We don’t usually listen well. This assumption underlies a good portion of the Sermon on the Mount – specifically the “You have heard it said….but I say unto you” section (Matthew 5.21-48). In it Jesus indicts the teachers his day for misrepresenting the word of God so grossly that they actually taught the opposite of what God wills. This distortion comes from not listening for the will of God as it is communicated in the Law of God.
We sometimes don’t listen to Jesus well – even when we are trying. Jesus demands throughout the Sermon on the Mount that we assert goodness: “blessed are the peacemakers” (5.9), “let your light shine” (5.16), “love your enemies” (5.44), “ask…seek…knock” (7.7-8) “do for others what you would have others do for you (7.12), “not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom, but he who does the will of my father” (7.21). Whatever else the Sermon on the Mount is, it is a call to act, to do, to assert.
Then there is : You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you , do not resist him who is evil, but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also,” (5.38-39). As a young man I was taught that this meant we were to back down, acquiesce, give-in. As a young minister I sometimes taught this. A cursory listen might lead us to assume this is what Jesus is saying, but let’s really listen.
You have heard it said, “An eye for and eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” The principle Jesus is rejecting is the notion that we are obligated to return in kind, to meet each act with a commensurate act. But I say unto you, do not resist him who is evil. Here is where we have to listen closely. Jesus cannot be saying we should capitulate to evil. He spends the entire sermon telling us to assert goodness. The word “resist” literally means “to stand against,” “to stand as an opponent,” – like boxers in a ring. If the standard Jesus is rejecting is the obligation to return in kind, then certainly he would forbid our getting in the ring with an evil person, to slug it out on his terms, and on his turf (to mix a metaphor). We are not to overcome evil with evil, we are to overcome evil with good (Romans 12.17,21). We are, however, instructed to defeat evil. Besides, our battle is not against humans at all, but against the devil (Ephesians 6.12).
But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. Let us listen closely. To offer the left cheek is to demonstrate our willingness and ability to receive an even stronger blow – since most people are right handed. To turn the other cheek, one has to stand up, and stand one’s ground. No one can turn the other cheek who has cowered down, capitulated, or run away. It is an impossibility. The only way to turn the other cheek is to stand your ground, and to refuse to let him who is evil dictate the terms of the confrontation. To turn the other cheek is to take control, to assert goodness.
It would be helpful if we had a real life example of such an encounter, where God’s man (preferably Jesus) does, indeed, turn the other cheek. Thankfully, one is given to us:
….. “Why do you question me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them. They know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the officers standing by him, struck him, saying, “Is that the way you answer the High Priest?” Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong; but if rightly, why did you strike me?” John 18.19-23
This, friends, is turning the other cheek. Jesus does not strike back. Jesus does not back down. Jesus brings the truth to bear. If we are his disciples, we will do likewise.