One of the most famous teachings of Jesus is that His followers should “turn the other cheek,” a teaching that is familiar even to non-Christians. But what, exactly, did He mean?
Was He saying that soldiers in battle should present themselves to their enemies rather than return fire? Did He mean that a father should not fight off a home intruder who was trying to kidnap his children? By understanding what Jesus was saying, we can better understand what He was not saying.
This teaching is found in both Matthew 5 and Luke 6, but the wording in Matthew is more specific.
“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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
The Lord was contrasting His new teaching with the teaching of the Law, calling His followers to an even higher ethic.
Under the Law, the standard was “eye for eye and tooth for tooth.”
If you assaulted me and blinded me in one eye, then, according to the Law, you would be blinded in one eye. If you took someone’s life, you forfeited your own life. There was no mercy and no negotiation.
This is what is known as lex talionis, “the law of retaliation, whereby a punishment resembles the offense committed in kind and degree.”
According to later Jewish tradition, lex talionis was never intended literally. Instead, aside from the death penalty for murder, there was monetary compensation for the other injuries and losses.
But without question, when Jesus spoke of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth,” His hearers knew exactly what He meant. Under the Law, they were entitled to legal retribution. And it is in this context that we must understand His command to turn the other cheek and not to resist an evil person.
Specifically, He said, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also.”
Why is this so important? It’s because He is talking about a backhanded slap.
We know this because right-handedness is assumed as the norm, and a right-handed slap would land on the person’s left cheek. Here it lands on their right cheek, meaning it was backhanded, which was considered more degrading.
And why is this observation significant?
We know from ancient Jewish legal tradition that, “If someone slaps another person, he must pay two hundred dinars. If it was backhanded, he must pay four hundred dinars.”
So, if someone gave you a backhanded slap, particularly in public, you had the legal right to double compensation. Jesus calls us to step a lot higher than legal retribution or retaliation. Let them slap you on the other cheek!
Talk about a radical, challenging command. It requires massive self-restraint. It requires the crucifixion of our pride, anger and shame and a determination to overcome evil with good.
Go ahead and mock me. Humiliate me. In response, I will turn the other cheek. In light of these points, we can return to the questions posed at the beginning of this article.
Was Jesus saying that a soldier cannot return fire against an enemy combatant? Not at all. In fact, if that soldier is on the right side of justice (for example, fighting against the Nazis rather than for the Nazis), he could pray for God’s help and success in his mission.
Was Jesus saying that the father who catches an intruder about to rape his wife or kidnap his children should smile and wish him a nice day? God forbid. He should do what he can to keep His family safe, and if the only way to do that before the police arrive is to hit the intruder over the head with a baseball bat, he should do it.
Was Jesus saying that a police officer should look the other way when he observes a criminal committing a violent act? Again, this has nothing whatsoever to do with the words of Jesus. That officer should do his job, with God’s help at that.
But the Lord was saying that we should learn to ignore insults, that we should not repay evil with evil, that we should refuse to give way to a vindictive spirit, and that we should not seek to litigate every last, minor offense. He absolutely meant what He said.
In such cases, He is telling us to “turn the other cheek,” thereby setting us apart from the dog-eat-dog world in which we live. After all, if we are as petty, vengeful and retaliatory as everyone else, how can we claim to be His disciples?
Dr. Michael Brown (www.askdrbrown.org) is the host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University and has served as a professor at a number of seminaries and is the author of 40 books. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.