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Bible Q&A: Turn the other cheek?

Because some of Jesus’ sayings appear too radical to live out in everyday life, many assume that Jesus often set up an ideal ethic that is not realistic for people who live in this present evil age.

As a result, there is a school of thought that argues Jesus’ more strenuous sayings were meant to drive us to our knees in recognition of our inability to keep God’s lofty moral standards. True enough, we are all in need of God’s grace, not only in conversion, but every day of our lives.

However, I would argue that Jesus intended His people to live out His teachings in a realistic way, even though His teachings might only be partially realized until Jesus appears and the Kingdom comes in its fullness. Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount that we should turn the other cheek rather than seeking equivalent retribution provides an excellent test case.

Early in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He stressed to His disciples that He did not come to destroy the Old Testament; rather, He came to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). He added, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus then provided six examples of what the greater righteousness looks like in real life. Each example began with a quote from the Mosaic Law, “you have heard it said . . .” followed by the greater righteousness, “but I tell you . . .” The fifth example He offered is perhaps the most memorable: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (a quote from Exo. 21:24). He continued, “But I tell you . . . if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Matt 5:39).

Whenever this saying comes up in my classes, students often remark how difficult this would be to keep. Surely Jesus did not mean that if someone attacked you on the street, you could not fight back?

The problem is that the question fails to understand the first-century Jewish context. In the culture in which Jesus lived, the highest cultural value was honor. The worst fate that could come upon you, worse even than death, was to experience public shame.

In the example Jesus gave, He specified “if someone slaps you on the right cheek.” In this culture, you would never slap someone with the left hand. Left-handedness was viewed as an imperfection and carried a social stigma. The left hand was also seen as generally unclean and thus to be used for “unclean” duties, such as wiping after using the toilet. Thus, a person would never use the left hand in approaching another person. That would be shameful to them.

Now, back to Jesus’ saying. Slapping someone on the right cheek would require the backhanded slap with the right hand. This was not about violence, this was about dishonor and shame. The backhanded slap was the way you would slap an inferior, like a slave. It was the ultimate insult.

Jesus said that if someone attempted to dishonor you with the backhanded slap to the right cheek, turn the other cheek. Rather than an act of acceptance, turning the cheek was an act of resistance, but it was not resistance by violence. To offer the left cheek was a way of saying, “you might slap me again, but if you do, you’ll have to slap me with the palm, the way you would slap an equal.” Turning the other cheek is not about allowing someone to beat you up. Of course you should defend yourself if that’s the case.

Jesus taught his disciples that when faced with evil, we should neither passively ignore it, neither should we respond with revengeful violence. We should resist evil, but not by evil means. When understood in this way, Jesus’ ethic is quite realistic.

Perhaps today, someone will attempt to belittle you or put you down. Rather than seeking revenge, we should find ways to assert our dignity as human beings created in the image of God without retaliating in the same way. This is the greater righteousness.

Author: Bobby Kelly

View more articles by Bobby Kelly.

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