Radical Love is Jesus’ Radical Way to Love by Bill Hybel
The passages below are taken from Bill Hybels’ book “Who you Are When No One’s Looking,” published in 1987 by InterVarsity Press.
We have looked at love from several angles. We have seen that it needs to be tough as well as tender, and it almost always requires us to sacrifice. Jesus shows us yet another angle on love in Matthew 5:39-41, part of the Sermon on the Mount: “I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”
I think that when Jesus preached these now-familiar words, he was trying to startle his disciples into taking the next step in their understanding of Christian love. He was saying to them, “Fellas, you are making reasonable progress in understanding what it means to follow me, but when it comes to understanding the kind of interpersonal relationships I want you to have, you need some straightforward, practical, eye-opening information. So listen closely to a few down-to-earth, every day illustrations about what it means to love as I love.”
1. A Slap in the Face
Consider how Jesus’ illustrations must have sounded to the disciples:
Picture yourself walking through the busy streets of Jerusalem. You happen to notice some men standing on a corner discussing politics. You know a few of them and so you amble over and begin to listen to what they’re saying. Then someone asks you to explain your views on the Jerusalem political scene. You enthusiastically comply, offering a few well-thought-out suggestions that would solve Jerusalem’s problems, knowing full well that some of them are rather bold. Out of the corner of your eye you notice that one of the men is getting red-faced with anger. All of a sudden he squares off in front of you and, with all the pomp his indignation can muster, gives you a backhanded slap across the face.
In the culture of first-century Jerusalem, receiving a slap in the face was considered the ultimate degradation. Even today when we are insulted we say, “That was a real slap in the face.” There’s no doubt about it—you have been publicly humiliated by an arrogant, opinionated ignoramus. You can still feel the sting of his slap on your face. Your adrenalin is flowing; your anger level is skyrocketing. Your honor is at stake. You know you could knock this guy into the middle of next week if you wanted to. And inside your head, voices are saying, “Rocky, Rocky, Rocky. . .”
The moment of truth has arrived. What are you going to do? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands his followers to show radical love. Don’t slap him back. Don’t scream at him. Don’t kick him in the shins. Don’t curse him under your breath. Instead, look the man straight in the eye and remind yourself that, in spite of his arrogance and anger, he matters to God. Even at that moment God is trying to reach out to him. In fact, he is looking for someone through whom he could love this guy. So dig down deep into the foundations of your faith and love him. Do something radical that will mark his life. If turning the other cheek to him for a second slap will make a mark on the man’s soul, turn the other cheek.
Can you imagine how hard it must have been for the disciples to hear Jesus’ challenge? Born and raised in a revenge-oriented culture, they knew all about male honor, bravado and machismo. Turn the other cheek? ‘That’s a crazy idea!
2. Beyond Legal Rights
Jesus’ second illustration requires a brief explanation of the Middle Eastern wardrobe in New Testament times. People wore an inner garment of a soft fabric next to the skin. Most people had several sets of these. Over the inner garment they wore a heavy, warm, loose-fitting outer garment that served a dual purpose. During the day it was like a suit coat or sport jacket, but at night it functioned as a blanket.
In that climate a man without an outer garment for warmth at night was in a bad way. So important was the outer garment in fact, that it was protected by law. During trading and bartering sessions, it was common for men to hold each other’s garments as collateral until the deal was consummated and the good delivered. Usually the inner garment was demanded, because even a poor man would have an extra one. Ordinarily the outer garment was not used, because it was illegal to keep another man’s outer garment overnight, even if the man reneged on his part of the deal. The cloak had to be returned at sun-set, because without it he would have nothing to protect him from the night’s chill.
In view of the importance of the outer garment, Jesus’ command is amazing if you are making a deal with someone and for some reason can’t come through with your end of it, and if that man demands an inner garment as overnight collateral, give it to him, of course. But go a step further. Offer him your outer garment as well. Look him in the eye and say, “I know what’s right. A deal is a deal, and I have not fulfilled my part. So please take my outer garment, even though by law I am entitled to keep it. It is important to me to be known as a trustworthy trader, and I can get by for a night without my cloak. And, by the way, is there any other service I can render to your family?”
According to Jesus, the demands of radical love often exceed those of any written law. Love never seeks to get away with doing the bare minimum. It goes beyond law keeping and offers outrageous service.
3. The Second Mile
This leads to Jesus’ third illustration, one that cuts to the very souls of his listeners because it had to do with a practice they all absolutely detested—impressment. In those days Israel was ruled by Rome. Governors were stationed throughout the empire, and soldiers occupied the various provinces. A Roman soldier had the legal right to approach any civilian at any time of the day or night and impress—that is, coerce—him into service. The soldier could force the civilian to make meals, do laundry, provide lodging or whatever else the soldier thought needed to be done.
The Jews particularly hated it when a Roman soldier made them carry baggage. Whenever troop assignments were shifted, soldiers would appear, tap Jewish men on the shoulder with spears, and say, “Carry that suitcase and that duffel bag, and do it quickly.” No matter what the civilian was doing—sleeping, plowing a field, selling his wares—he would have to quit and do as the soldier said. There was a limit however. The Jews hated this practice so intensely that apparently the Roman officers instructed their men to restrict their demands. They could force a Jewish man to carry baggage for no more than a mile at a time.
So suppose a Roman soldier grabs you by the scruff of the neck, pushes a heavy suitcase into your stomach and says, “Carry this, pal.” He walks leisurely along beside you, eating grapes, while you stumble and strain to carry his suitcase. How does Jesus say to respond? When you get to the end of the obligatory mile, instead of slamming the suitcase to the ground hoping to break something fragile inside, instead of shaking the dust off your robe and spitting on the ground to show your contempt for this pagan soldier and this detestable practice, show him radical love.
When you get to the end of that mile, say, “Sir, could I be of further service to you in any way? God has put love in my heart for all his creations, and that includes you, whether you are aware of it or not. You matter so much to him that it would be a privilege for me to be able to serve you. So if you want to go another mile together, I’ll go with you.”
Understanding the Stories
As Jesus clearly taught the highest priority in the life of every believer should be to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds (Matthew 22:37-40). Our second-highest priority should be to love people, all of whom matter to God, in a radical, non-retaliatory, second-mile way.
For two thousand years people have read and reread Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, asking the Spirit of God to help them understand and apply these three illustrations. Believers have drawn a wide range of conclusions from them, and I still have a lot of questions about their implications myself. But these stories have some general applications that are as plain as can be. There’s no mystery about them.
One obvious principle taught by these stories is that retaliation is a dead-end road. Revenge only perpetrates and escalates animosity. Somebody has to stop the senseless escalation—and God wants that someone to be me.
Another clear implication of these stories is that male honor is not the most important thing in the world. I have to learn how to absorb some everyday slaps—being cut off in traffic, having someone push in line in front of me or being interrupted in a conversation. I need to become less defensive, and learn how to absorb some shots instead of returning them.
Finally, the stories plainly point out the secret power of the second mile. When we exceed the barest minimums of service, when we go beyond the call of duty, it has an effect on people that they do not soon forget.
Jesus’ way of loving was radically new. Old Testament laws carefully preserved justice—“an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”—but Jesus went far beyond justice in these three illustrations. Why did he want his disciples to be radical, non-retaliatory, second-mile lovers?
Breaking the Vicious Circle
First, God knows it takes a radical lover to break the cycle of interpersonal hostility. The day “Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (Genesis 4:8), this cycle was set in motion, and it has continued unabated ever since.
A friend of mine is a paramedic in Humboldt Park, a Chicago neighborhood notorious for its gangs. “You know how it goes,” he told me. “It starts with a little misunderstanding. It escalates when someone gets his feelings hurt and uses a little sarcastic language. His sarcasm provokes a smart-aleck response, which elicits a threat and then a challenge. Now the male bravado and honor get going. And then come the fists and the clubs and the knives and the guns. The blood flows and the flesh tears, and when it’s all over and people are lying in piles, they call us and we come in and pick up the pieces.”
I know how it goes. It’s been going that way for thousands of years. Granted, in a “sophisticated suburban” environment most of our hostilities do not end in hand-to-hand combat. They end in cold wars: detachment; distrust, alienation, bitterness, name calling, mud-slinging, separation, isolation and law-suits. Although we rarely fight with our fists, we can do a great deal of damage without ever soiling our three-piece suits.
But the cycle of hostility must be stopped if there is ever going to be relational harmony in this world, and it will take radical, non-retaliatory, second-mile lovers to stop it. Somebody has to take a blow, insult or slap instead of returning it. Somebody has to absorb an injustice instead of inflicting another one on somebody else; somebody has to pull the plug on continued cruelty. God says, “You can do it, if you’re willing to become a radical lover.”
In your marriage, are you willing to be the one to break the icy silences when feelings have been hurt? In the workplace, are you willing to say, “I apologize—let me help with one of your projects so your load will be easier”? In school, are you willing to complete your assignments cheerfully and then offer to do more, even—especially—if the teacher or professor is unpleasant and demanding? God is looking for radical lovers who will report for duty.
Radical Love As Evangelism
The second reason why God challenges us to become radical, non-retaliatory, second-mile lovers is that nothing leaves a deeper mark on the lives of spiritually hardened men and women than seeing radical love in action. If you know the love of Jesus Christ in a personal way, you may sometimes lie awake nights thinking of ways to make a mark on people’s lives so that they too will come to enjoy what you have found. Should you wear a little lapel pin? Put a bumper sticker on your car? Display a large Bible in your office? Tell people that you don’t go to movies or buy sexually explicit rock albums? Jesus says, if you really want to make a deep, lasting mark on someone, demonstrate radical love. There is so much compelling power in that kind of love that it makes callous people’s heads spin. They cannot figure out why you are giving up your rights and letting someone take advantage of you.
Jesus showed radical love all his life. At the end he took slaps without saying anything. He absorbed beatings without cursing anyone. When nails were pounded into his hands and feet, he did not turn to the people doing the pounding and say, “You’re going to rot in hell for this!” No, he said, “Father, these men matter to you. Don’t charge this crime to their account. Forgive them, if that’s possible.”
As Jesus died, a Clint Eastwood kind of man, a hardened Roman officer, broke down and cried, “Surely this was the Son of God!” I doubt if the army man had ever heard any theology, but he was broken by the power of Jesus’ radical, non-retaliatory, second-mile love.
A Gateway into Christ’s Presence
A third reason God asks us to show this kind of love is that it knits the soul of the radical lover to the heart of God.
I know a man who has an unusual rapport with God. He was not born that way; he drew close to God through practicing radical love. Some years ago, he and his father were missionaries in a faraway land. Representatives of another religious sect asked the father if they might pray with him. He readily agreed, and a date was set. When the time came, a man arrived, and the two of them went into a private room to pray. Suddenly my friend heard a great deal of commotion. Rushing into the room, he discovered his father bleeding on the floor. The visiting man, instead of praying with him, had stabbed him to death.
The younger man, in spite of his grief, decided to dedicate himself to reaching the very religious sect that had arranged for his father’s murder. No one would have blamed him for leaving the ministry. But rather than leaving, he actually expanded the work his father had begun—and in the process of radically loving his father’s killers, he learned to feel Christ’s presence and power as he had never felt them before.
When you take slaps, give up your legal rights and carry baggage a lot farther than you need to, you find yourself out in deep water with Christ. Realizing that the ground is not solid beneath your feet, you cling to him. You feel his support in ways you would normally never notice. Most people never leave the harbors of love. They are afraid to venture out on the high seas of radical, non-retaliatory, second-mile love. But that’s where the action is. That’s where God’s presence manifests itself in a far greater way than shore-bound people could ever imagine. That is where people are startled into taking a closer look at Jesus Christ, the world’s only perfect example of radical love. That is also where hostilities die and lasting peace begins.
Radical love does not make sense. It is not easy. But it is something that the world desperately needs, now more than ever. (93-101)