Changing Perspectives: Turn the Other Cheek

Hit someone. Not literally, rather imagine yourself hitting someone. Likely, you see that person standing in front of you, face to face. If you're right-handed, you throw a right jab into their left shoulder or on the left side of their jaw line. If you're left-handed, it's a left jab to their right side. Or if you possess a mean streak, you delivered an uppercut, sending your foe sprawling backwards and possibly knocking them out. We've watched enough Rocky movies. We played Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! We know how this works.

When Jesus talked about someone striking your cheek, this is what we envision. We think boxing matches. We think mixed martial arts. We think drunken bar-room brawl. We think "Meet me on the playground after school." We think a couple of guys who are up to no good started making trouble in my neighborhood.

This is America, we think fist to face.

But first century Jews and Roman citizens would not have had the same approach to the sermon that we do. Jesus was also specific in his language making it clear that he wasn't talking about bare-knuckle fighting. The two words Jesus used that provides us context are the method and target of this hypothetical strike.

First, the method. Jesus said, "When someone slaps you ... " There are two ways to slap someone: with an open palm or with the back of your hand. In the original Greek language, the word was ῥαπίζει – pronounced rhapizei – which means to strike and is where we get the English word rap (think Edgar Allan Poe “some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door”). On its own, this word could be any kind of hit from a punch to the use of a blunt force weapon. Yet most translations use slap for a reason which has everything to do with where the slap lands.

The target of the strike is the right cheek. Jesus’ words were δεξιὰν σιαγόνα or dexion (meaning the right-hand side) siagóna (meaning the jawbone or cheek). Jesus describes it as follows: when someone rhapizei your dexion siagóna – strikes or hits your right side’s jawbone or cheek.

Why is this important? Remember, Jesus lived in first century Palestine. Toilet paper wasn’t used until the sixth century in China, and it wasn’t commercially patented in America until 1857. During ancient times in the Middle East, people used their left hand for sanitary purposes. The Jewish crowds who were listening to Jesus preach would have considered their left hand to be unclean. They would only strike someone using their right hand.

Go back to imagining yourself hitting someone. They are facing you and you must punch their right side using your right hand. It’s a little bit awkward. Now resort to a slap. If you use an open palm with your right hand, you’d slap their left cheek. If you want to strike their right cheek with your right hand, you would slap them with the back of your hand. This is where it gets interesting. It is embarrassing to get slapped. That has never been a kind gesture in any culture. But in the Roman Empire, a backhanded slap was reserved for those whom the assaulter feels are inferior. In other words, if I were to slap your left cheek with an open fist, I would be insulting you, but I would see you as my equal. But if I were to deliver a backhanded slap, I would still be insulting you, but I would also be demonstrating how I think I am better than you – you wouldn’t be worth an open fist.

This understanding makes the words of Jesus much more radical. He begins, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,” and ends with instruction “turn to them the other cheek.” Modern audiences miss what Jesus is trying to say. We read this and think Jesus wants us to get beat up. “Well, if someone hits you, let them hit you again!” That is not the point Jesus wanted to make. Instead, he was urging you to assert your own worth.

If someone slaps your right cheek, they see you as a person with lesser stature. If someone slaps your right cheek, show them your humanity. Turning your other cheek doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hit a second time. The possibility is there, but only if they see you as an equal. Turning the other cheek is your way of saying, I’m here. I’m human. You are not better than me. Show me some respect.

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