You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. [Matthew 5:38-39 (NLT)]
When Jesus said to turn the other cheek, was he teaching total nonresistance in every circumstance? Are Christians to be doormats to be walked all over? Was he telling the battered wife to remain a punching bag to her abusive husband, the father not to defend his family in a home invasion, the teacher not to protect his students from a crazed shooter, or the girl being molested not to fight back? Having nothing to do with pacifism, Jesus’ words don’t mean we ever should place ourselves or others in danger nor did He say we shouldn’t resist the forces of evil. Using an easily understood example (at least for a 1st century person in Judah), Jesus made it clear that He was speaking about our reaction to personal insults. Rather than not resisting evil, we are not to resist an evil person by seeking retaliation.
To Jesus’ listeners, a slap on the right cheek wasn’t the start of a physical altercation like a punch in the stomach. Not intended to cause physical harm, a slap on the right cheek was meant to disgrace and humiliate. A challenge to one’s honor, it was the most disrespectful and belittling thing one person could do to another. Most people are right-handed and, normally, would slap someone else’s left cheek. When Jesus specified the “right cheek,” He was describing a back-handed slap which, according to rabbinic law, was twice as offensive as being smacked with a flat hand. It was so insulting that the striker could be taken to court and fined. In actuality, it might have been easier for Jesus’ listeners to ignore a gut punch than this slap of contempt and disrespect! When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, He’s telling us that it’s better to be insulted twice than to retaliate with a return slap or by taking the matter to court!
Since we don’t go around slapping people’s cheeks to insult them, what does this mean to us? Perhaps it’s as simple as refusing to play the petty game of “tit for tat.” Regretfully, as mean-spirited as it is, we’ve all played it. It’s things like deciding I’m not going to return his call because he didn’t return mine, I’m going to be late today since she kept me waiting last week, I’m unfriending them because they didn’t include me in their plans, my dogs can poop in his yard since his dog pooped on my lawn, I’m turning up my music since the neighbor’s music is too loud, I’m ignoring her birthday to pay her back for forgetting mine, or I’m not going to let the car merge because the driver cut me off!
Whether it’s rudeness, spite, malice, slight, or contempt, when we return like for like, this old nursery rhyme best says what happens next: “Tit for tat, Butter for fat; If you kill my dog, I’ll kill your cat.” We foolishly think we’re evening the score and punishing the other person, but we’re not. Returning tit for tat simply raises the stakes and escalates the battle. Let us remember that, by refusing to react, the nasty game is over!
In this day and age, people have endless opportunities to degrade, insult, offend, mock, and slight one another. While we have no way to control what other people do or say, the Holy Spirit provides us with the power to control our reaction—to turn the other cheek. As Jesus’ peaceful soldiers, we can claim victory by not fighting at all!
In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior. [Francis Bacon]
Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing. [1 Peter 3:9 (NLT)]
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