In “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus said:
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. ~ Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:39
This verse has been misconstrued by some, and purposely exploited by others, to mandate radical pacificism among Christians. However, examining this verse in the context of it’s surrounding verses, and the rest of the Bible, gives a clear picture of what Jesus is saying. Secular “intellectuals” tell us we have advanced since Bible days, that our nature is more enlightened now. But the Bible says the nature of fallen humanity does not change. You will see that God is right. So, what did Jesus mean when he said to turn the other cheek? Let’s look at the verse in context. From the King James Bible:
But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. ~ Matthew 5:39-41
The word “evil” here denotes painful effect, hurtfulness. It does not rise (or sink, as the case may be) to the level of “evil” we associate with Satan’s character, which the Bible says we are to resist!
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. ~ James 4:7
So what exactly does Jesus mean when he says not to resist evil? Well, look at the next verses. He knew this was coming. He knew we would need clarification, so he gives it ahead of time. He gives us three crystal-clear examples of what he’s talking about. Giving these examples was prophetic genius, and absolutely necessary to understanding what he means. Let’s look at them:
- Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
- If any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.
- Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
What do these examples have in common?
- None involves a life-threatening attack on you or a loved one.
- None involves an attack on Jewish/Christian freedom of worship.
Going The Extra Mile
For example, look at example #3 from Jesus. A Roman soldier was allowed to demand a citizen carry the soldier’s bag one mile. Jesus was saying not to resist this kind of personal offense and get yourself killed or imprisoned over it. Instead, gladly accept it and go even further than required. Lay down your pride.
Turning the Other Cheek
In example #1 (being slapped in the face), why does Jesus specify the right cheek first? A strike to the right cheek would indicate a left-handed strike, but only 10% of people are left-handed, meaning this is likely not the scenario to which Jesus is referring. What Jesus is likely referring to is a back-handed slap with the right hand, which would produce a strike to the right cheek, and was the preferred method of slapping for those in authority. Jesus is saying that when you get slapped by someone in authority, probably someone with the power to kill you, just let it go. The Christian is to pour out his life in service to Jesus Christ, not get himself killed over petty pride.
A slap to the face is not life threatening. He speaks of a single slap to the face, and does not prohibit self-defense during an ongoing violent assault.
Giving The Shirt Off Your Back
Example #2 addresses the issue of defaulting on a loan. Among the Hebrews, there was the practice of putting an article of one’s clothing on deposit to receive a loan.
If you lend money to one of my people [Hebrews] among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, return it to him by sunset, because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in? When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. ~ Exodus 22:25-27
Was it always the case that in order to receive a loan, an item necessarily had to be pawned? Of course not.
If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. ~ Deuteronomy 15:7-8
Back then, as today, there were kind-hearted people who gladly loaned money to the poor without dreaming of taking pawn in return. And back then, as today, poor people exploited this kindness.
The wicked borrow and do not repay… ~ Psalm 37:21
The difference is that back then, people could be sued for defaulting on their loans. Jesus tells them to freely give not only the article of clothing for which they are sued, but an additional one as well.
Jesus does not tell them to riot, or to invent slogans designed to help them steal loan money– slogans such as “we are the 99%,” or to demand that “the 1%” be forced to pay debt that “the 99%” willingly incurred. No, he tells them to give even more than they are sued for. He tells them to take personal responsibility.
Nothing New Under The Sun
The fact that Jesus had to explicitly tell people not to get themselves killed over petty pride, and had to explicitly tell people to pay back what they borrowed, shows that fallen human nature never changes– we are in the exact same position today.
Honor Men Like Him
In summary, the Christian is not to “resist” the offensive actions of the powerful when such actions injure only a Christian’s carnal pride, and when such resistance will likely get the Christian killed. Dying over trivial matters is beneath the servant of Jesus Christ. When we lay our lives on the line, it should not be to defend our petty pride (false honor), it should be because we asserted the truth of the Messiah, and never denied him. That is true honor!
Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life… ~ Philippians 2:29-30
Similarly, to lay down one’s life in the defense of others is true honor as well.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. ~ John 15:13
Notice the accolades the Bible gives these examples of risking life, vs. the prohibition it gives the examples of risking life that Jesus specifies in the Sermon on the Mount. One kind is encouraged. The other forbidden.
For the Christian, getting killed on a mission field in a Leftist or Islamist nation is an honor, as is getting killed defending the innocent. On the contrary, the Christian is not to get himself killed because someone disrespects him and he reacts violently. If someone steps on your $500.00 sneaker, don’t get violent– turn to him the other sneaker also.
Fallen human nature is the same today as it was in Bible times. The Bible is always proven true.