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Have you ever been struck on your cheek? If you have, you can say with me that it sure stings! The Bible tells us in Matthew 5:39, “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Wow! What words! I was talking with a local church member in Selma regarding what Jesus actually meant by this statement.

I must say, first of all, that as human beings we have the right to be treated with basic dignity, respect and consideration. Because every person is created in God's image, God demands that we treat one another with respect. But he knows that we will not always be so treated (Can I get a witness?). Often for the very reason that we belong to God and go by the name of His Son, we will be mistreated, ridiculed and held in contempt (see Matt. 10:16–23; John 15:18—16:3; 1 Pet. 2:20–21; 3:13–17; 4:12–19; cf. 2 Tim. 3:12). It is the way we react to mistreatment and insult that Jesus is talking about here.

Among Jews, a slap or other striking in the face was among the most demeaning and contemptuous of acts (cf. Matt. 26:67–68; Mark 14:65; John 18:22). To strike someone elsewhere on the body might cause more physical harm, but a slap in the face is an attack on one’s honor and was considered to be a terrible indignity. It was to be treated with disdain as being less than a human. Even a slave would rather have been stuck across the back with a whip than be slapped in the face by his master’s hand.

To strike someone on the right cheek would then be a vicious angry reaction, indicating an act of insult. Yet when we are insulted, maligned, and treated with contempt, literally or figuratively, struck on the cheek by someone, we are to turn to him the other also.

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But Jesus’ point pertains more to what we are not to do than what we are to do. Turning the other cheek symbolizes the non-avenging, non-retaliatory, humble, and gentle spirit that is to characterize kingdom citizens.

To "turn the other cheek," does not imply pacifism, nor does it mean we place ourselves or others in mortal danger. Like the principle of the eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth in Matthew 5:38, turning the other cheek refers to personal retaliation, not criminal offenses or acts of military aggression. Clearly, Jesus did not mean to do away with all of God’s laws and injunctions protecting us against violent crime or invading armies. Rather, Jesus is speaking here of the principle of non-retaliation to attacks against our own dignity, as well as lawsuits to gain one’s personal assets (v. 40), infringements on one’s liberty (v. 41), and violations of property rights (v. 42). He was calling for a full surrender of all personal rights.

Turning the other cheek means not to return insult for insult in retaliation, which is what most people expect and how worldly people act. Responding to hatred with love just might grab someone's attention and may give us an opportunity to share the gospel.

When we respond in a manner that is unnatural, or what people would expect, it displays the supernatural, self-control power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Jesus was the perfect example because He was silent before His accusers and did not call down revenge from heaven on those who crucified Him.

In short, when someone attacks our right to dignity, we too are not to defend that right by retaliation. We are to leave the protection and defense of our dignity in God’s hands, knowing that one day we will live and reign with him in His kingdom in great glory.

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Rafael Bastien-Herrera is a Selma resident and director of The Word Walk School of Ministry. He has a B.A. in Pastoral Ministry, and a M.DIV. in Theology. He is a Radio Bible Teacher on AM 1680-The Answer, every Sunday at 8:30 am. Please send questions to rbherrera@thewordwalk.org or call him at (559) 579-5200.

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