In Matthew 5:39, Jesus says:
If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
If you are a regular church goer, chances are you have heard this phrase before, but what does it mean? Is Jesus advocating physical abuse? Is He is telling us never to defend ourselves? Or is He talking about something different?
Before we answer our questions, let’s imagine the action. Two blows are involved. The first blow comes from a person slapping you on your cheek with the back of their hand, causing your face to turn to one side. The second blow would come when you voluntarily turn your other cheek to them, so that they could then come across your face with their open hand.
What does this have to do with being a True Disciple of Jesus?
In Jesus’ day, when someone slapped you with the back, or palm, of their hand, it was more an insult than a physical attack. The person being slapped would be dishonored and shamed. This is true in our day as well. When a man says something rude to a woman, she may slap him. There is no question she may desire to physically harm him, but her slap will probably do nothing more than bruise his ego, dishonor, or shame him.
Jesus is teaching us we are to allow ourselves to be shamed and dishonored instead of retaliating. The idea then is that we are to relinquish our rights to worldly honor. Instead of finding honor from the world, we are to find honor and acceptance in Christ. After all, as Christians, we are the sons of God. What could bring more honor than that?
What would relinquishing our worldly right to honor and personal retaliation accomplish?
(1) It would break the chain of evil.
Our natural response is to hit, take, or offend back, when we have been hit, stolen from, or offended. When we relinquish our rights to worldly honor and personal retaliation, we break the natural chain of evil.
(2) It would take retaliation out of the personal realm and give it to God.
Jesus provides this teaching because the Old Testament Law an an eye for and eye was being misused. The Law’s original intent was to take retaliation out of the personal realm and place it into the hand of the judges, in order to keep blood feuds from starting and preserve Israel’s witness to the surrounding nations.
By Jesus’ day, the Law had been misused. Instead of accomplishing its purpose of limiting personal retaliation the opposite happened. Personal retaliation was exacted more often outside of the court of law. Part of the reason this was happening was because people felt dishonored. In order to gain their honor back, they retaliated.
Jesus then is teaching us that a willingness to be dishonored is necessary to preserve peace and unity in a community, as well as to be patient and allow God or the court to work.
(3) It would show a completely different way of thinking and living than the world, allowing us to witness to those around us.
Allowing someone to dishonor us, and even physically attack us without defense to a certain extent is completely foreign to most people. When we act in ways different than our society, people want to know why we are acting that way and how we can act that way, which then allows us to be a witness to Jesus and His life transforming power.
Are you willing to give up your worldly honor and be shamed, in order to be a witness for Christ? The question is tough, I know. It is, however, what Jesus is calling us to as His disciples.
What turn the other cheek doesn’t mean
(1) It doesn’t mean we allow someone to abuse us physically, or even mentally.
Advocating physical or mental abuse would be a misuse of Jesus’ teaching. If you are in an abusive relationship, get out of the situation, and get some help. Cities often have abuse shelters. As well as most churches are willing to help. Seek these resources out if you are being abused.
(2) It doesn’t mean we must be a pacifist
We can defend our country, our family, others, and even ourselves at times.
When it comes to defending ourself it gets a bit complex. Some say never, but I believe we can defend ourselves when we are left with no choice. When we do defend ourselves, we should use the least amount of force necessary to protect ourselves. Remember, it is not about our honor. We do not have to win the fight. We can simply punch someone in the face and run away.
Returning to our initial questions, we now see we can fight back against abuse and an attacker. Jesus’ teaching is more about relinquishing our rights to honor than self defense. With His command, Jesus is doing what He has been doing all throughout the Sermon on the Mount, He is attacking our heart, probing to see if we love Him more than our own honor.
Questions for Reflection
- Do you agree or disagree?
- How have you taught or heard this passage taught in the past?
- Does thinking about this passage in light of honor/dishonor help you understand Jesus’ teaching better?