People Ask: “What’s This About ‘Turning the Other Cheek’?”
Matthew 5:38-42 Romans 12:19-21
Everyone has heard it. Everyone knows that Jesus said it. We’d like to think we take Jesus seriously. After all, if we Christians aren’t serious about Jesus, then who is? The more serious we are, however, the more we are haunted by our Lord’s word. Turning the other cheek is neither natural nor easy.
Frank Robinson was an outstanding baseball player
with the Baltimore Orioles. When he
retired as a player he became team manager.
One day the opposing pitcher threw the ball at a
Robinson speaks for the whole world: “Don’t let them get away with anything. Give them a taste of their own medicine.” This is where the world lives.
I: -- Before we explore what Jesus meant and why Christians must obey him, we should be clear as to what turning the other cheek is not.
[a] To turn the other cheek is not to make a virtue of psychological deficiency. It is not to make a virtue of low self-esteem, of pathetic lack of self-confidence. We are all aware of people who have no self-confidence. They regard themselves as insignificant and useless. They look upon themselves as doormats, and to no one’s surprise they invite victimisation as doormats. Their psychological deficiency is pitiable. We mustn’t think that to turn the other cheek is to glorify “doormatism” and glorify as well the invitation to victimisation that goes with it. We must never confuse our Lord’s going to the cross with “doormatism.” “No one takes my life from me” he insisted; “I lay it down of my own accord.” Others may think he has “victim” written on his forehead. In fact he hasn’t: he lays down his own life. No one else takes it from him. They may think they take it from him, but he knows the difference.
[b] Again, to turn the other cheek is not to turn a blind eye to public justice. Christians must uphold justice. A society without justice quickly collapses into unruliness, and unruliness is eventually subdued by brute force without concern for law or fairness or human decency. Either we uphold justice or we foster the irruption of brute force, arbitrary and amoral in equal measure.
[c] Again, to turn the other cheek is not to overlook the ill-treatment currently visited on other people. Jesus certainly “turned the other cheek” on the cross. Yet whenever he came upon heartless people abusing defenceless folk; whenever he saw vulnerable people exploited, he acted forthrightly and formidably. Here’s the difference. Jesus never looks the other way, never turns his head, when he sees defenceless people abused; but he turns his cheek when he’s abused himself. He never turns a blind eye to the abuse of others; but he will turn a blind eye when he’s abused himself.
We must be sure to understand that to turn the other cheek isn’t to overlook abuse of others. Neither is it to submerge justice. Neither is it to glorify “doormatism.”
II: -- Then what is it? Quite simply, it is to renounce retaliation. It’s just that: to renounce retaliation. Jesus says, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” When a right-handed person punches someone else, the blow normally lands on the assaulted person’s left cheek. A backhand blow, however, lands on the right cheek. For an Israelite a backhand blow is more than an assault. It’s the rudest insult as well. In fact a backhand blow (unlike a closed fist punch) does very little physical damage. It’s little more than a slap. Yet because it’s backhanded it’s outrageously insulting. It does vastly more damage to our pride than a punch does to our body. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek…” says Jesus; “if anyone not only assaults you but insults you outrageously as well, don’t retaliate. My followers have renounced retaliation. Non-retaliation is one of the distinguishing marks of my followers.”
In the same paragraph Jesus insists, “Don’t resist one who is evil.” Immediately we protest: “But surely Christians are called to resist evil” – and indeed we are, even as our Lord resisted and rolled back evil whenever he came upon it. Still, the context of our Lord’s pronouncement is crucial. In the context of cheek-turning our Lord means this: “When someone does evil against you, don’t you launch yourself on a vendetta against him personally. When someone assaults you slightly but insults you greatly (insult is much more difficult to withstand than assault, isn’t it?) don’t fly back at her in a spasm of revenge. Don’t think it’s up to you to even your own score.”
“What about ‘eye for eye and tooth for
tooth’?” someone asks. “Eye
for eye” is indeed a quotation from the Hebrew bible.
We modern gentiles, however, fail to understand something crucial: “eye
for eye” means only an eye for an
eye, no more than an eye for an eye.
Because human depravity is what it is, whenever our “eye” is taken
(as it were) we want to retaliate by taking eye and arm and leg.
In other words, “eye for eye” was a limiting device: the Israelite
was to limit the severity of the retaliation to the severity of the offence.
Only a work of grace, only a colossal work of grace within us, can move you and me to renounce retaliation. Retaliation, after all; retaliation for us depraved creatures is sweet. Harold Ballard used to own the Maple Leaf Hockey Club. Carl Brewer used to play for the Maple Leaf Hockey Club. Brewer thought Ballard had exploited him in some manner, and therefore Brewer sued Ballard. The sum Brewer asked for wasn’t huge; it was only eight or ten thousand dollars. The courts decided against Brewer, however, and he came away with no money. Shortly thereafter, as Brewer sniffed and snooped around, he discovered that while Ballard owned the hockey club, he had never registered the name of the club with proper authorities. Whereupon Brewer registered the name and thereby came to own, and have exclusive rights to, the name of the club. Now a most unusual situation had developed: Ballard owned the hockey club, while Brewer owned the name of the club. Needless to say Ballard, publicly embarrassed, was desperate to own the “Toronto Maple Leafs” name. How desperate? How much did Ballard have to pay? Vastly more than ten thousand dollars. Brewer bided his time and then pounced: the retaliation was hugely greater than the offence (even as the courts insisted there had been no offence.) Revenge is sweet to us fallen creatures. It’s sweet enough when we’ve been wounded and can even the score. It’s sweeter still when we’ve been insulted and are “loading up” a retaliatory insult. It’s sweetest of all when our retaliation plunges someone else into public humiliation and pays us a fortune as well.
Still, the sweetness only disguises the poison, the deadliness. Jesus knew this. For this reason Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to limit retaliation; he tells them to renounce it. As long as we are limiting retaliation, even limiting it so as to reduce it to a minimum, we are still operating within the framework of retaliation. Jesus maintains that we are to move beyond all such frameworks altogether.
In Romans 12 Paul outlines the shape or pattern of the Christian life. He insists that we are never to avenge ourselves, since to avenge ourselves (or even try to) is simply to augment the world’s evil; it’s to be overcome by evil. Paul knows, as Jesus knew before him, that to continue the deadly game of retaliation is already to have been overcome with evil. Of course we can justify our retaliation as “teaching that fellow a lesson he needs to learn;” we can always tell ourselves “we’re doing that woman a favour she’ll thank us for one day.” Even as all such froth dribbles out of us the truth is we’ve been overcome with evil ourselves, and we don’t even know it. But we aren’t to be overcome with evil. We are to overcome evil with good. We must turn the other cheek.
III: -- Then why don’t we? Because unconsciously we want to be Rambo. Rambo is the movie tough guy who may have to eat dirt now and then but who eventually sees his foes face down in the dirt. Anyone who steps over the line with Rambo he hammers into the ground. We all want to say to others (and to ourselves) “No one puts anything over on me. No one takes me for a fool. I may appear docile, but this cat has claws.” Our identity is tied up with all of this. Our identity is tied up with being the tough guy outwardly while inwardly our identity is so very fragile that we fear it will disappear if we don’t retaliate. If we don’t pass ourselves off as “tough” then our identity will crumble as our puffed up public image is rendered laughable. Therefore pretence and image and identity must be shored up. And if it all means that I, in my fragility, can survive only as someone else is slain, then it appears he will have to be slain. The truth is, fragile people fear that unless they retaliate, others won’t know who they are.
I see all of this in so very many marriages. Hubby comes home from work. He’s had a bad day. He’s not in good “space.” He walks into the house and trips over a tricycle. “Does this place always have to look like a scrap metal yard?” he explodes at his wife. “What do you do all day, anyway?” Now she’s hurt, and insulted. She feels she’s been both punched and backhanded. It would be a sign of weakness, she thinks, not to retaliate. It would only invite further victimisation, she thinks, not to retaliate. It would only advertise herself as an underling, she thinks, not to retaliate, and she’s too proud to appear an underling. And therefore she retaliates. “What do I do all day” she comes back, “What do you think I do all day? I simply stand around all day doing nothing since there’s nothing to do with three children underfoot. I merely wait for little Lord Fauntleroy to come home. Who do you think prepares your supper five times per week?” Now she’s sarcastic. In her pain she goes one step farther. “I suppose you’re going to tell me I can’t hold a candle to your secretary, Miss Twitchy-Bottom or whatever her name is.” Now she’s gone on the attack, just to make sure her husband is pushed back far enough to allow her to survive.
At this moment her husband is wounded, insulted, and crushed. But he can’t appear crushed; no male can. As for being insulted, no red-blooded male is going to put up with an insult like this. Whereupon he comes back with his own retaliatory “zinger.” Up and up it escalates. As it escalates its potential for irreversible deadliness increases. The entire situation can be defused, and can only be defused, when one person, either one, simply turns the other cheek. But both have an image and an identity to maintain. Both are fragile; both fear that appearing weak before the other would mean ceasing to exist themselves.
There’s only one way out. We have to recall that our identity isn’t something we forge for ourselves and then spend the rest of our lives shoring up. Jesus Christ forges our identity for us and maintains us in it. Our Lord tells us who we are. He can tell us who we are just because he, and he alone, has made us who we are. Because our identity is rooted in his action upon us and not in anything we do to ourselves, our identity in him can never be at risk. Were our identity self-fashioned it would also be the feeblest, frailest identity imaginable. Since, on the other hand, we are who we are on account of his having made us who we are, we can always know who we are and be who we are regardless of what others think we are. They may think of us as King Kong or as Caspar Milquetoast. Let them think. We don’t have an image to maintain. We don’t have an identity to preserve. Jesus Christ does this for us. And if three or four fellow-Christians keep on reflecting this truth to us we shall find ourselves cemented into this truth and it into us so as to render us impervious to those who would otherwise find us doubting ourselves and annihilating ourselves only to swing over into a nasty self-assertion that we fancy will get us through the day when in fact others are secretly laughing at our bombast and buffoonery.
If we cherish the identity our Lord gives us then we don’t have to establish a “tough guy” identity for ourselves. And if we don’t have to do this then we are free to appear weak or silly or naïve or foolish. In a word, if our identity is in Christ, we are free not to retaliate. We are as free as our Lord himself was free when he turned the other cheek.
IV: -- All of which brings me to the last point. Turning the other cheek is the only way reconciliation is won. Reconciliation is never won through retaliation. If it’s true (and it is true) that to fight fire with fire is to ignite a blaze in which everyone is burned, then non-retaliation is the only fire-extinguisher we have.
Earlier in the sermon I said a work of grace, a colossal work of grace, must occur within us if we are ever going to renounce retaliation cheerfully. Even as such a work of God’s grace does occur and we do renounce retaliation, we should be sure to understand that in the eyes of the world we are going to appear weak. We are going to appear stupid. We are going to be laughed at as “losers.” We must be prepared for this. But of course we can be prepared for this just because we know that “losing” has always been the way God wins. It’s when God himself appears to be the biggest loser of all (a Jew, the person the world relishes hating, executed by the state, rejected by his followers, dangling from a scaffold at the edge of the city garbage dump;) it’s when God appears most to be a “loser” that he achieves his greatest work of reconciliation. It’s precisely when he appears most helpless that he’s most effective. It’s precisely when it appears he can’t do anything that he achieves the purpose for which he sent his Son.
Then today there’s only one question for you and me to settle: are we secure enough in Christ, big enough in Christ, mature enough in Christ to withstand looking like losers the next time we are insulted, and renounce retaliation? We are. Because of our Lord’s grip on us we are free from having to prove ourselves. Free from having to prove ourselves we are free from having to succumb to that evil we say we are resisting. Free from having to succumb to the evil we say we are resisting, we are free to do the truth as our Lord himself ever did the truth.
Jesus says, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”