Jesus teaches us to turn the other cheek: “But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:39). How can we better understand this difficult teaching? Is Jesus advocating pacifism?
By Jocelyn Soriano
If God loves me, why would He want me to be hurt? Why would He want me to be slapped again? Such were the questions I must admit I’ve asked myself whenever I read the Bible verse about turning the other cheek.
In a world full of bullies, abusive spouses and manipulative tyrants, how do we explain this difficult teaching? Should justice be expected only in the life to come? Should we tolerate evil that happens before our very eyes?
God is Just and Loving
To fully understand His teachings, we must remember who Jesus really is. He is the Son of the Father, the perfect image of the Living God. And if He is God, He is good. If He is good, He is also just and loving. Everything therefore that He commands us to do is out of His love. Everything He does is full of justice and righteousness.
We can therefore conclude that when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, He only wants what’s good for us. It is with this intention that we must understand this difficult teaching.
One thing we must understand with the way Jesus speaks is that He warns us by using what can be likened to a hyperbole or an extreme way of illustrating the dangers He has in mind.
Consider the following verse:
If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna. If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off, and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into Gehenna. (Matthew 5:29–30, WEB-BE)
A hyperbole is used to stress the gravity of a situation or the extreme consequences of an action.
When Jesus said that it was better to pluck out our eyes rather than go to hell, He is stressing the gravity of suffering of hell, which is far worse than if we really plucked out our eyes or cut off our own arms.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that we should cut off our body parts. But it should serve as a stern warning for our sins.
When I Don’t Turn the Other Cheek
Weak as I am, I often fail to heed God’s warnings. I justify my actions in the name of justice or righteousness. When someone speaks evil of me, rare were the times I did not speak back. It is so difficult to turn the other cheek.
Looking back, I now realize the wisdom of Jesus’ words. Looking back, I’ve learned that trying to justify myself, fighting back and trying to seek justice with my own hands have done me more harm than if I had just let the offense pass.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t seek justice or that we should just let other people walk all over us. What I’m trying to relay is the tremendous sense of agitation we experience every time we choose to focus on vengeance.
Vengeance robs us of our inner peace. It makes us live those painful moments over and over again.
It enslaves us until we are no longer capable of focusing on and enjoying the good things we still have in our lives.
An Eye for an Eye
The Bible verse about turning the other cheek comes right after the verse comparing it to that citing “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Said expression was commonly used to refer to vengeful actions wherein we render a corresponding evil to the evil done to us.
What we often fail to recall is that even the said measure given in the Old Testament already intends to mitigate the tendency of the human heart for vengeance. Why? Because what usually happens on our part is that we tend to retaliate in a more extreme measure than the offense rendered us.
If we could help it, we’d not only take an eye for an eye, we’d take both eyes! That is why it is already a mitigating point to exact only the same measure of damage that has been given us.
“If anyone injures his neighbour, it shall be done to him as he has done: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. It shall be done to him as he has injured someone.” (Leviticus 24:19–20, WEB-BE)
In the New Testament, however, Jesus even brought to light the fuller measure of righteousness. He urges us to let go even of taking an eye for an eye. In His teaching, He urges us to not take revenge at all (by turning the other cheek).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38–39, WEB-BE)
The Things We Lose
In our fight for vengeance, we lose more than we could ever hope to gain. We lose our peace, we lose our happiness, we lose our capability to love.
If a simple retaliation of striking the other person back could put our souls at risk, how much more if we consider greater offenses done against us?
We may think it’s under our control at the start. We convince ourselves we only want justice. But once hate sets in, we allow a kind of poison to corrupt our souls.
It’s but natural to hate evil but there is always the danger of becoming the evil we so detest.
“He who doesn’t love his brother remains in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life remaining in him.” (1 John 3:14–15, WEB-BE)
It Isn’t Wrong to Defend Ourselves
Having realized the gravity of consequences Jesus wanted to warn us about, we mustn’t let ourselves believe that God is preventing us from defending ourselves.
“Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life.” (CCC 2264)
When we are in danger or in an abusive relationship, wisdom calls for us to seek protection and distance ourselves from harm.
Consider the following Bible verse where even Jesus Himself escaped from a crowd that attempted to harm Him:
“They rose up, threw him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill that their city was built on, that they might throw him off the cliff. But he, passing through the middle of them, went his way.” (Luke 4:29–30, WEB-BE)
God’s warnings are but manifestations of a love that sees beyond what we can see. It is a love that doesn’t want us to lose the eternal in exchange for temporary things.
God loves us and He wants us to love ourselves. We should do all we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones, not only in body but in spirit, not only in this life, but more so in the life to come!
“For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mark 8:36, WEB-BE)