One of the hardest things to swallow in the Gospels is the teaching about turning the other cheek. In Matthew 5:39 Jesus says, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
A mind-blowing concept indeed. Is he serious? Is he just talking in hyperbole? Is he just trying to humor us? So I researched a bit…
It turns out: Jesus’ stories are always insulting of the social order, full of plot twists and turns as to make us re-think the world we live in. The stories are now familiar, but I could just imagine how revolutionary they were two thousand years ago: You want a hero? Is it the priest? Nope. It’s not the pharisee either. It’s a Samaritan! Today, that would be like talking about heroism and calling it The Good Osama Bin Laden or The Good Kim Jong Un! Think about that. And how absurd that is.
And just when you think the younger son has learned his lesson and come home (boo! take that prodigal son!), his father just had to be the worst enabler of all and gave him a feast to congratulate him for leaving with his inheritance in the first place. Wow, you spent everything? And there’s nothing left? Ok, now here’s a FEAST to welcome you back! Think about that. And how absurd that is.
His stories make you think. You cannot help but leave his well-attended meals with your world turned upside down and inside out. His stories are absurd, yes, but for those who see the dark humor in it, the stories are very dangerous because they destroy the social order. A thousand years later, a guy named Jose Rizal in the Philippines wrote two novels of equally subversive and revolutionary content and was killed for it.
Because that’s what well-made stories do. They put a mirror to the world and the world is turned upside down and inside out. And the world? It fights back to restore social order. And they do this by killing the story-teller.
Back to turning the other cheek: the two responses to violence has always been fight or flight. When we fight back, more violence happens, as frat wars, gang wars, and those mafia movies have shown us. But when we flee, we make the violent feel not just more powerful but justified in his violence. Ha! See?! They’re afraid of me! I must be right!
Jesus–the great revolutionary that He is–proposes a third way: you stand your ground. I’ve heard people say turning the other cheek is about taking on the violence and absorbing the violence so it stops spreading, and they’re probably right (they’re theologians so they must be right! haha!). But Jesus just seems too cool and too subversive for even that.
The context is this: in the time of Jesus, you do not slap with your open hand because it will make you unclean, and you have to pay a fine. So Jews slapped people using the back of their hands. To turn the other cheek puts your cheek in front of the person and lures the violent person to slap you with an open hand, and therefore render himself unclean, and then pay a fine (at that time, it was 200 zuzin or 3000 cents. I researched!). So if you get slapped with an open hand, the slapper becomes unclean (and has to go through ritual cleansing for 7 days), and on top of that, he has to pay you! Have you broken traffic rules and been caught and had to pay a fine Remember how careful you drove afterwards? THAT is what turning the other cheek can do to the slapper. That will show him. I wonder if he’ll ever slap anyone again. See, Jesus is too cool to just let the violent feel more powerful. Jesus makes him LITERALLY pay for what he does. Turning the other cheek is not just a pious exhortation for good boys. You do not give in. You stand your ground. You make the person lose, not at his own game, but in yours!
So the next time you read this passage, laugh at the inside joke. Jesus–the Revolutionary–is not asking you to turn the other cheek just because it’s what good and pious people do. He’ll probably laugh at pious people and call them pharisees himself! He’s asking you to turn the world upside down and inside out.
Think about that. Not so absurd anymore is it?
You have a minute? You might also find these interesting:
- How Psychology and Spirituality are Two Sides of the Same Coin
- Three Practices to Celebrate Your Day
- Volo Ergo Sum
- First Two Steps to Creating Resilience
- Turning the Other Cheek