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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
Matthew 5 : 38 – 40
This chapter certainly isn’t short of challenging teachings isn’t it?! ‘Turn the other cheek’ is so shockingly different to how we normally deal with conflict. It’s an afront to our notions of self-defence, fairness and justice. Why would Jesus give such a scandalous teaching?
Well Jesus was offering a different vision of justice. ‘An eye for an eye’ was first introduced as a necessary limitation on violence. In an honour based culture where feuds could spiral out of hand, an eye for an eye was there to make sure vengeance was proportionate. But that’s all it was, a limit on vengeance. God’s justice isn’t about retribution but about restoration. For God justice is more than just settling old scores, it’s about finding healing and a way forward. And to do that sometimes requires us to swallow our pride, let go of our need for retribution and instead work for the common good.
However this verse is not a command to meekly submit to violence. To have been struck on the right cheek implies a backhanded slap. Then, as now, this is the ultimate sign of disrespect. In Jesus’s day this was how a master would strike a servant, how a man would hit a woman or an adult hit a child. To offer the left cheek then was an act of defiance. It says ‘you can hit me again, but this time you’ll have to treat me as an equal.’ Similarly if someone tries to take your shirt, Jesus said offer your cloak to them. 1st C Jews only wore two garments so that would mean essentially stripping naked in the courtroom. This embarrassing act would shame the suer and expose to the world what they were doing.
This passage has been unfortunately been misinterpreted and used to pressure the victims of violence or abuse into staying silent and quietly accepting their maltreatment. This is not what Jesus was saying. Not seeking revenge doesn’t mean we should stay silent about violence. On the contrary we are called to shine a spotlight on it, expose it for what it really is.
Perhaps the most famous example of this teaching in action is Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. Gandhi didn’t advocate the violent overthrow of British rule in India, but neither did he suggest doing nothing in the face of oppression. Instead he led a campaign of peaceful resistance that revealed the violence inherent in the Raj. Eventually British Imperialism became unsustainable and India and Pakistan won their independence. It was Gandhi who famously said, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.
Prayer: God of restorative justice, help me seek true justice rather than simply vengeance. Grant me the endurance to endure mistreatment with grace, and give me the courage to stand up to wrongdoing wherever I see it.
Action: The desire for revenge is closely linked to anger. Whenever you are feeling angry or frustrated today stop for a moment, take a few long breathes and maybe recall prayer or verse that brings you peace. For me I think to myself “Be still and know that I am God” and that helps to calm me down.