The Other Cheek

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. Matthew 5:38-40

Many of us struggle with Jesus’ saying about turning the other cheek, and how it fits with the phrase “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” Although to us it sounds barbaric, in Jesus’ time this law was always interpreted as a monetary fine for bodily injury – never injuring the offender in return.1 They understood the idea of “eye for eye” as meaning that the fine for injuring another exactly compensated the victim for all of his or her losses. The rabbis had set up a system of five kinds of monetary damages for injuring others: for permanent impairment, for temporary incapacity, for healing expenses, for pain and for shaming.

Ashamed Man

One scholar believes that Jesus is referring to this system of fines in the passage above, and the laws about shaming a person by slapping him on the face.2 The offense of slapping someone was often a subject of discussion of the “eye for eye” laws because it did not actually cause any lasting injury – just momentary pain and embarrassment. But nevertheless, the shame that it caused was a major offense in that culture, because one’s honor was extremely important in that time. So there was a fine that could be demanded of another for being shamed in this way:

If a man slapped his fellow, he gives him 200 zuz; if with the back of his hand, 400 zuz. (Mishnah, Baba Qamma 8.6)

The fact that a fine is involved makes the idea of “turning the other cheek” fit with the next statement about letting someone sue you too. It appears then, that Jesus was saying that rather than insisting on compensation down to the last penny for every insult, his followers should be ready to suffer persecution yet again. It also fits with Jesus’ many teachings about not seeking one’s own honor.

Regarding the idea of demanding compensation for shaming, Paul says something very similar:

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. 1 Cor. 6:7-8

In looking past sin and forgiving others, we are showing people the love of Christ through our own actions. We are being true disciples when we imitate our rabbi Jesus, who died for the sins of those who hated him.

See an “An Eye for an Eye.”

David Daube, “Appeasement or Resistance” And Other Essays on New Testament Judaism, (University of California Press, 1987), pp. 19-23. Also available online.