Turn the other cheek

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).

This command of Jesus bothers a lot of people, especially the strong, manly types in our society. The idea of turning the other cheek makes such a one feel weak and cowardly.

So what does this well-known statement of Jesus mean? Does it apply when a thug, a mugger, or a terrorist attacks us? Must we turn the other cheek then? What about courts of law, don’t they mete out “an eye for an eye?” What about the police, should they refrain from “resisting” an evil person? What about the army? Should we have asked that nice Mr. Hitler to stop, pretty please?

The Law of Retribution as outlined in the Old Testament was designed to avoid unlimited vengeance. It was actually designed to hinder a revenge-minded relative from taking “a life for an eye”!  These were instructions given to judges, not to the complainant! In other words, they were intended to be a judicial ruling, and not to be transferred to the personal realm.

Israelites were not to exact revenge: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). But Israelites had over time used this law to do exactly what it was supposed to avoid – the taking of revenge!

Matthew uses the verb rapidzein, which indicates a backhand strike, more insult than injury. This principle is a precept of love, not folly. In a word, Jesus was not forbidding the institution of justice, but the taking of the law into our own hands. “Eye for an eye” is a principle of justice that belongs in the court of law. Turn the other cheek is intended for healing and mending personal relationships.

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