Nearly a couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with an African American friend of mine who chose to confide to me some painful stories that she and her family have experienced with racism through stereotyping, discrimination, and abuse. Coming from a Christian family, she shared how they were taught to “turn the other cheek” in the face of abuse. The way I heard “turn the other cheek” being employed, it was being used to say that one should endure abuse, in this case from racist attacks.
I have recently thought through Matthew 5.38-42 and I am left with the concern that this significance of this passage has been widely misunderstood and misused, with various interpretations ranging from the “traditional” to the “pacifist” that regard it as not responding to protect against harm being done.
However, I would suggest that the idea of “revenge” leads us to misunderstand what is happening here. In the ancient Mediterranean world, honor and shame were an integral part of society.1 As a result, revenge was often a matter of honor and shame due to some threat to one’s reputation and social status.
The nature of Jesus’ examples implies that Jesus was not explicitly concerned about the lex talonis in 5.38 being use as a justification for any sort of vengeance or self-defense (though, certainly Jesus would not endorse vengeance), but rather it was being used to justify avenging one’s honor. As, Craig Keener notes that a blow to the cheek was not about physical harm and abuse, but rather it was “the severest public affront to a person’s dignity.”2 The suing for a tunic would leave one shamed by causing someone to essentially go uncovered asides from a coat; for a modern example, imagine being out in public with absolutely nothing but a robe on. A Roman solider asking for someone to walk a mile with them to carry their equipment would be a deep offense to many Jews. Even requests from others, such as the poor, could be considered as an insult and affront; the emphasis that Sirach places on almsgiving to the poor and the honorable nature of such an act represents that there was often a resistance to such an idea.
In each of these instances, an offense against one’s honor could be interpreted as an act of harm and evil. For instance, when Jesus casts out demons, the Pharisees explained it due to evil in the form of Jesus being empowered y Satan. The best explanation for this behavior is that Jesus’ exorcisms were an affront to the honor of the Pharisees. So when Jesus is referring to the evildoer (τῷ πονηρῷ), it is likely not referring to any type person engaged in serious moral transgression in an “objective” sense, but rather Jesus is using the label that people apply to others when they feel their honor is being affronted. With that in mind, the call not to not stand against (μὴ ἀντιστῆναι) the evildoer is not to be understood as the failure of resistance to stand up against great evils and harms or to forbid any sort of self-defense or self-protection. Rather, ἀνθίστημι fits well as a form of social opposition in response to the perceived attack on a person’s honor.
To that end, perhaps a better way to understanding Matthew 5.38-42 is as a rejection against the honor-shame cultures predilection towards vengeance. The cultural value of honor could be primarily understood as a Greek export that came to Judea through Hellenism. It was not ‘native’ to the Scriptures, as honor was principally understood to determine the way one related to one’s parents, whereas a widespread concern about social honor was not present. The competitive, honor-bound nature of Hellenistic society could have spread across Jews in Judea, mixing in with the national detestation of foreign occupiers as a threat to Israel’s faithfulness to the God of their ancestors. Combine this union of national grievance and sense of oppression with a heightened sensitivity to honor to the application of Torah and Jewish practices and you would have a situation where God’s Torah was being used to exalt one’s own honor and status (Matthew 6.1-6, 16-18) while also being used to justify and legitimating tearing down others (Matthew 7.1-5). In such a setting, the lex talonis could have been used to justify protecting one’s own honor from percieved threats and attacks. In that case, Jesus’ instruction was direction for a totally different way to respond to affronts to one’s honor and dignity: it wasn’t to “accept” the shame so much as to defuse the feeling that such shame may bring to the person by going out of the way to be kind to the person someone saw as an “evildoer” that was out to get them. It was to resist the antagonistic behaviors of the honor-shame culture with an alternative way of engaging with others that diffuses the conflict and shows kindness in every aspect of one’s social life: publicly, legally, politically, and with the needy. An excessive concern about personal honor has no place in the Kingdom.
In this light, Jesus is not giving some form of instructing against self-defense or protecting oneself from substantial harm, or shielding the behaviors of those who do great evil to others. While we can imagine the rest of Jesus’ teachings and His example would be significant for those type of circumstances, Matthew 5.38-42 should not be used to subjugate people to the control of oppressors and abusers. It is, instead, a resistance to the way the Hellenistic concerns about honor had essentially colonized the Torah, turning what was intended as a good thing from God to direct Israel into an affliction and stumbling block for Israel.
- David A. deSilva, “Honor and Shame,” Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 518.
- Craig S. Keener, Matthew, vol. 1, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), Mt 5:39.