“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 cheek also.” (Matthew 5:38-39 NIV)
Matthew begins this discussion by quoting part of Exodus 21:22-25. “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
Why does Jesus quote this? Because people were taking the law into their own hands – just as we do today. We all love justice, but only if we get to be the judge. But none of us is supposed to be the one taking out eyeballs, pulling teeth, or cutting off limbs. That’s what the justice system is for. Yet even the justice system doesn’t always make everything right; Jesus isn’t saying it should. Jesus “does not overthrow the principle of equivalent compensation on an institutional level – that question is just not addressed – but declares it illegitimate for His followers to apply it to their private disputes.” (Davies, W.D. and Allison, D.C. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew Volume 2 ICC. New York: T&T Clark, p. 542.) In other words, it is not your place or mine to delve out justice as we see fit. When we are cut off in traffic, it does not give us the right to cut them off to make things fair. If your spouse cheats on you, you do not get to cheat on him/her or (as some did in Jesus’ time) take them outside of town and stone them without a trial. And when someone literally or figuratively slaps you in the face, you do not have the right to hit them back.
When Jesus gives the example of being slapped in the face, He is using hyperbole to demonstrate a principle. “Jesus often resorted to extreme exaggeration in order to drive home his points and to get His hearers to ask questions and see their world from a new perspective. The command to turn the other cheek cannot be understood prosaically. Rather is Jesus calling for an unselfish temperament, for naked humility and a will to suffer the loss of one’s personal rights. He is declaring that two wrongs do not make a right, that revenge is poison.” (p. 541) In a world where so many are concerned about their rights and entitlements, turn the other cheek is still a shocking statement, but if true justice is ever to happen, it must be left up to God.
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19 NAS)
If we try to exact our own revenge, we only end up hurting ourselves in the process. Besides becoming bitter and angry, our character and even our identity as followers of Jesus could be challenged. Matthew Henry points out that “he started it” doesn’t work either. “but it will not justify us in hurting our brother to say that he began, for it is the second blow that makes the quarrel; and when we were injured, we had an opportunity not to justify our injuring him, but to show ourselves the true disciples of Christ, by forgiving him.”
Revenge is a poison meant for others that we swallow ourselves. – Charlie Crews
Jesus is not saying every time someone hits you, you must leave yourself open for a further beating as if to say, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” He also doesn’t mean if someone hits you in the face you offer them the OTHER cheek – you know, the one not on your face. The word translated “strikes” is not a punch so much as a slap with an open hand. “Striking the cheek with the open hand” was considered a “gross insult.” (p.543) So it isn’t so much about being hit in the face as it is the meaning behind it. Since most people were right handed, “Matthew evidently mentions the right cheek in order to make plain that the reference is to the backhanded insult (to strike the right cheek with the right hand, one must hit backhandedly).” (p.543) To slap backhandedly in that day was common for a master to do to a slave. To do so to your fellow man was to say he was your slave. To slap backhandedly today is also an incredible insult commonly referred to as a bit$#slap – probably because you would only dare to treat a dog that way.
And that is just what Jesus is getting at: if someone backslaps you as a slave, disrespecting you as if you are inferior to them, the natural instinct is to strike back, which often only escalates the situation and solves nothing. But what if you did not retaliate? What if you stood up to your attacker – not with force, but with justice on your side?
If you were to turn to him your other cheek, you are daring him to hit you as an equal. By turning your left cheek towards him, it is no longer physically possible for him to backhand you with his right hand. His only option would be to try to punch you with his right hand since he is not likely to use his weaker hand if he wants to escalate things. But if he punches you, he punches you as an equal.
Jesus led by example even as he was being led to the cross. Though He was innocent, He did not even protest. 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. (Isaiah 53:7 NIV)
This doesn’t mean we should be silent as we are being insulted. When I was in eighth grade, I used to walk uphill eight miles both ways in snow up to my waist in only a toga and my trusty linen ephod. Actually it was only about half a mile and I had my trendy Triple Fat Goose coat for colder weather. One day, for no apparent reason, a ninth grader started picking on me as I walked home every day. He would insult me and swear at me, walking behind me most of the way. Thinking turn the other cheek meant keeping my mouth shut, I would try to ignore him and walk faster. It didn’t work. I was mortified every time the final bell rang knowing he would be waiting for me. It was not until I stopped, turned around to face him, and asked him why he was saying such things that I gained his respect as an equal. I didn’t threaten him. I merely showed him I had the courage to confront him and he never bothered me again.
Does this mean we should allow others to physically beat us mercilessly and repeatedly? No! A battered wife or an abused child should not stay in so destructive an environment. Jesus is not saying to become a doormat.
I was a magnet for bullies when I was younger, but I thought I was supposed to turn the other cheek and let them hurt me in silence. I thought I could not tell any authority figure because there was some unwritten code saying I must not. So I suffered alone in band class being beaten with my own drum sticks, pushed, punched in the stomach, and humiliated. The constant bullying made me physically sick, chronically anxious, and exhausted when I made it home. Confronting him only made things worse, but was worth the try. It wasn’t until my band teacher witnessed my bully grabbing my collar and pinning me up against a wall that the bullying stopped. He never respected me, but he was forced to respect the ones who could make his life miserable with detention, expulsion, and (as was the case for him) boarding school.
You do not have to suffer in silence or alone. When someone bullies you, he is not just doing it to you. At the beginning of both of these verses, Jesus says, “You have heard…” and “But I tell you…” Both “you”s are plural, which means Jesus is speaking to all of “you” who call yourselves disciples of Christ. In the South, singular and plural are more clear so the Redneck Jimmy James Version would be “You all have heard” and “But I tell you all.” When Jesus says “If someone strikes you,” He is using the singular form of “you” because the actual blow is being delivered upon one person, but because He is speaking to “you all,” it is as if the bully is striking “all you all.”
But only if other people know. It is easy for a bully to slap you around. It is much harder for a bully to slap ten people around even if none of them even threaten to retaliate. That is what being a disciple of Jesus is really about: a community of believers who support each other, love each other, and empathize for each other.
Do not remain silent. Tell someone if you are being bullied or abused. As you turn your cheek, turn to others who love you and turn to God who will certainly bring justice in His timing.