(f/5.6 @ 300 mm, 1/125, ISO 200 Lady of the Snow Shrine - Belleville, IL)
DEVOTION: Matthew 5:39
“But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39b)
John MacArthur says of this verse that we as human beings have the right to be treated with basic dignity, respect, and consideration. Because every person is created in His image, God demands that we treat one another with respect. But he knows that we will not always be so treated. Often for the very reason that we belong to God and go by the name of His Son, we will be mistreated, ridiculed, and held in contempt. It is the way we react to mistreatment and insult that Jesus is talking about here.
Among Jews, a slap or other striking in the face was among the most demeaning and contemptuous of acts (Matt. 26:67-68; Mark 14:65; John 18:22). To strike someone elsewhere on the body might cause more physical harm, but a slap in the face was an attack on one's honor and was considered to be a terrible indignity. It was to be treated with disdain, as being less than a human. Even a slave would rather have been stuck across the back with a whip than be slapped in the face by his master's hand.
To strike someone on the right cheek would then be a vicious angry reaction, indicating an act of insult. Yet when we are insulted, maligned, and treated with contempt—literally or figuratively struck on the cheek by someone—we are to turn to him the other also.
According to Jewish law, the one who slapped another faced punishment and a heavy fine. Thus, the law was on the side of the victim, and the victim would have every right to take this offense to court. But, Jesus said not to take the legal channels, however, but to offer the other cheek for a slap as well.
Jesus' point pertains more to what we are not to do, than what we are to do.
Turning the other cheek symbolizes the nonavenging, nonretaliatory, humble, and gentle spirit that is to characterize kingdom citizens (Matthew 5:3, 5). Jesus strongly resisted evil that was directed against others, especially His Father—as when He cleansed the Temple of those who defiled His Father's house. But He did not resist by personal vengeance any evil directed at Himself.
When the leaders of the Sanhedrin, and later the soldiers, physically abused Him and mocked Him, He did not retaliate either in words or in actions (Matt. 26:67-68). As Isaiah had predicted of Him, Christ gave His back to those who struck Him and His cheeks to those who plucked out His beard (Isa. 50:6). As Jesus hung from the cross, He prayed, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).
Peter sums up our Lord's example:
"But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Pet. 2:20-23).
When someone attacks our right to dignity, we too are not to defend that right by retaliation. We are to leave the protection and defense of our dignity in God's hands, knowing that one day we will live and reign with Him in His kingdom in great glory.
Jesus suggested a new, radical response to injustice:
Instead of demanding rights, give them up freely! According to Jesus, it is more important to give justice and mercy than to receive it.
Warren Wiersbe sums it up this way:
In order to "turn the other cheek," we must stay where we are and not run away. This demands both faith and love. It also means that we will be hurt, but it is better to be hurt on the outside than to be harmed on the inside.
But it further means that we should try to help the sinner. We are vulnerable, because he may attack us anew; but we are also victorious, because Jesus is on our side, helping us and building our characters.
Psychologists tell us that violence is born of weakness, not strength. It is the strong man who can love and suffer hurt; it is the weak man who thinks only of himself and hurts others to protect himself. He hurts others then runs away to protect himself.
In the face of this human dilemma, Jesus proposed a better way—the radical response of love.
His standard was not an attack on the necessity for justice. Rather, Jesus was presenting a practical, rational, and holy way to deal with personal conflict and offense. The apparent impossibility of our generating love and concern for our enemies on our own directs us to God for help.
Therefore, the lesson is to rely on Him for strength to give the appropriate response when we are attacked.