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What Does "Turn the Other Cheek" Mean in Modern-Day Christianity?

Our Scripture today is regarding retaliation and what Jesus teaches about it.

Contributing Writer
Updated Apr 29, 2024
What Does "Turn the Other Cheek" Mean in Modern-Day Christianity?

Matthew 5:38-42

Our Scripture today is regarding retaliation and what Jesus teaches about it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus teaches how to respond to insults and persecution. The legal principle of “eye for an eye” was established in Old Testament law to prevent excessive retaliation, punishments were to be proportional to the offense. Jesus, on the other hand, sets a very different standard for personal matters. Christians are commanded to endure rather than retaliate against insults and unfair treatment. The following passage, which talks about loving one’s enemies, gives this idea an active twist.

In verse 38:

Mercy was God’s plan for this law. It read, “Make the punishment fit the crime” and was given to the judges. It was not an instruction for personal vengeance. These laws were put in place to keep vengeance at a minimum and to make it easier for the court to impose punishment that was not too harsh or too light. However, this phrase was being used by some to justify their vengeance against others. “I was just doing to him what he did to me,” is still a common excuse for retaliation by some.

Exodus 21:23-25, And if any mischief follows, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Leviticus 24:19-20, And if a man cause a blemish in his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him; Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.

Deuteronomy 19:21, And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.

Most of the time, our first reaction when we are wronged is to get back at them by getting even. Jesus, on the other hand, instructed us to help those who had wronged us. Our desire ought to be to love and forgive rather than to keep a running tally of events. This is supernatural, not natural. Only God can empower us to love like He does. We ought to pray for those who have wronged us rather than plotting retribution.

In verses 39-42:

These statements were offensive to many Jews at the time of Jesus. They did not want a Messiah to lead a military revolt against Rome who would turn the other cheek. They desired retaliation against their hated enemies under Roman oppression. Jesus, on the other hand, proposed a radical new approach to injustice. We should freely give up our rights rather than fighting for them. Jesus said that it's more important to show mercy and justice than to receive it. But to this day, many Christians still seem to disagree with this thought process. We can definitely see the world’s response is against it.

Romans 12:17, Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men.

1 Corinthians 6:7, Now, therefore, there is utterly a fault among you because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?

1 Peter 3:9, Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.

In verse 40:

In this verse, the second reason that Jesus mentioned not resisting an evil person begins to take shape. In the following section, which is about loving enemies, that concept is elaborated even more. An act of trust in the God who cares for us and works through us is refusing to resist, which means to respond. Believers can use personal attacks to demonstrate the power and goodness of God. For the time being, Christ provides illustrations of what it means to resist others.

Jesus now imagines a scenario in which someone would sue someone for their coat, going beyond the petty insults. In the time of Jesus, most people wore this as their inner garment. This literally means “the shirt off our back” in today’s terminology. Jesus instructs us to simply give that person both our coat and our cloak, the outer garment, rather than fighting them in court. Christians have the power to become an example of faithful strength in the face of what others consider to be insults and abuse.

In verse 41:

Jesus now refers to a sort of forced march. This illustration made a clear allusion to the Roman occupiers of Israel, who frequently treated the Jewish people harshly and unfairly. It would appear that Roman soldiers could seize any Jewish citizen of their choosing and compel them to carry baggage or other objects for a standard mile. Naturally, a desire for vengeance would be sparked by such an oppressive and intrusive act. It would entice people to violently overthrow the Romans from a cultural perspective.

Some of Jesus’s first followers believed that His mission as Messiah was to expel the occupiers from Israel and overthrow them. That would shock His subsequent command to not say no and go above and beyond what was asked of you. This phrase could even mean “walk with them another two miles,” which would make it a total of three miles, depending on how it is interpreted.

Some people interpret these words as appeasement and weakness when taken out of context and view them with cynicism. The natural inclination is to believe that Jesus meant to weakly submit to bullies. Jesus, on the other hand, is describing a person who is able to take charge and give an adversary more than they asked for. Paul will say this in the book of Romans.

Romans 12:21, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In verse 42:

Jesus describes a different but related scenario in this instance. The previous command suggested that someone with more power than us, like a Roman soldier or a wealthy community member, was giving the order. People with less power are mentioned in this statement. By instructing His followers to submit even to those at the bottom of society, Jesus extends the earlier command.

Jesus instructs His disciples to lend money or possessions to anyone who asks and to freely give to beggars. It may appear as though these commands are the weakest position of all, by accepting an unreasonable request from a person who has no authority over you. This may be an emotionally tied or manipulative appeal rather than an unfair insult or abusive command.

Deuteronomy 15:8, But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.

Because we have made the decision to give, Jesus is demonstrating that doing so is a powerful act. More importantly, we have decided to put our faith in God to continue providing for us even though He has given us everything for free. This command does not imply being naive or gullible about charity, just as Jesus’ previous words do not prohibit legitimate self-defense. 

Luke 22:36, Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.

Matthew 10:16, Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

2 Timothy 3:10, But thou hast fully known my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering, charity, patience, 

It does imply that when someone expresses a legitimate need, the appropriate response is to give with intention and sacrifice. Are we retaliating against those who do us harm? Do we show ill will and begrudgingly give to those in need? How does this affect our Christian behavior?

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Atstock Productions

Chris SwansonChris Swanson answered the call into the ministry over 20 years ago. He has served as a Sunday School teacher, a youth director along with his wife, a music director, an associate pastor, and an interim pastor. He is a retired Navy Chief Hospital Corpsman with over 30 years of combined active and reserve service. You can check out his work here.


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