Summary: Instead of fighting back when someone does us wrong, we can witness that He is greater than whatever has been taken from us.

The teaching in today's passage is hard for the average person to swallow. When I first read it as a child, I flat-out told Jesus He was wrong. Adolescence refined me; in high school I remarked that this was a lovely thought, but that it just wouldn't work in the real world. Oddly enough, some prominent Christian writers (Joseph Benson, for example) have said similar things! Over time though, I have become persuaded that the Lord's words are not to be explained away as casually as some have done.

By way of background, the rule "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" is found a few places in the Old Testament. Leviticus 24:17-22 is as good an example as any. In context it is a command from God to Israel as a nation regarding how cases of injury or damage are to be handled by the nation's representatives. In the case of personal injury, it states that the person who caused the injury is himself to lose whatever the victim lost. This strikes a lot of people as a barbaric practice, but other law codes of that time allowed someone of higher rank to take more than an eye or a tooth if injured by an inferior. Besides, as any modern rabbi will tell you, the authorities had stopped carrying out the command literally long before Jesus' time, if indeed they ever did so. Instead they had decided how much money an eye or a tooth was worth, and that was the penalty they exacted.

Unfortunately, they didn't stop there. They extended the principle to cases that God never mentioned, including those where the injury was emotional instead of physical. If one person slapped another, the rabbis levied a fine. If one person insulted another, there was a fine for that too. But of course, once allowance is made for unseen injuries, then anyone can claim to be injured (and seek damages) in any interaction--and that was the sort of thing that was going on in Jesus' time. That is the situation He addresses here. He is not ruling on criminal law or national policy here. On the website there's an interesting post from one Rabbi Litt. He firmly denies that Judaism advocates "turning the other cheek" (it's not clear who he heard claiming that it does). He doesn't discuss slaps or insults. No, he goes straight to the case of a suicide bomber in Tel Aviv! Now, I do not know what anyone, Jew or Gentile, should do in response to such a vile deed. I do know, however, that the Lord was talking about what each of us should do when somebody wrongs us--not how the government should react to the commission of a crime.

For example, suppose somebody slaps you. A slap is not a punch. It does indeed cause pain, but the intent is to insult someone, to injure the pride more than the body. The ancient rabbis grouped it with the act of spitting on someone or flicking their ear. Now an insult is no light thing. In verse 22 of this same chapter, Jesus informed us that an insult spoken in anger is on par with murder in God's eyes. Nevertheless, He commands His followers to turn the other cheek. Matthew Henry's famous commentary says that "Christians must avoid disputing and striving . . . Suffer any injury that can be borne for the sake of peace." Some might object that they wouldn't think much of such a peace.

But hold on! Surely there's more to this. You don't suffer injuries "for the sake of peace" by turning the other cheek You take your stinging cheek and walk away quietly. You don't tell the guy to try again! Granted it seems nice and strong to get in someone's face and let them know they're not going to get away with it, but doing so shows that we see the world in pretty much the same way they do. We show that we believe in the value of pride, that slaps are an insult, and that loss of face must be recovered. Whatever threat we may pose by fighting back, we DO NOT threaten the other's value system. Of course the weak person who dares not fight back also shows that he or she shares the same values, that fighting back would be desirable if only it could be done.

However, if I turn the other cheek I am a witness to a different way of looking at things. I meet the insult with a refusal to be insulted. The implied message in any insult--that the person doing the insulting is superior--is turned upside down. Perhaps he or she will slap the other cheek, but if I refuse to be insulted, what's the point? There is an emptiness where the meaning was supposed to be. Instead of broiling in shame, I witness that I am drawing meaning from a whole different source. In other words, I am witnessing to the Gospel!

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