On the face of it, this doesn’t seem like very useful advice: your one cheek is already stinging and you’re to say, “Go ahead; hit me again.”
But our Lord’s words (Matthew 5:39b) are lodged in the Sermon on the Mount, the manifesto of Christ’s kingdom (Matthew 5 – 7). And this saying has been treated authoritatively by Bible believers for two millennia — even when not understood. The words deserve deeper thought.
In order to penetrate Jesus’ meaning, first consider why Jesus speaks of being struck on the right cheek. Why so specific?
Commentator David Hill explains that the Greek word for strike means in this case to strike with the back of the hand. It’s not a fisted blow. I’ve heard this action referred to as a “backhander.”
Visualize the act as follows. Suppose A is facing B. A intends to insult or demean B. In order to strike B on the right cheek, he will use the back of his right hand delivering a quick slap.
According to Hill, taking these details into account, Jesus is using the image of a backhander to represent the insults that may come our way because we are Christians. These insults are annoying, and when they come, Jesus says to us, according to HIll: “If a man insults you, let him insult you again, rather than your running off to the court seeking reparation at law.”
It appears Jesus is not thinking of a physical offense at all. He is creating this verbal picture of a backhander to represent the insults that may come our way because we are believers. He means let them be an annoyance and nothing more.
Elsewhere Jesus gives different advice regarding what to do about greater offenses that disturb relationships, threatening the health and harmony of the church. His sequence is, first let the offended go alone directly to the offending brother and present your complaint; then, if not effective go with one or two witnesses; then if more is needed take the matter before the church. (Matthew 18:15-17). Such offenses should not be allowed to simmer.
Did the early church understand this backhander message, that had been so carefully preserved by Matthew? Probably not in every case. In the early church, interpersonal issues arose and there were insults from outside too. Consider the carnal offenses within the Christian community that surfaced in the Corinthian church, such as playing favorites and behaving like immature children.
But the word of Christ as reiterated by Paul remained the same. When addressing the churches in Galatia, he composed the list of nine graces he calls collectively the fruit of the Spirit. These include, “long suffering,” more recently translated “patience.” His reference is not to patience when we can’t find our car keys. The reference is to patience when others offend us.
And even years after Jesus’ ascension the Apostle Peter wrote to believers who had been dispersed by persecution and were taking undeserved mistreatment in society. He reminded them of Jesus who, “… when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead he trusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23b).
In summary, turning the other cheek is a distinctive response of Christian’s to moments of humiliation and scorn. We take this instruction as a key element in discipleship.
But at the same time we pay attention to Jesus’ other teachings about more serious offenses, and stand resolute in the face of evil, speaking up for truth and fighting valiantly in solidarity with the saints and even heroes of many centuries.
Image info: The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1877)