What does Jesus mean in the Gospel of Matthew when he says: "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek also" (3:39)? Christians often seem to quote this text to show how submissive they should be in the face of hostile actions or words.
Does Jesus mean that we should accept insult and injury rather than defending ourselves?
We have to put this phrase in the context of the whole of Chapter 5 as well as the verses immediately preceding and following it. Chapter 5 begins with the Beatitudes which clearly establish that God is on the side of the poor and oppressed.
Then Matthew gives us Jesus' teaching for Christian living. In verses 38-42, into which this verse is inserted, we are told how to respond, not to revolution or war, but to personal oppression or evil. Since these verses form one unit, I'd like to explain what Jesus is telling us in each of these examples.
This portion begins with Exodus 21:24, which is quoted loosely, "An eye for and eye, a tooth for a tooth." A tenet central to Jewish law was that in response to evil one could return the same level of evil or demand compensation for it. Jesus rejected a literal interpretation which some religious groups advocated.
Instead, Jesus gives the exploited a way of responding which is not violent but which allows the victim to take the initiative against wrong-doing. Various acts of violence are described and for each Jesus tells his listeners how to respond.
The first of these, in verse 39, is the one you refer to, turning the other cheek. Try it out for yourself and you'll see that for a right-handed person to strike the right cheek of another requires a backhanded slap. This was more than a blow for it was an insult from an imposing superior to a cringing inferior.
In parts of South Africa this was called a "kaffirklap" from the kind of backhand slap given to a slave. We still use backhanded in somewhat this sense.
Well-known in Jesus' and Matthew's time, Jewish law required greater compensation for it than for a straightforward hit since a backhand strike was a crime against the weak and defenceless.
What does Jesus recommend? Turning to present the other cheek. Why? As the head is turned, the victim looks the offender squarely in the eye which takes the offender by surprise, dissipating the aggressiveness. In this way, Jesus shows the victim how to retain human dignity and force the aggressor to recognize the victim as a person.
Verse 40 refers to a legal problem where someone is suing for an outstanding debt and wants surety for repayment. The rich could give a valuable object but the poor had only the clothes on their back. The cloak was the usual pledge but, according to Jewish law, the cloak could not be retained overnight since that was all the person would have for himself and his children as cover against the nighttime cold.
If the clothes were taken, they could be kept overnight and likely would be kept until the debt was repaid. This was obviously an injustice to the poor who would have difficulty replacing the clothes.
Yet, Jesus suggests giving the cloak as well as the clothes. This would leave the victim walking away naked which would clearly condemn the aggressor in the eyes of onlookers and thus provide victory for the defenceless. Therefore, retaining the initiative and human dignity of the victim is assured by this response to injustice.
The next item addressed is the obligation of the poor people of Judea to serve the Roman soldiers in their midst. A person could be forced to carry a soldier's baggage for no more than 1,000 paces. After that, the soldier would have to find someone else.
Tit for tat
Jesus suggests the victim seize the initiative and continue for 2,000 paces. This could prove onerous to the soldier who wanted to stop for a drink, but his baggage would continue on down the road. The soldier might be reprimanded by his superiors and certainly would hesitate to force services from the same person again.
In verse 42, Jesus speaks about giving. While the world believes in returning evil for evil, the Christian response is to return good for evil, love for hate. Jesus wants Christians to take the initiative by non-violent means and so retain their dignity while allowing the other to do the same.
Therefore, it is clear that in these verses, Jesus does not tell us to submit to insult and injury. Instead, he teaches a better way of responding to violence. Jesus gives a way of retaining their human dignity to people who have been deprived of a sense of their own humanity and he brings hope to people under oppression. Jesus truly "raises up the lowly" as Mary's Magnificat says so well.