Mt 5:39 turning other cheek: meaning

Warning: Bad language. Violence. The following monologue is what I’m after:

  • No! No! No! No! No! No! No! Con paz! Con paz! Soerte la pistola! Tirala! Pregunto, paisano: quiere morir?
  • Super loose translation: No! No! No! No! No! No! No! With peace! With peace! Take your gun! Throw it down! I ask you, my friend: Do you want to die?

That’s the CIA/FBI team at the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez border. They end the threat of the cartel idiot deadly aggression. That’s the kind of turning the other cheek that I’m talking about!

But is that what Jesus means by turning the other cheek? You remember the passage:

  • Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. (Matthew 5:39)

“Offer no resistance.” That’s the specious politically correct translation of the New American Bible, which belongs to the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine, which is itself under the thumb of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The translation needs some examination. If we depend on our weak and cowardly fallen human nature, proffering “offer no resistance” would seem to be correct, especially in view of the immediate and purposed parallels of the larger passage related by Matthew (5:38-42):

  1. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.
  2. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well.
  3. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.
  4. Give to the one who asks of you; do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.”

So, the translation “offer no resistance” would seem to be right and just. Indeed, Jesus prefaces all these remarks by saying:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, BUT I SAY TO YOU…” (Matthew 5:38)

In other words, Jesus is specifically rejecting a merely equal and opposite reaction, the “tooth for tooth” modus operandi elsewhere promoted in the Sacred Scriptures inspired by the ever truthful Holy Spirit:

  • “Limb for limb, eye for eye, tooth for tooth! The same injury that a man gives another shall be inflicted on him in return.” (Leviticus 24:20)
  • “Do not look on such a man with pity. Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, and foot for foot!” (Deuteronomy 19:21)

Jesus is not pitting Himself against the Holy Spirit, for such instruction regarding the gravity of sin against our very brothers is holy, true, just and fitting for pedagogy regarding the one supreme teaching on forgiveness provided by Jesus when He put Himself in our place, taking on the sentence of death we deserve for our sin against Him, the Innocent for the guilty, Life for life (He died on the Cross), eye for eye (the Shroud of Turin seems to depict the crowning with thorns also piercing His eyes), tooth for tooth (He was beaten beyond recognition on His face, His mouth), hand for hand (recall the nails of the crucifixion), and foot for foot (recall the nails of the crucifixion)!” We have to know how serious the sin is if we are going to correctly ask for forgiveness and be prepared to receive it fruitfully.

In view of the sins of all crucifying our Lord Jesus, we all deserve everything we get. The great saints emphasize this with a passion. Yes. But is this what anyone is talking about, Jesus or the saints? Should we just give up and say that “offer no resistance” is a good translation and be done with it?

I don’t know about you, but my entire spirit rebels against all of this seeming doormat stuff of questionable translations. Just because we are forgiven and we are to forgive others, that doesn’t mean that we just throw justice out the window. Jesus stood up for Himself over against the scribes and Pharisees, turning the tables with a word, but with ferocity. Jesus also stood up for us, His little flock. So, what are we to think of all this? Is it too difficult? This is important. Let’s take a deeper dive into the ever enthralling words of the Holy Spirit about the Incarnate Word of God, Christ Jesus.

What if that “offer no resistance” thing actually meant something else altogether? What if the actual literal Greek μὴ ἀντιστῆναι followed by the dative means “To make a stand over against a very particular thing”? Ha ha!

Making a stand over against a very particular thing IS NOT EQUATED with a merely equal and merely opposite reaction:

  • Being merely reactionary implies that we have nothing to add to over against unjust aggression except more aggression of the same unjust sort. We’re not to stoop to that level, you know, the ol’ “I’LL SHOW YOU!” That helps no one. And it says that we are controlled by the other person entirely, ever so predictable. Our identity then lies in reaction: we are vacuous nothings.
  • Instead, making a stand over against a very particular thing embraces love in truth or “tough love” as some call it. It’s not a reaction, but a way of being a true friend, a good parent, how to bring someone out of the quagmire, enabling them to grow, even in the midst, necessarily, of letting a needy person know that they are on the wrong path.
  • Also, making a stand over against a very particular thing doesn’t rule out offering pardon to someone who needs pardoning. In fact, it is necessary. You can’t forgive something that you hold to be good. Someone is not able to take in forgiveness if they are convinced they are not doing any wrong ever. Someone is not able to forgive if they are convince no wrongdoing was committed. Take the liberal-knucklehead priest who, upon hearing a confession to murder said that that’s not a sin at all, that the person will not receive absolution because there was no sin in the first place. How frustrating is that?
  • Just to say: being a doormat, encouraging people to commit unjust aggression, is no favor to the other person or to yourself. Don’t be the doormat. Forgive real iniquity. Make sure the other person knows you’re not being a doormat.

Yikes! So, let’s examine those parallels offered by Jesus to see if they are really about being a doormat. When we go through these, you’ll see how easy it is to drink the Kool-Aid of the nicey nice crowd, but also how good it is to follow Jesus with integrity:

(1) “When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well”:

Keep in mind that the idea here is that we are dealing with unjust, violent aggression. In this situation, turning the other cheek has nothing to do with weakness, but rather everything to do with challenging to a fight: Is that all you got? No, really, show me your worst, and then when you’ve shown me your worst – with me having turned my other cheek to you to give you a fresh target – I will then give you some instruction about how things really are. In the following video (language and the kind of violence Jesus Himself is talking about), a girl is struck on her cheek, hard. The Star of David tattoo guy steps in to be the other cheek that is turned. The black-vest guy had already jacked up the stakes with another strike as deadly threat: “I’m the guy who decides if you’re going to walk out of here alive.”

Jesus’ advice is about not backing down to unjust aggression against the innocent. It’s about stopping an ongoing threat by showing bullies that they are actually nothing more than cowards. There are so very examples of this in the Gospels, wherein Jesus demonstrates how cowardly His opponents are, for instance, by raising Lazarus from the dead in front of the murderous Herodians, or by having the guy with the withered hand come out front and center against the hateful. In both instances the Herodians and the hateful immediately plotted to kill Jesus. That’s what cowards do. See Mark 3:6; John 12:10, etc. Might we suffer for this? Sure. No one said that “Take up your cross daily” was a walk in the park.” Solidarity with those who suffer has consequences. But this also leads to repentance and salvation for aggressors such as with the Centurion on Calvary (Mark 15:39). I have many stories. Oh my. There are so many cowards who instantly run when you stand up to them. Some do feel guilty are return to the Lord.

(2) “If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well”:

Keep in mind that the idea here is that we are dealing with unjust acquisition of private property by someone who hides behind the cover of corrupt attorneys and corrupt judges. Keep in mind that those listening to Jesus in sincerity are not those who have tons of money to burn on litigation. Handing over a cloak as well has nothing to do with weakness. It is an insult, highly sarcastic: Oh, so you think that ripping people off is what life is all about. Well, let me just seal you in your stupidity. Here, take my cloak as well, you stupid little fool. No, really! Take it! It is God Himself who will come to judge the living and the dead and world by fire. Jesus will take care of bringing such people around if they want that. But Jesus doesn’t want us wear ourselves out with resources we don’t have on people whose only joy in life is to make others miserable. It’s not the tunic or cloak, but the power to inflict misery that they are after. Anecdote: I know people who will spend tens of thousands of dollars to litigate about their entitlement to be a pain in the neck. I remember one in particular who gifted an ultra-cheap CD player to another someone decades ago. The recipient of decades ago gave that CD player to me quite recently. I received it graciously, but, having no need for it, I in turn, gave it immediately to charity. I even had the permission of the original recipient to do this. WELL, the original purchaser of decades ago freaked out, recalculated the cost of that CD player in today’s money, something like 35 dollars and 47 cents ($25 at the time?), and demanded I pay it back, with interest, and I had better pay this immediately or else! I instantaneously offered to drive hours on end to deliver the few dollars, in coins, to the penny. Ha ha ha. I called the bluff. That offer was forthwith rejected. I have done this many times in such situations. It’s just about guaranteed that the bully-coward will back down. Don’t think this is being a doormat. This is inflicting a huge burden of guilt upon them whether they think so or not. This is meant to bring them around for eternal salvation.

(3) “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles”:

Keep in mind that the idea here is that we are dealing with unjust aggression, this time by the government. “Being pressed into service” is a terrible translation. The word is extremely technical in Greek: καὶ ὅστις σε ἀγγαρεύσει. It refers to temporary and immediate enslavement, dropping everything you’re doing, regardless, that very second, until even your health is going to be destroyed. The image is that of a relay race, handing off a baton, so that a courier is delivering a message from, say, an emperor to a mere vassal king. As the runner comes to the point of death, he hands this off to another who is under pain of death, of course, to take up the chasing of the wind. If a citizen shows himself exemplary with no complaint, and in fact doubles what is terribly unjustly expected of him, it is a challenge to the corrupt political powers that be. It rips the heart out of the person who is inflicting unjust expectations. I’ve seen this uncountable times: when unjust politicians come across an actually honest citizen, their physical and mental health suffers, sending them into a downward spiral until we just don’t hear from them anymore. Yep. But also this is meant to bring about the repentance of the bully-cowards who are fearful of themselves.

(4) “Give to the one who asks of you; do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow”:

All the previous parallel examples of Jesus deal with unjust aggression. They’ve been progressively jacked up: (1) personal; (2) public litigation; (3) governmental tyranny.

With number (4) in the series, we are not falling back to some merely personal as some sort of delving into the literary convention of “inclusion” (that which is found both at the beginning and end). No. The intensification of the series continues. Here, there is an involvement of God. Rather unexpected? No. The other examples involved unjust aggression. But we are such tender snowflakes that we don’t know what unjust aggression is as opposed to that which we would throw tantrums of imaginary micro-aggression tantrums against, such as with someone rightly asking for a loaf of bread to feed his kids in Covid-19 times instead of him stealing a loaf of bread. Just give the guy a loaf of bread and be Bishop Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel in your benevolence toward Jean Valjean. Or else! This time we’ll be forced to man up because God Himself will force our lack of will, our lack of sympathy, our lack of charity and faith. And if we go so far as to take a pledge, such as a man’s cloak (back to #2 above!) then we will give it back to him, or else you will face the wrath of God Himself. Jesus is citing Exodus 22:25-26:

  • “If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in? If he cries out to me, I will hear him; for I am compassionate.”

When God Himself says “I will hear him”, it means that God will smack down the un-compassionate person harder than any personal attack, harder than any public litigation, harder than any governmental litigation.

In other words, Jesus has no time for idiot narcissists in their unjust aggression.

In other words, Jesus wants to make sure we are not the idiot narcissists who, in a self-serving confusion, conflate unjust aggression with a genuine and humble request.

Jesus wants us to stand up against unjust aggression in the manner in which we can do this according to the circumstances. He doesn’t want us to waste the opportunity of an unjust aggression; Jesus wants us to provide the aggressor with a lesson in whatever way we are able in the circumstances.

But we had also better make sure we are not the unjust aggressors. God will forgive us if we forgive others.

4 Comments

Filed under Spiritual life

4 responses to “Mt 5:39 turning other cheek: meaning

  1. Jim Anderson

    That one will take a lot of thinking.

  2. This is a very useful post. When I was in school, I used to let people beat me up because I thought that’s what Jesus meant here– and no one ever bothered to explain it to me sensibly, so I spent the better part of twelve years being a beat-up doormat. Of course, I got beat up a lot because I tried to do what I thought Jesus would do if He were me, and they hated Jesus, so I guess I got part of it right, anyway, and He did promise us persecution.

  3. sanfelipe007

    Your point three reminded me of the scene in the movie Cool Hand Luke where Luke (played by Paul Newman), a convict working with other convicts paving a road by shoveling dirt behind a truck that sprays tar, begins to quicken his pace, much to the consternation of a fellow convict (George Kennedy), who cautions him with “hey buddy, slow down – is a looong road!”

    Take a gander:

    I don’t know what, but something changed in the men that the “overseer” did not like.

  4. sanfelipe007

    “When God Himself says “I will hear him”, it means that God will smack down the un-compassionate person harder than any personal attack, harder than any public litigation, harder than any governmental litigation.”
    God misses nothing. When I was the one who had the misfortune of being shown zero compassion, I was tempted to rectify things myself. That is, until my GA reminded me that “vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” I am convinced that had I less pride in my heart, the message would have been “trust in the Lord.”

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