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Turning the Other Cheek

Matthew 5:38-42 - You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." But I say unto you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) has always been considered one of the most beautiful and moving portions of Scripture. Well, no wonder! The words were spoken by our Lord Himself. What a tremendous effect the Church would have on this unbelieving world if we growing Christians practiced more of the principles given to us in this wonderful sermon.

But how do we practice these principles? There are some "impossible" commandments in this part of the Word of God. Look, for example, at Matthew 5:38-42. Does this mean that I am to "turn the other cheek" anytime someone punches me in the face? Can't I defend myself and "resist him who is evil"? Can't I at least run away and not expose my "other cheek"?! And what about the matter of the shirt and coat in verse 40? You mean to say that if someone rips off my car radio, I should give him my car as well? You've got to be kidding! As to going two miles instead of one (v41), I've got to disobey here. People are always twisting my arm and manipulating me. If I didn't draw the line somewhere I wouldn't even have time to read my Bible and pray! And certainly the Lord doesn't expect me to give to everyone who comes along with a hand out (v42). Why, there are so many "con men" and "beggars" in my dorm that I'd be wiped out overnight if I put that principle into practice.

Does the above reasoning sound like your own thought patterns when confronted with such demanding directives from the Lord? It's only natural to think this way. But is this the way we are to take these difficult statements in the Sermon on the Mount? What is the correct interpretation of this Scripture and what is the proper application of it today?

One of the primary rules of biblical interpretation is that you never try to figure out what a particular passage means without taking into account the surrounding Scripture. That is, you don't pull Scripture out of context. The context of Matthew 5:38-42 is a discourse by Christ (Matthew 5:17-48) within the Sermon on the Mount on the Old Testament Law of Moses. The most pressing questions in the minds of those who heard the new teachings of our Lord would obviously concern these Old Testament laws which were their way of life. Was Jesus setting aside the Law of Moses? Was He advocating a radical departure from the mind of God revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures?

The Lord squelched any such idea in verses 17-20. He had not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets (the Old Testament Scriptures). God's standards of righteousness do not change and neither do his plans as revealed in the Scriptures. And not only that--Christ had actually come to "fulfill" or make complete the whole scope of the Law and the Prophets. He alone could explain and reveal the true and full meaning of the Scripture. Therefore His interpretation and teaching of the Law of Moses would be the correct view--and not the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees who were the self-proclaimed teachers of the Law. Christ's understanding of the requirements of the Law of Moses would be the interpretation which God originally intended.

The fact that the scribes and Pharisees misunderstood the requirements and intentions of the Law underlies our Lord's statement in verse 20. Their view was far below the divine view. Over the years the Mosaic legislation had been so twisted and distorted, misinterpreted and misapplied, "watered down" and "added to" that the scribes and Pharisees of Christ's day were way off target in their ideas of following the Law (see Matthew 15:1-3). They were so far off that they gave equal authority to their traditions, and some of them actually thought that they were keeping the righteous requirements of the Law by their outward show of religiosity. In order to correct these wrong views, the Lord Jesus selected six areas of the Law of Moses which had been misinterpreted through the oral tradition of the scribes and Pharisees. These areas are covered in verses 21-48. Murder, adultery, divorce, vows, retaliation and neighbors all needed reinterpretation because of the gross misunderstandings of the Pharisees.

It is significant that the Lord Jesus does not begin His comments on each of the six areas with the words, "It is written..." but rather with the words, "You have heard that it was said..." (vs21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). In other words, it is not just the particular Scripture that our Lord has in mind but the wrong ideas which had built up around that Scripture as well. For example, He says (v43), "You have heard it was said, 'You should love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'" To "love your neighbor" was certainly part of the Mosaic legislation (Leviticus 19:18), but to "hate your enemy" was certainly not in the Law of Moses. That was part of the faulty oral tradition of the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord goes on (v44) to correct this misunderstanding by telling them to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. The Lord Jesus was not now changing the Law or adding something new to the Law, but rather interpreting the Law's requirement to "love your neighbor" as God had originally intended this command.

In verses 38-42 the Lord deals with what has become known as the lex talionis (law of retaliation). The scribes and Pharisees had taken this area of the Law and twisted it to justify selfish acts of personal vengeance. "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" was never given by God for personal vengeance and retaliation. Each time this law is mentioned in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21) the context is civil justice--not individual "tit-for-tat". "Let the punishment fit the crime" was God's directive for civil law and order. The court could not gouge out the eye of a defendant who had merely given someone a black eye. The public magistrate could not pull every tooth out of the man who punched his boss in the mouth! This law was given by God as a civil restrictive measure and not as a personal permissive liberty. But over the years this law was more and more misinterpreted and used by the scribes and Pharisees to carry on their personal vendettas.

The Lord comes down hard on the scribes and Pharisees (and us, too!) at this point. He explains that in the areas of personal relationships we are to "turn the other cheek" and "go the extra mile". How far do we carry the principle of "turning the other cheek" in application of this Scripture to our personal relationships today? Certainly to the point of not allowing ourselves the "delight" of personal retaliation. The attitude of "I'll get you back" and "Wait till I get my hands on you" is not an option for the growing Christian. God promises us that He will take care of these problems in His own way (see Romans 12:19).

But what if a thief breaks into my house, beats up my family and cleans out the place completely? Should I "turn the other cheek" and not try to defend myself and my family? Should I "go the extra mile" and show him the $100 hidden on the top closet shelf and then help him to load up his truck with my furniture? No, of course not! Remember that the context of this Scripture concerns personal revenge and retaliation, not the matter of defense in face of an assault or attack, and not the matter of justice where civil laws are broken. Here is a case where a thief must be brought to justice before the state. The state, under God, is still to operate on the principle of "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth". Our Lord in no way changed that principle of civil law. You can imagine the crime and chaos that would result if our civil courts operated on the principle of "turning the other cheek". And remember that we are citizens of the state as well as citizens of heaven. We have the responsibility to see that civil justice is carried out in reference to the thief. We would be irresponsible before the state (as well as encouraging evil) if we were to "just forget about it".

What if a person Knocks at my door and asks for a contribution for himself or for some agency which is undeserving or a cult which is unscriptural? Here again the context of Scripture is so important to the proper understanding of the Lord's command in verse 42. The Lord is not advocating that we become easy marks and indiscriminately give of our time and money to every freeloader who comes along (see 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). He is speaking against the type of selfish and miserly spirit that was exhibited by the scribes and Pharisees. When confronted with persons in real need they gave grudgingly and reluctantly--if they gave at all. This type of giving is not to characterize the growing Christian. We are to help all who ask for our assistance as long as their request is not contrary to the Scripture.

We see, then, that when interpreted properly the "impossible" commands of Matthew 5:38-42 are possible. Possible, however, does not mean easy. Many times the obedient Christian will be "stepped on" and yet we are called to "take it" rather than retaliate. When someone takes advantage of us or insults us or talks behind our back or excludes us we are to "turn the other cheek" and not retaliate. It may hurt us (v39), cost us (v40), inconvenience us (v41), or exhaust us (v42). There will always be those borderline cases where we must make decisions--sometimes very painful. But even in those situations which are not strictly "turn the other cheek" cases, remember that mercy has always been God's rule of thumb.
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