What Does It Mean to ‘Turn the Other Cheek?’ (Matthew 5:38-42)

This week we are getting into some of the most famous lines of the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus continues describing true righteousness by critiquing the religious leader’s interpretation of the law (or oral tradition regarding it). As He did with murder, adultery, divorce, and making oaths, Jesus exposes the religious leaders’ hypocrisy and describes the true righteousness that will characterize the members of His kingdom. He does that by revealing the true nature of the law by applying it to the heart.

Jesus continues this method of teaching by quoting Exodus 21:24 in v.38-42, “You have heard that it was said, ‘eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say to you, do not show opposition against an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other toward him also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you” (Matt 5:39-42).

The phrase Jesus refers to is called lex talionis (Latin: a law of retribution in kind). In context (see Exodus 21:22-25), the phrase is meant to prevent Jewish courts from being unjustly lenient or unduly harsh in its sentences.[1] For example, if a Jewish man stole an expensive rug from a corner shop, they should be sentenced by the courts reasonably. Giving them a simple warning would be unjustly lenient. Cutting off his hand so he can’t use it to steal again would be unduly harsh. That’s the heart behind an eye for an eye. However, people were using this principle to justify personal acts of vengeance. In keeping with our example, the shop keeper would find the thief and steal all the valuables in his home as a means of exacting vengeance.

In these verses, Jesus calls His disciples to a much higher standard. He describes kingdom-righteousness as the ability to abstain from retaliation and endure abuse graciously. He prohibits them from viewing anyone as a personal enemy and calls them to love their “enemies” as their neighbors.[2] How does that look? Jesus gives four examples: a slap, a law-suit, a requisition, and a request for financial assistance.

A slap

First, Jesus gives an example of getting slapped on the right cheek (v. 39). This would have been a back-handed slap, which would have been both injurious and insulting. The instruction to “turn the other cheek” implies a willingness to endure further insult, demonstrating the strength of the disciple’s resolve not to retaliate.[3] It is important to note, however, that Jesus mentions a slap, rather than something potentially dangerous. Therefore, one should not interpret His comments as a prohibition against self-defense or protecting others.[4]

A lawsuit

Second, Jesus gives an example of a lawsuit (v. 40). The idea here is that the disciple has legitimately wronged the accuser and is in her debt. In v.25, Jesus tells His disciples to come to terms with their accuser before going to court. However, if they are not able to do so, they are to exhibit righteousness by going above and beyond what is required by the courts. If they are required to give their inner garment as restitution, they should give their cloak also. This allows Jesus’ disciple to make an amend for their mistake and gain the respect of their opponent.

A requisition of labor

Third, Jesus gives an example of a requisition of labor (v. 41). In Jesus’ day, the oppressing Romans could call upon a Jew for assistance at any time. He could require the Jew give him an animal to carry something or he could requisition the person himself to carry the weight. In this situation, Jesus calls His followers to avoid retaliating against an abuse of authority. Rather, they are to go the extra mile: the first, out of obligation. The second, out of humble service.

A request for financial assistance

Fourth, Jesus gives an example of someone requesting financial help. He calls His disciples to be righteous by giving generously. He does not call them to give to anyone and everyone indiscriminately, but, but does call them to give to those who ask and are in need, rather than only giving to those who will reward, repay, or flatter the giver. Jesus also calls His disciples to giverather than seeking revenge by withholding assistance from someone who has wronged them in the past. In keeping with the first three examples, if someone has wronged a disciple of Jesus, they should not be met with vengeance, but bountiful grace and mercy. Such righteousness reflects the theme of Christ’s Kingdom.

Jesus’ example

In each of these quotations from the Law, Jesus describes what obedience looks like at the heart level. In doing so, He actually gives us a picture of His own heart- a heart that perfectly obeys all the aspects of God’s Law. After all, He fulfills it (5:17)! With regards to the above commands, consider how Christ fulfills them in 1 Peter 2:22-23, “He committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being abusively insulted, He did not insult in return; while suffering, He did not threaten, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.”

Jesus was betrayed by one of His followers, arrested, and taken before the high priest where He was slapped by the temple officials (John 18:22). He did not retaliate.[5] He was falsely accused, yet He did not defend Himself. He was betrayed by His people and compelled by the Roman authorities to carry His own cross to the place of His death. And He carried it as far as He possibly could. He gave His life as a sacrifice for our sins- the greatest act of generosity that anyone has or could ever give. And He gave it to people who could never repay Him.

Let us look to Jesus as our righteousness, and by the power of the Spirit, imitate Him. If someone slaps us, gossips about us, wrongs us, slanders us, etc., we must not retaliate. If we wrong someone, let us go above and beyond to make restitution. If we feel unjustly compensated, let us work even harder than we are required to. Let us help those in need, even if they have wronged us in the past. This is what Jesus Himself did. To those of us who follow Him, we must walk as He Himself walked (1 John 2:6). This is the path of righteousness!

[1] Charles Quarles, “Sermon on the Mount,” 145.

[2] Ibid.,” 154.

[3] Ibid., 150.

[4] See more on this in Ibid., 150-151.

[5] Though he does draw attention to the injustice of the slap! (John 18:23)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s