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Pointers along the way #265

Turn the other cheek?
- Jacob Ninan

There is this passage where Jesus told His disciples a few astonishing things to do with those who bully us. If someone slaps us on the cheek, we should turn the other cheek to him. If someone sues us for our shirt we should give him our coat also. If someone forces us to go one mile, go two miles with him. If someone asks us for something, give it to him (Mt.5:39-42). Many of us are troubled with these 'commandments' because we think that behaving like this would only cause the bully to take advantage of us. To understand this passage, let us also look at another passage.

Jesus said that we should cut off our hand and pluck out our eyes if they caused us to sin (Mt.5:29,30). In this case we know that He didn't mean these words to be taken literally! Isn't there a similarity between this and the passage we looked at earlier? Was Jesus really expecting that we should follow to the letter what He said there? If so, why was it that when somebody struck in front of the High Priest He didn't turn the other cheek? On the other hand He questioned why He was struck (Jn.18:22,23)! Was He going against His own teaching? It can't be.

This is an example of how we go wrong when we limit our understanding to only the words that are written in the Bible without seeking to understand the spirit behind them. The bigger context of the first passage is about changing from an attitude of taking revenge, getting even and teaching a lesson towards those who do wrong to us to an attitude of forgiving them and returning good for evil and love for hatred. If we are to be forgiving, loving and kind to our enemies we would certainly need to overlook many wrongs they have done to us, and suffer loss in many ways. Being willing to suffer injustice in order to be forgiving, to lose material things in order to gain peace, to demonstrate our love in the face of hatred, etc., comes from an attitude change inside us. Jesus was only trying to illustrate this attitude with examples. He was using the techniques of exaggerating or dramatising the issue in order to catch the attention of the people who listened to Him. He was not at all expecting any of them to actually resort to those acts literally.

If we don't understand this, instead of seeking to get such an attitude of mercy and generosity, we would be trying to figure out the limits of how far we should go in different situations in obedience to these 'commandments.' This was the approach of the Pharisees in those days. (To consider these as 'commandments' is also a misunderstanding. Instead we could consider them as part of a teaching.) Nobody actually manages to follow all these literally or exactly in all situations, and as a result some get confused and guilty. Instead, why don't we seek to become more forgiving, merciful, kind, loving, etc.? We can work on enlarging our hearts so that we would want to do good even when others do wrong to us. That is to obey Jesus and to become like Him.