Turn the Other Cheek
Many have been confused by Jesus' statement, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well." (Matthew 5:39b)
This passage has been used to teach everything from pacifism to non-defense against attackers who wish to do us bodily harm. Are these proper interpretations of Jesus' teaching?
Interestingly enough Jesus Himself was struck in the face during His trial by one of the high priest's officers (John 18:19-23). Did He turn the other cheek so He could be struck again? No. He asked, "If I have said something wrong, confirm what is wrong. But if I spoke correctly, why strike me?" If Jesus Himself did not literally turn His other cheek to his attacker so that He could be struck again, maybe Jesus meant something more than meets the eye.
The proper interpretation of Jesus' words can be gained by paying attention to the specificity with which Jesus spoke. He specifically mentioned being struck on the "right" cheek. Why the right cheek? Why not the left cheek? Why not just speak of "your cheek" in a general sense? I am persuaded it is because Jesus was talking about how we respond to personal insults, not outright brutality.
Most people are right handed. If they mean to hit you they would hit you with their right arm, and their throw would land on your left cheek. Was Jesus talking about left-handed hitters, then? No. In ancient near eastern cultures a common insult was to slap someone across their face with the back of the hand. When a right-handed man slaps another individual with the back of his hand it lands on the victim's right cheek.
Jesus was not instructing us to allow ourselves to be beaten up by an attacker, but rather to resist the desire to retaliate against those who insult us.
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