What Does It Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?

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What Does It Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?

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What Does It Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?

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Does Jesus’ well known teaching to “turn the other cheek” (found in Matthew 5:39 Matthew 5:39But I say to you, That you resist not evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
American King James Version×
) advocate you purposefully subject yourself to physical abuse? Does He go on to propose that you remain passive in the face of evil?

Jesus’ real message here is that we can choose to diffuse rather than escalate social and legal conflict.

In Matthew 5:38 Matthew 5:38You have heard that it has been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
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Jesus begins with a reference to the Old Testament legal principle of “an eye for an eye” found in Exodus 21:24 Exodus 21:24Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
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and Deuteronomy 19:21 Deuteronomy 19:21And your eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
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. The purpose of this Old Testament guideline was to place limits on legal punishment, and ensure that punishment for a crime committed not be more severe than the crime itself.

This principle still remains in modern legal codes under the name Lex Talionis, or Law of Retaliation.

Jesus’ comments are related to a legal, or court, setting. A place where disputes are fought out. The subject of His comments is retaliation. Specifically, we might be within our rights to retaliate to a slap in the face by slapping their face in return, but should we?

Matthew 5:39 Matthew 5:39But I say to you, That you resist not evil: but whoever shall smite you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.
American King James Version×
begins by saying “do not resist evil.” This too should be considered in the legal context. The phrase "to resist" is from the Greek word antistēnai (ἀντιστῆναι). Elsewhere in the New Testament the word refers to standing up in opposition to, arguing with, or disputing with. The word’s use in Greek writings of that time was often related to legal disputation in court. So in context, the verse begins by advising us not to engage in legal disputes and quarrels with people even though they may be in the wrong.

In other places, the New Testament clearly tells us to stand with firm resolve against evil (James 4:7 James 4:7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
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; 1 Peter 5:9 1 Peter 5:9Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brothers that are in the world.
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; Ephesians 6:13 Ephesians 6:13Why take to you the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
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). But entering into contentious disputations with evil people is advised against.

What about the striking on the cheek?

Lightly striking a person on the right cheek using the back of your hand was a common form of insult in first-century Judea. We do not have to interpret Jesus’ teaching as telling us to respond to a violent punch in the face by asking for more. Jesus’ teaching is: don’t trade insults with your adversary, even if it means opening yourself up to more of their insults.

Jesus teaching is about diffusing conflict rather than allowing conflicts to escalate. He advocates we stop the cycle through a willingness to suffer wrong. This same principle is taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:7-8 1 Corinthians 6:7-8 [7] Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because you go to law one with another. Why do you not rather take wrong? why do you not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? [8] No, you do wrong, and defraud, and that your brothers.
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(notice the legal setting once again). A never-ending exchange of insults becomes a feud, which has the potential to get worse and worse perhaps even to the point of violence!

What about taking a financial loss for the sake of peace?

In Matthew 5:40 Matthew 5:40And if any man will sue you at the law, and take away your coat, let him have your cloak also.
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Jesus offers the example of a lawsuit where you might be required to provide a security deposit. In our modern society, this would be like posting bail. In the Jewish culture this security deposit would often be an article of clothing (a very valuable item in those days).

Then Jesus offers an additional example of civil obligations (Matthew 5:41 Matthew 5:41And whoever shall compel you to go a mile, go with him two.
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). In those days a Roman soldier had a legal right to require a Jew to carry his backpack for a mile. As a resident in an area occupied by Rome it was part of your civic obligation.

In both these cases the principle is to act more generously than the law requires, and to go above and beyond the minimum requirements to create peace with those who might otherwise be your enemies.

Peace and reconciliation

You might be within your legal rights to retaliate in like manner to insults or other personal affronts, but a willingness to suffer wrong is the only way to move toward reconciliation. Additionally, going above and beyond the minimum legal requirement can help make friends out of enemies.

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