What does turn to him the other cheek mean? By Jack Kettler
This study will look at turning the other cheek. Is Jesus literal in this passage? If not, how do we understand it?
Years ago in Portland, Oregon, in a Christian ministry that worked with street people, an unusual event occurred. An individual came into the outreach center and asked who believed this passage about being smitten on the cheek. He asked people to stand up and then proceeded to punch everyone in the face to see if they would turn the other cheek. These Christians did this and were punched in the face.
Were these Christians correct in their course of action?
“And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other, and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.” (Luke 6:29 KJV)
A parallel passage to this in Matthew:
“But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:39-40 ESV)
Old Testament parallel passages:
“They have gaped upon me with their mouth; they have smitten me upon the cheek reproachfully; they have gathered themselves together against me.” (Job 16:10 KJV)
“Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes, and let him be filled with insults.” (Lamentations 3:30 ESV)
From Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on Lamentations 3:30:
“(30) He giveth his cheek . . . — The submission enjoined reaches its highest point—a patience like that of Job 16:10; we may add, like that of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:39.) It was harder to accept the Divine chastisement when it came through human agents. Not so had Jeremiah once taught and acted (Jeremiah 20:1-6; Jeremiah 28:15). (Comp. Isaiah 1:6.)” (1)
In Jewish culture, striking a person’s cheek was a way to shame an individual into submission.
Old Testament background and context. Why a backhanded slap?
The only way you can hit a person on the right cheek is with the back of the hand. Striking a person on the right cheek with the right hand would require using a backhanded motion.
In Hebrew idiom, being slapped on the right cheek was an insult. It does not mean a physically fighting blow. A slap like this was not an aggressive action to start a fight; it was a rebuke or slap of discipline. The right cheek being slapped with a backhand is a message reminding the person that they are inferior, in the case of a slave or servant.
Offering someone your left cheek means that you are submissive to the action of the superior.
Jesus and the disciples were Jews, so they were familiar with Hebrew idioms.
Other considerations, the Judaic background:
Written in Talmudic Israel (c.190 – c.230 CE). Bava Kamma (First Gate) belongs to the fourth order, Nezikin (The Order of Damages) and discusses the civil matters, largely damages and compensation.
Two different renditions of Mishnah Bava Kamma 8:6:
- “If someone slaps another person, he must pay two hundred zuzim. If it was backhanded, he must pay four hundred zuzim. If someone flicks a person’s ear, pulls his hair, spits so that it lands on him, strips his cloak off, or pulls off a woman’s headscarf in public, [the perpetrator] must pay four hundred zuzim.”
- “If a man cuffed or [punched] his fellow he must pay him a sela [4 zuz]. Rabbi Judah says in the name of Rabbi Jose the Galilean, One hundred zuz. If he slapped him, he must pay 200 zuz. If [he struck him] with the back of his hand he must pay him 400 zuz.”
(Mishnah Bava Kamma 8:6)
This Talmudic Jewish law took openly humiliating another person very serious. The backhanded slap resulted in twice the penalty imposed on the striker. The double penalty was imposed even without personal injury. It was the public humiliation, which caused the double penalty. The event described in the Bava Kamma seems to be different from a master using a backhanded slap to discipline a servant.
With this Old Testament and Judaic background, we will now examine the text from Luke on being slapped:
In expositing these passages from Luke and Matthew, we will seek to understand how to apply this Scripture.
From the older Pulpit Commentary on Luke 6:29:
“Verse 29. – And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other. This and the following direction is clothed in language of Eastern picturesqueness, to drive home to the listening crowds the great and novel truths he was urging upon them. No reasonable, thoughtful man would feel himself bound to the letter of these commandments. Our Lord, for instance, himself did not offer himself to be stricken again (John 18:22, 23), but firmly, though with exquisite courtesy, rebuked the one who struck him. St. Paul, too (Acts 23:3), never dreamed of obeying the letter of this charge. It is but an assertion of a great principle, and so, with the exception of a very few mistaken fanatics, all the great teachers of Christianity have understood it.” (2)
According to this commentary, the smiting on the cheek was not to be taken literally.
Next, we will consider two entries from a contemporary commentary.
From William Hendriksen’s New Testament Commentary on Matthew 5:38-42:
“38–42. You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, Do not resist the evil-doer; but to him that slaps you on the right cheek turn the other also. And if anyone wishes to go to law with you and take your shirt, let him take your robe also. And whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. To him that asks (anything) of you give, and from him that wants to borrow of you do not turn away. In Exod. 21:24, 25 we read, “… eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Lev. 24:20 adds “fracture for fracture”; Deut. 19:21, “life for life.” This was a law for the civil courts, laid down in order that the practice of seeking private revenge might be discouraged. The Old Testament passages do not mean, “Take personal revenge whenever you are wronged.” They mean the exact opposite, “Do not avenge yourself but let justice be administered publicly.” This is clear from Lev. 24:14, “Take the blasphemer out of the camp; and let all who heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.” Cf. Deut. 19:15–21.
The Pharisees, however, appealed to this law to justify personal retribution and revenge. They quoted this commandment in order to defeat its very purpose. Cf. Matt. 15:3, 6. The Old Testament repeatedly forbids personal vengeance: “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Jehovah” (Lev. 19:18). “Do not say, I will repay evil. Wait for Jehovah, and he will save you” (Prov. 20:22). “Do not say, as he has done to me so will I do to him; I will pay the man back according to what he has done” (Prov. 24:29).
What then did Jesus mean when he said, “Do not resist the evil-doer; but to him that slaps you,” etc.? When Christ’s words (verses 39–42) are read in the light of what immediately follows in verses 43–48, and when the parallel in Luke 6:29, 30 is explained on the basis of what immediately precedes in verses 27, 28, it becomes clear that the key passage, identical in both Gospels, is “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27). In other words, Jesus is condemning the spirit of lovelessness, hatred, yearning for revenge. He is saying, “Do not resist the evil-doer with measures that arise from an unloving, unforgiving, unrelenting, vindictive disposition.”
Once this is understood it becomes evident that “to turn the other cheek” means to show in attitude, word, and deed that one is filled with the spirit not of rancor but of love. Rom. 12:19–21 presents an excellent commentary.
Something similar holds with respect to the person who threatens by means of a lawsuit to take away someone’s “shirt,” the tunic worn next to the body, as payment for an alleged debt. Note that not the person whom Jesus is addressing is suing but his opponent is (cf. 1 Cor. 6:1). Rather than resentfully to contest this lawsuit, says Jesus, allow the plaintiff to have the outer robe also. This robe was considered so indispensable that when taken as a pledge it had to be returned before sunset, since it also served as a cover—often the poor man’s only one—during sleep (Exod. 22:26, 27; Deut. 24:12, 13; Ezek. 18:7; and Amos 2:8). In summary: we have no right to hate the person who tries to deprive us of our possessions. Love even toward him should fill our hearts and reveal itself in our actions.
The first verb in “Whoever forces you to go one mile.…” refers to the authority to requisition, to press into service. It is a loanword from the Persian language, which in all probability borrowed it from the Babylonian. The famous Persian Royal Post authorized its couriers whenever necessary to press into service anyone available and/or the latter’s animal. There must be no delay in the dispatch and delivery of the king’s decrees, etc. Cf. Esther 3:13, 15; 8:10. As happens frequently, so also here, the verb gradually acquired the more general meaning of compelling someone to render any kind of service. It is used in connection with Simon of Cyrene who was compelled to carry Christ’s cross (Matt. 27:32; Mark 15:21). Now what Jesus is saying is that rather than to reveal a spirit of bitterness or annoyance toward the one who forces a burden upon a person, the latter should take this position with a smile. Did someone ask you to go with him, carrying his load for the distance of one mile? Then go with him two miles!
Similarly, when someone in distress asks for assistance, one must not turn a deaf ear to him. On the contrary, says Jesus, give, not grudgingly or gingerly but generously; lend, not selfishly, looking forward to usury (Exod. 22:25; Lev. 25:36, 37), but liberally, magnanimously. Not only show kindness but love kindness (Mic. 6:8; cf. Deut. 15:7, 8; Ps. 37:26; 112:5; Prov. 19:17; Acts 4:36, 37; 2 Cor. 8:8, 9).
Biblical illustrations of the spirit, which Jesus here commends:
- Abraham, rushing to rescue his “brother” Lot (Gen. 14:14 ff.), though the latter had earlier revealed himself to be a rather avaricious nephew (Gen. 13:1–13).
- Joseph, generously forgiving his brothers (Gen. 50:19–21), who had not treated him very kindly (37:18–28).
- David, twice sparing the life of his pursuer King Saul (1 Sam. 24 and 26).
- Elisha, setting bread and water before the invading Syrians (2 Kings 6).
- Stephen, interceding for those who were stoning him to death (Acts 7:60).
- Paul, after his conversion, writing Rom. 12:21; 1 Cor. 4:12; and 1 Cor. 13; and putting it into practice!
- Above all, Jesus himself, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34; cf. Isa. 53:12, last clause; Matt. 11:29; 12:19; and 1 Peter 2:23).” (3)
From William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary on Luke 6:29, we read:
“Even more strikingly Jesus adds 29a. To the one who strikes you on the cheek offer also the other (cheek). What did he mean? That his words were not intended to be taken literally follows from his own reaction when he was struck in the face (John 18:22, 23). In fact, those who insist on interpreting every saying of Jesus literally get into difficulty again and again (Matt. 16:6–12; John 2:18–21; 3:3–5; 4:10–14; 6:51–58; 11:11–14).
What, then, did Jesus mean? When his words are read in the light of what immediately precedes in verses 27, 28, and when Matthew’s parallel (5:39 f.) is read in the light of what follows in verses 43–48, it becomes clear that the key passage, identical in both Gospels, is, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44; Luke 6:27). In other words, Jesus condemns the spirit of lovelessness, hatred, yearning for revenge. He is saying, “Do not resist the evildoer with measures that arise from an unloving, unforgiving, unrelenting, vindictive disposition.” Once this is understood it becomes clear that “turning the other cheek” means to show in attitude, word, and deed that one is not filled with the spirit of rancor but with the spirit of love. Rom. 12:19–21 presents an excellent commentary.
Jesus continues: 29b… and from the one who takes away your outer garment do not withhold your undergarment. Instead of being filled with bitterness and the lust for retaliation, show the very opposite attitude. Let him who deprives you of your robe take your tunic (worn next to the skin) also; and conversely (with Matt. 5:40), if anyone wishes to go to law with you and take your tunic (or shirt), let him take your robe also. Here again Rom. 12:19–21 shows what is meant.” (3)
Hendriksen demonstrates the passage in Matthew and Luke must be understood spiritually.
Additional thoughts on how to understand the Matthew and Luke texts:
- What may have been in mind here was a slap with the backside of the right hand. Such a hit would not be used to inflict harm but instead, shame. A slap like this is what a superior would do to disgrace a disobedient servant. The backhanded slap would put the servant in his place. Turning the cheek would be an acknowledgment of submission to the superior.
- Another possibility is that by turning the other cheek, the person struck would put the striker in an indefensible place. He cannot repeat the backhand, because the one slapped face is now turned. The master does not want the slave to solicit sympathy, so he would not hit the servant who turned the cheek again with the other hand.
- Jesus is prohibiting the human predisposition to seek personal vengeance. Accordingly, based upon this understanding, we see that in Matthew and Luke, Jesus taught His disciples not to retaliate against personal insult by turning the cheek.
In closing, from the New Testament commentary entries in this study, we can conclude:
“Whoever forces you to go one mile …” Matthew 5:41 refers to the authority to press someone into a task or service. If an authority figure asks you to carry his load for one mile, then go with him for two miles. Going the extra mile has the same effect as turning the cheek. It diffuses the situation.
If need be, we are to respond to injury without revenge by tolerating the act without accelerating the situation, leading to more harm. As Hendriksen notes, turning the cheek is not literal but spiritual. We do not give in to hatred and revenge. Turning the other cheek means to accept mistreatment and insults without retaliating or seeking revenge. This interpretation is consistent with many teachings in Scripture.
“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1 ESV)
As an aside, it does not mean that Christians have no recourse in the courts of law. As noted in the Mishnah Bava Kamma 8:6, penalties or fines could be levied against an aggressor.
We can conclude that the Christians in the Portland, Oregon street ministry were naïve in their understanding of Scripture. It would be of interest to see how these individuals and their understanding of those prior events today; including the aggressive person who propagated the violence.
A more prudent course of action would have been two or three males on staff reframing the attacker while others called the police in order to stop the disturbance. I would surmise that this course of action has been implemented in many mission centers around the country that work with homeless and street people.
- Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Lamentations, Vol.5, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 191.
- H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Luke, Vol.16., (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 147.
- William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Matthew, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 309-311.
- William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Luke, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1984), p. 349.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: THERELIGIONTHATSTARTEDINAHAT.COM