When Must We Turn the Other Cheek?

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890Jesus taught his disciples that if anyone strikes them on the right cheek they were to turn the other cheek also.

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.

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Image info: The Sermon on the Mount by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1877)

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2 thoughts on “When Must We Turn the Other Cheek?

  1. ‘‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’’ Matthew 5:39,second sentence ,NIV

    Pastor Don I understand this so much clearer now I never paid attention enough to the exact detail of Jesus’ words. Jesus said ‘the RIGHT cheek’ not any cheek.I never considerd that this was an insult ,a humiliation ,more than an attempt to hurt physically.

    Immediately I realized this I thought of Jesus being crucified.They wanted to degrade and humiliate Jesus by giving Him a criminals death even though He was supremely innocent.They slapped Him ,nodded their heads at Him in disparagement ,mocked Him with an imitation crown of cruel thorns, ,spat at Him.They did all they could to make a mockery of Jesus and disparage Him.Yet by His patient ,submissive opening of His arms out in love upon the Cross Jesus made this event the most glorious event in history.His ‘powerlessness ‘ on the Cross became great Power.

    At his mock trial Jesus didn’t defend himself .He was silent.He took the insults and lies,not seeking legal reparation.

    Pastor Don ,your book ‘God’s House Rules’ arrived today ,just as I was leaving my apartment to log on at the local library.Through ‘God’s House Rules’ I hope to learn more about the offences that disturb relationships. I think your book is intended to help families to live together better, the Christian way.I’m expecting there will be lessons here which can be applied to church families too,with a little lateral thinking and application.

    I shall start ‘God’s House Rules’ as soon as I finish the book I’m currently reading – ‘The Book of Forgiving’ by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his daughter Revd Mpho ,which came out this year. This book has a lot to say about the offences which didturb relationships and how to heal the resultant hurts.

    Every week after I read ‘Just Call Me Pastor’ I like to pick out a piece of scripture reffred to and focus on that during the week ,reflecting upon it.This week I’m going to focus on Galatians 5:22-23 ,the 9 fruits of the Spirit or 9 Graces – love, joy ,peace, forbearance, kindness, faithfulness , gentleness and self – control.

    ‘’ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. ‘’ Galatians 5:22-23 NIV

    I shall try to find references to each of these 9 fruits of the Spirit,these graces ,these virtues,in other paRts of the Bible. I’ll try to find synonyms for each of them to make sure I understand them fully. .Eg long suffering = patience = forbearance. Maybe too, I could also find antonyms for each of them, to learn what to avoid and root out of my life.

    Every time I reflect on scripture I like to apply it ,make it work in my life. I think that’s easier said than done,but like last week’s admonitions based on Romans, maybe it’s helpful to realize these 9 graces are impossible to attain by human will alone.

    I shall bear in mind those words of yours in last weeks blog ,Pastor – ’’ the grace extended by the Spirit allows us to pursue life on this high ground.’’.I f one looks to the Spirit to enable and empower , the impossible becomes possible,I trust.

    Taking these fruit of the Spirit as scriptural admonitions,like last week’s 13 adminitions from Romans ,connects this week’s blog with last week’s and helps me continue what I learned last week.

    Thankyou again Pastor Don ,for yet another blog which helps me live on higher ground,a more Christian life.

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