Three of Jesus' commands we might have been getting wrong

Leo Tolstoy believed Jesus taught total non-violence.

Three verses in the Sermon on the Mount are among the most famous in the New Testament. Jesus says in Matthew 5: 38-41: "I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles."

'Turning the other cheek' has become proverbial. It means not just that we don't retaliate when someone injures us, but we lay ourselves open to exactly the same treatment again. We don't resist injustice; we don't mind someone taking advantage of us. Indeed, we welcome it.

On the face of it, these words mean exactly what they say. Certainly, thinkers like Leo Tolstoy have used them as an inspiration for a creed of non-violence. In What I Believe: My Religion, he writes that Jesus was saying: "You think that your laws correct evil; they only increase it. There is only one way of extirpating evil – to return good to all men without distinction. You have tried your principle for thousands of years; try now mine, which is the reverse."

He also admits that it's really, really hard to do – and that's what most of us would feel. So we tend to skate over Jesus' commands and not think about them too much, or we do our best to live up to them as far as we can, and perhaps feel a bit guilty that we aren't doing better.

But that's not the only way of looking at them – though the alternative is just as hard.

In his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, the scholar Walter Wink suggests a different approach, rooted in the reality of Jesus' life in a Palestine occupied by the Romans.

Jesus says, when someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him. A right-handed person would normally strike an adversary on the left cheek. To hit someone on the right cheek would mean a back-hander – an insult. So to turn the other cheek meant that the perpetrator would have to hit with a fist. It was a way of saying, "I'm not going to retaliate, but you will treat me as an equal."

Jesus says, if someone sues you for your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. This was forbidden in Deuteronomy 24: 10-13, as it would have left a poor person naked. Jesus is suggesting that the unforgiving creditor would be shamed by the debtor's action.

Jesus says that if someone forces a person to go with them one mile, they could go with them two. This refers to the Roman custom of press-ganging people to carry loads for them – but only for a mile at a time. Carrying a load for two miles was passive resistance to the Roman occupation that put the Jews back in charge and made the Romans look foolish.

So what does this mean for us?

1. It doesn't let us off the hook. Jesus' teaching about how we're to relate to our enemies is still very demanding. Revenge is out of the question.

2. It calls us to be strong. People might be more powerful than we are, with all the advantages on their side, and take against us because we're Christians or for some other reason. But God does not call us to be passive victims of other people's malice.

3. It means that we have to be creative in our responses. We are not Jesus, and we won't always get things right, but thinking about how we can put his principles into practice in our lives might open up some surprising options.

4. It is genuinely loving towards the oppressor. Confronting someone in a non-violent but thought-provoking way gives them the opportunity to grow and change. Opposition and hostility hurt, but it's not all about us – loving our enemy means helping them see how badly they've behaved.

Ultimately, Jesus' desire is not the defeat of the enemy, but their transformation into a friend. He's encouraging his followers to create encounters between people in which we look each other in the eye and recognise each other as fellow human beings.

In a world where divisions between rich and poor, black and white, male and female, immigrant and native are profound and growing, we need to hear his words again.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.