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Turning Cheek, or Improving Yourself

March 11, 2000|LEX WOODBURY | Lex Woodbury teaches Greek at Fuller Theological Seminary's extension site in Irvine. He can be reached at

Turn the other cheek! Does that mean I am supposed to let people beat me up and not defend myself? That was my question when I first heard Matthew 5:39 in church school: "Do not resist evil. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

After looking into this passage as an adult, here's what I think Jesus was getting at and how it might apply to us during this season of Lent, a time when Christians who use the liturgical calendar take an intentional look at our shortcomings and our sins as a way of appreciating the gift Jesus gave us in his passion and crucifixion.

Back in those days, if someone sued you for your sweater, they could not also take your overcoat. That would make you too vulnerable to the elements. There was a legal limit on retribution.

Going the Extra Mile

But in Matthew 5:40, Jesus tells people to give more than legally required by giving up their overcoats as well. That's strange. In court, you try to settle for less. But Jesus tells them to settle the case by offering to pay more than was requested by the plaintiff. And he says nothing about taking into account the merits of the suit.

Another law was that a Roman soldier could select a man out of the fields to carry his shield and pack for one mile, which, for a man in an occupied nation, would be a humiliation. Yet Jesus, in Matthew 5:41, calls on people tapped for this duty to go an extra mile. I wonder why?

I think the answer is seen in ways we find the word "cheek" used in the Bible. Though the well-known phrase in Matthew 5:39 became associated with pacifism, it is more properly interpreted as an instruction to seek correction.

For it was not the Greek word kolaphizo, used to describe being punched or struck with a clenched fist, that is used in this verse, but rapizo, used to describe being struck by a rod or an open hand, especially to be cuffed or slapped about the cheek or ears.

We see this same sense in 1 Kings 22:24, where Zedekiah "struck Micah on the cheek" as a way of criticizing him. And Lamentations 3:30 uses the expression "Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him and be full of reproach," because this was a way of being purified and restored.

'Do Not Resist Difficult Duty'

This is the same kind of hazing Jesus received in Matthew 26:67, when his captors give him what looks to be a "ritual of correction."

To be struck on the cheek means to be corrected. To turn the other cheek means not to resist correction but to seek it, to be proactive about opportunities for self improvement.

We resist doing this because it is difficult to bear. That was the original sense of the Greek word ponos, referring to hard labor, distress and toil. What was difficult, or "evil," in a shame-based society, was the public reprimand, the humiliating act of being sued or being forced to carry the pack of an enemy soldier.

I hear Jesus using those images to say to us, "Do not resist difficult duty, but rather turn the other cheek and use it as an opportunity for the spiritual growth which comes from taming our pride."

Perhaps this idea of being proactive about opportunities for self-correction will make sense in a new way this Lenten season, a time traditionally devoted to self-examination and purification.

On Faith is a forum for Orange County clergy and others to offer their views on religious topics of general interest. Submissions, which will be published at the discretion of The Times and are subject to editing, should be delivered to Orange County religion page editor Jack Robinson.

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