“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;” (Matt 5:38 – 39 RSV)
What did Jesus meant when He said, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;”?
If we interpret this verse plainly and in today’s language, it would mean that we’ll not fight and just let the offender hit you more, inviting him to sin more.
But Bible interpretation does not work that way. As taught, first, we have to understand the literal sense of scripture – what kind/type of language is the writer using/saying during his time. Additionally, it’s important to look at the context of the verse and not take it solely as it is.
Second, we have to look at the spiritual sense – how it relates to us, to Christ, and to the future.
Using the right hand, a strike to the right cheek would meant striking someone using the backhand. While a strike to the left cheek would meant using the palm of the hand.
During Jesus’ time, people don’t use their left hand to slap or hit someone because the left hand is usually for “unseemly” or “unclean” uses. Jewish custom also says that a backhand blow is used by a superior to a peasant, indicating superiority over the other. It the same as saying, “You’re inferior to me.”
Now when Jesus said, “turn the other (left) cheek,” He meant to say, “Let him hit you with his palm, not with his backhand. Let him hit you as his equal.”
Usually, when confronted with violence, people either fight back or flee. Jesus is now suggesting a “third way” – hold your ground but at the same time reveal or let the offender know the injustice he is committing. Jesus is pro-poor after all.
In other words, fight back in a non-violent way. The third way is suggesting to us to give another chance for the offender to correct his way – to repent. This verse does not meant, “I forgive you, go ahead and hit me more if you like. I’ll just forgive you.”
When we do it that way, we’re not loving the other person. We’re not helping him to realize the wrong.
Mother Teresa (now a saint) had this experience. She was with a young girl who hadn’t eaten. They went to a man who owns a shop asking for bread. The man spat on Mother’s face and just looked at her. She wiped her face and replied, “Thank you for that. Now, how about some bread for the little girl.”
Whenever there is injustice or wrong things happening, we don’t just stand and do nothing. We fight back in a non-violent way – that’s love and justice at the same time.