fell in love with a young woman he hoped someday to marry. Then life knocked him flat. At age 18, tragically he was struck blind. As if that were not bad enough this young woman, who was the great love of his life, delivered another devastating blow. She said, “I do not wish to be the wife of a blind man”—and with cruelty aforethought she stalked out of his life forever. His world crumbled at his feet. Now George Matheson could have responded with anger and hatred, bitterness, and resentment. He could have withdrawn into a shell and cursed God for his misfortune. He could have given up and quit on life. He did none of the above. Instead, he turned his now sightless eyes upon Jesus, filled his broken heart with love for God’s people, and gave himself to the Gospel ministry. In what can only be described as an amazing demonstration of love, George Matheson’s sister became his eyes. She actually went with him to seminary. There she learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew in order to help him in his studies. Once in the ministry, she became invaluable in helping him to fulfill his pastoral duties. One example: this is the way George Matheson would preach. Because of his disability, he developed a remarkable memory. He would then dictate his sermon each week to his sister. She would write the sermon down and then read it back to him twice. That was all he needed to memorize it. Then on Sunday, he would stand up and preach that sermon word-for-word. He became one of Scotland’s greatest preachers—preaching to 2,000 people each week at his church in Edinburgh. On June 6, 1882, his sister was to be married. Of course, he was thrilled for her. As you can imagine, the prospect of her marriage awakened in Matheson the old pain in his own heart. The great love of his life had walked out on him leaving him to a life of both singleness and sightlessness. Yet even in that moment of pain, his love for Christ prevailed. He sent word to his sister asking if she could interrupt her preparations for her wedding for just a moment in order to take down some words which were pounding in his brain. In five minutes, he had spoken the words and she had written them down. Ultimately the words became one of the best-loved hymns of them all.

Oh love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths it’s flow
May richer fuller be.

Dear friends, let me say this as plainly, as simply, as clearly as I know how. Commit your life to Jesus Christ, and commit to live your life everyday in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. If you do, then I promise you, you will know a life that as the hymn puts it a “life that shall endless be.”

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