Matthew 5:39

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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez

I was reading Matthew 5:39: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Are we really expected to do that?

I have a question for you: Why should we not? The command is unconventional, even radically different from what we would expect. It goes against the grain of what we consider of value and is unsupported by popular wisdom. We are constantly concerned with elements of self-interest and the application of proper legal retribution. Here Jesus surprises us with the unexpected, the unnatural. Let’s look at the passage within its context.

1. The Problem of Violence: Matthew 5:38-43 is part of a larger discourse addressing the conduct expected from those who belong to the kingdom of God (chap. 5:1–7:29). This single literary unit begins with an antithesis: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person” (chap. 5:38, 39, NIV). Jesus is referring to the Old Testament law of retaliation (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21). The intent of that law was to set limits on the human desire for revenge by introducing the principle of equivalence; the punishment should fit the crime. No one was allowed to kill an entire family because a member of that family killed an individual in their own family.

Jesus took the law to a higher level revealing its ultimate intent, namely to eliminate violence. The elimination of violence in society begins with Christ’s followers. He radicalized His opposition to violence: “Do not resist an evil person.” The verb “resist” (Gr. anthistemi) means “to set oneself against” or “to oppose” in a confrontational way. When Christians become the object of an evil action, they are expected to not react in kind. This is a type of passive resistance; resisting evil by not retaliating.

2. Opposition to Violence: Jesus then proceeded to illustrate what He meant. He gave three examples. You quoted the first one: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” The reference is to a backhanded slap as an act of insult, not simply a physical assault. In some cases, turning the other cheek could be an act of defiance that could provoke more violence. Our natural response to an insult or an attack is retaliation. Jesus said we should turn the other cheek. That means Christians should abandon their right to retaliate. Violence is stopped by renouncing the legal right to “strike back.” Violence must come to an end, and we have a role to play in achieving that goal.

The second illustration is that of a person who, being unable to repay a debt, is required to hand over his tunic. The law allowed for taking the tunic as security for a debt (Ex. 22:26, 27). But that does not seem to be the case here. The individual is the object of social abuse; what are the options? Jesus says, “Give away even your underwear!” The idea seems to be: no retaliation under any circumstance, even if it means deep humiliation.

The third illustration is taken from military service. Roman soldiers occasionally forced civilians to perform certain tasks (e.g., Matt. 27:32). A Jew’s natural reaction would be to resist the hand of the oppressor, but Jesus ordered His followers to do the unimaginable: Go with him not only the one mile required but two miles; to use it as opportunity for service, not retaliation.

3. Proactive Attitude: The third example is a positive one, implying that we should avoid becoming the object of violence by acting nonviolently. We should do all we can to give to the needy and to lend to the one who may not be able to repay (chap. 5:42). These are some of the ways violence is overcome in society and in our lives. This is the way of love.

This also implies we should not only avoid violent situations, but flee from them. Jesus does not want us to be victimized by thinking that, for instance, if your spouse abuses you, you have to continue in that situation, that you have to “turn the other cheek.” The cycle of violence can be broken by not retaliating, by serving others, and by fleeing from a violent environment.

Be proactive! Turn the other cheek!