But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
Matthew 5:39 (KJV)
Right – Why does Yeshua indicate the right cheek? Why not the left? Or why even specify one cheek over the other? This verse from Yeshua’s Sermon on the Mount paved the way for non-violent resistance, but to what level? Does this restrict self-defense, or limit our ability to protect loved ones from harm?
Yeshua’s response is in light of the commandment “an eye for an eye” (Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, Deuteronomy 19) which instructs equal measure of judgement in response to acts of injury. The commandments were given so that the judges would make just judgements without giving favor to specific parties involved in a quarrel. They were also given so that people didn’t call for death in response to injury. An eye for eye was never to promote immediate extreme vengeance against others, but somehow it had escalated to this in Yeshua’s time. Yeshua’s desire was to bring us back to the proper intent of the law which He did during His Sermon on the Mount.
But Yeshua doesn’t speak of brute attacks of violence, He specifically mentions the action of someone slapping another’s right cheek. In a right-hand dominant culture, how does something like this look? If two people were standing opposite one another, facing each other, and one took his right hand to smite the right cheek of the other, the only way that happens is by slapping the other’s right cheek with the back of their right hand. It’s a display of insult towards one’s dignity – not an attack of violence. But nonetheless, a slap to the cheek was a high offense which could result in a heavy fine.
With this in mind, Yeshua is calling us to not respond to evil antagonists. Don’t give them the time. Turn to them your other cheek. It’s a small step, but still difficult for many of us to achieve. In a culture where honor was sacred, to receive a slap to the cheek was degrading. Taking the higher road of turning away displayed more integrity in the outcome. This was Yeshua’s lesson. It’s not about self-defense, or pacifism.
Cultural understanding is crucial when reading through the lessons of the Bible. Yeshua taught peaceful, non-violent resolutions to moral decadence or personal injustices. His sermon inspires humility and peace above one’s own honor. How often are we willing to go that length?