That Turned Cheek

Matthew 5:38-42
38“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’
39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
42Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

Jesus lived during a time when vengeance was very much a part of everyday life. It was in fact expected. In keeping with the theme of his discourse, Jesus now instructs his listeners about the concept of responding with revenge when you have been wronged. As usual, Jesus words fly in the face of what is expected and practiced.

The Old Testament did indeed set up the practice of taking an eye for an destroyed eye or cutting off a hand for a destroyed hand. It was (and would probably still be) and effective deterrent for violent crime. But Jesus’ goal here is help His followers find a new way of dealing with the world.

There are a couple of cultural practices being discussed here that it helps to understand in order to make these verses really clear.

  1. If someone were to slap you, it would happen with the right hand (you never touched another with your left hand as it was used for toileting). A “slap” would actually be a backhand. Naturally, your head would then turn to the left. If you turn the other cheek, exposing your left cheek, you have now ended the dispute. There is no way to hit you again. (I know – It’s rather difficult to visualize this whole scenario.  I actually had to try this out on my secretary in order to know which cheek would be available.)  To turn the other cheek doesn’t mean to roll over and take it. It means to peacefully end the dispute.
  2. A Romans solider could legally “enslave” a citizen. The soldier could force a person to carry their supplies or equipment for up to one mile. After the mile was served, the citizen was legally free to end their temporary enslavement. Jesus suggests an attitude of servitude that goes double that.
  3. Giving to someone in need is not new. Jesus simply expands that spirit of generosity out even further.
Not surprisingly, Jesus is actually expanding on a principle that the prophet Isaiah talks about in Isaiah 50:4-11.

4The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.
5The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.
6I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.
7But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
8He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me.
9Behold, the Lord God helps me; who will declare me guilty? Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.
10Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the voice of his servant? Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.
11Behold, all you who kindle a fire, who equip yourselves with burning torches! Walk by the light of your fire, and by the torches that you have kindled! This you have from my hand: you shall lie down in torment.

In these words we find the voice of the prophetic as Isaiah foreshadows the mistreatment of Jesus during the Passion. But along with that foreshadowing, we find the same message as Jesus now delivers in the Words we read from Matthew today. Instead of walking around as a person who is easy to offend, try instead to be a person who brings peace with them at all time. Even the Apostle Paul speaks to this issue in Romans 12:18-21.

18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
20To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

This is not always an easy path, but it is possible with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Making the decision to live this way before situations arise will be critical in your success with bringing peace rather than vengeance into each day.