What Does it Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says these familiar words, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Mtt 5:38-39)

Honor and Shame in the New Testament

We normally associate these verses with pacifism but there is a little more to it than that. These verses were spoken in a culture where honor and shame were culturally significant. deSilva explains it this way,

Honor refers to the public acknowledgment of a person’s worth, granted on the basis of how full that individual embodies qualities and behaviors valued by the group. First-century Mediterranean people were oriented from early childhood to seek honor and avoid disgrace, meaning that they would be sensitive to public recognition or reproach. (Dictionary of New Testament Background, 518-522).

A slap in the face was viewed as degrading and was an effort to lower someone’s status as they were publicly shamed.

Mishnah

What does this have to do with the right cheek and then the left cheek? For the answer we have to turn to the Mishnah, which is a collection of legal regulations from 3rd century AD rabbinic Judaism. We have to be a little careful here as the Mishnah was written 200+ years after the New Testament. Yet it can provide some clues that illuminate what we find in the New Testament.

In the Mishnah penalties and compensation are prescribed that are due as punishments for various infractions. There was a difference in slapping someone with the back of the hand versus the palm of the hand. When Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek,” he is talking about a slap with the back of the hand as most people are right-handed. The Mishnah lays out compensation for those who experience such a shaming action. A slap with the palm of the hand carried a penalty twice as much as a slap with the back of the hand (Mishnah, B. Ḳ. viii. 6). Why would it contain a higher fine? Because to be struck on the right cheek, with the back of the hand, would be more degrading and shameful than to be struck on the left cheek with the palm of the hand. In effect, Jesus is saying, if someone degrades or shames you greatly by a backhanded slap on the right cheek, turn your left cheek to him and see if he is willing to say you are closer to his equal than the initial slap indicated. Of course, this also would inflict more compensatory damage to the one doing the slapping.

This verse does not say as much about pacifism as it has to say about the culture of honor and shame that they lived in. They heard these words totally different than we hear them today.

10 Responses to What Does it Mean to Turn the Other Cheek?

  1. Bob says:

    Matt, interesting discussion and research. How would this fit in with the other statements made in the context – giving your coat and shirt in a court while being sued, walking a second mile when a soldier requests the first mile, and giving to someone who wants to borrow? Why does Jesus say “do not resist an evil person?” Also why does Jesus begin the discussion by reminding them of the statement, “an eye for an eye?” What situations might we have today that fit these verses and actions?

  2. mattdabbs says:

    Jesus is certainly saying there are better solutions than slapping someone back. Jesus is not saying that if you are a Christian you have to let people run you over. In Paul’s ministry there are several occasions when he uses his rights to the fullest to take advantage of the situation. There are other times he does not appeal to his rights when he could have and ends up in jail (Acts 16). This takes a lot of discernment. I don’t think it is one size fits all.

  3. Big Brian says:

    Good discussion. My opinion: “Do not resist an evil person” means do not compete with an evil person by retaliation. Seek to overcome wrong by doing good. A strong individual is one that can turn an enemy into a friend.

  4. mattdabbs says:

    Thanks for stopping by Brian. You can’t get any better than “seek to overcome wrong by doing good.” That is certainly at the heart of Jesus’ words. God bless

  5. James says:

    Can you provide some verses as to when in Paul’s “ministry there are several occasions when he uses his rights to the fullest to take advantage of the situation.”? Thanks.

    • mattdabbs says:

      Hi James,

      I missed this comment. Try out Acts 25:11ff where Paul appeals to Caesar. He could have let the courts run right over him but he fought them to the bitter end and to the fullest extent of Roman law.

  6. Lisa Wilson says:

    This is interesting & I’m going to research this more.

  7. pino says:

    i don’t understand it: “A slap with the palm of the hand carried a penalty twice as much as a slap with the back of the hand”, although the back-handed slap was considered “more degrading and shameful than to be struck on the left cheek with the palm of the hand”. Is there a mistake or am I missing something?

    • Darren says:

      @pino: Yes, I think Matt (understandably) got mixed up. As he wrote:

      right cheek = back hand = more shameful = regular penalty

      left cheek = front hand = less shameful = double penalty

      I assume the amount of penalty should correlate with the infliction.
      This is very confusingly written. I think the degree of penalty could be irrelevant, but the point that’s intended to be made is that by turning the other cheek, it places a checkmate on the slapper. He has two options:

      1. Respond with compassion, seeing the victim as an equal.

      2. Strike again, further exposing his brute monstrosity.

      You are making a very violent, deconstructive act in refusing the system by which the original violent act came about.

      further reading for anyone interested:
      http://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/novakovic_cheek.pdf

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