Right Cheek? Left Cheek? What does it matter?
These days we often hear “turn the other cheek” with a reference to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s gospel. Understanding a gospel passage involves a consideration of its context in the gospel, and its context in the circumstances of the characters and the audience.
The Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29) addresses the disciples and puts forth a way of life expected in the community. When Jesus introduces his teachings on the Law (5:17), he begins with “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill,” in the sense of giving its fuller meaning. He challenges, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (the teachers of the Law in that time) you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Jesus’ examples of this greater righteousness follow, including his teaching on anger, adultery, divorce and oaths. His next example concerns retaliation: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, off er no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on [your] right cheek, turn the other one to him as well (5:38 – 39).”
“An eye for an eye” is found in Leviticus 24:20 and in that time this law was meant to moderate vengeance, i.e., the punishment should not exceed the injury done. In regards to “Off er no resistance to one who is evil,” the next sentence explains what is meant, particularly the “turn the other cheek” phrase. The Greek verb rapidzo, usually translated as “strike,” is best translated “slap.” Scholars of the social situation in the first century tell us that to slap on the right cheek was to insult or reprimand a person of lower social status. To slap on the right cheek, one must use the back of the right hand; one would not use the left hand since that hand was considered unclean. The right hand was also a sign of authority and the face was taken to be the seat of honor. Thus, a slap on the right cheek was meant to dishonor or shame one of lesser status. Turning the left cheek to the offender put the offender in an untenable situation because to retaliate he or she would have to punch the inferior. One only traded actual blows to the face with an equal, so if the offender hit the subject on the left cheek it would bring dishonor to the offender. Hence, to “turn the other cheek” stops the process or brings shame to the offender; it is a form of nonviolent protest.
The verb rapidzo is also used in Matthew’s passion narrative where the temple priests and members of the Sanhedrin have Jesus on trial. After judging Jesus deserving of death, some “spat in his face and struck him, while others slapped him, saying, “Prophesy for us, Messiah: who is it that struck you?” (26:68). Jesus’ silence is his form of resistance to this evil; he is practicing his own teaching and serving as a warning on the price of greater righteousness.
Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek is not an instruction to accept insults or injustice, but a challenge to resist systems of domination and oppression without the use of violence. Disciples should not respond in kind. However, rather than ignoring an evil situation and hoping it will go away, Jesus is telling his followers to find creative, active, and nonviolent ways to resist injustice committed against them – thoughts for reflection amid events in our country today.