Turning the Other Cheek: A Non-Intuitive Command

n the latter half of the second century CE, c. 175, a Platonist philosopher named Celsus wrote a critique of Christianity titled The True Word (Logos Alēsē). We do not known how widely it circulated, but several decades later the Christian philosopher-theologian Origen of Alexandria embraced the challenge of refuting the work’s claims. Origen’s Contra Celsum was the result. In Book VII Origen wrestles with Celsus’ accusation that the Christian deity must be different from the Jewish deity because the Christian presentation of God does not parallel that of the Jewish Scriptures. We do not have an independent copy of Celsus’ treatise—it is preserved only as Origen quotes it—but it seems that Origen can be trusted to accurately represent Celsus’ point-of-view in that he is willing to attempt a systematic refutation wherein he presents Celsus’ argument in order to counter with one of his own.

In Chapter 25 of Book VII we read that one of Celsus’ claims was that “the God of the Gospel” is different from “the God of the Law,” i.e., there is juxtaposition between the God who gave Torah to Moses on Sinai and the God who gave the Gospel to the world through Christ. For many Christians in the second and third centuries this was a worldview worth embracing. It could be seen as expedient socio-politically to differentiate the Christian community from that of the Jews, especially during periods when the Romans did not view the Jews favorably (e.g., after the Bar-Kokhba Revolt of 132-136 CE). Most famously, Marcion of Sinope argued that the Christian Gospel was to be found only in the writings of the Apostle Paul—specifically ten of the thirteen epistles included in our modern New Testament, excluding the Pastoral Epistles—and a unique version of the Gospel of Luke, which he either received or edited himself (it differs from the version known to us today). As one can imagine, Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, for example, could be the sort of text that could be read as presenting a stark chasm between “Law” (i.e., Judaism) and “Spirit” (i.e., Christianity). In any sense, it is easier to sever Christianity from its Jewish roots using the letters of Paul than it would be using, for example, Matthew’s Gospel. This is why Marcion was willing to embrace “Pauline” Christianity (as he understood it), but not a Christianity favorable towards the Gospel being rooted in the history and traditions of Israel. If Christians would embrace their “God of the Gospel” as a different deity from the God of the Hebrew Scriptures then the problem of what to do with this Jewish “God of Law” disappears. For Marcion this was a necessity. The Hebrew deity, in the view of Marcion, appears petty and vindictive at times. It seemed impossible to reconcile Jesus’ teachings with some of the Levitical laws or the seemingly genocidal acts commanded by divine fiat in the Book of Joshua. How could this deity be the Father of Jesus if we are to embrace Jesus’ teachings regarding loving one’s enemy? For Marcion, Jesus represented a better God, a God superior to the “demagogue” of the Jews. If Christianity wanted to thrive it had to preach a message distinct from the Hebrew Scriptures.

For other Christians this was unacceptable. The Gospel came from Jews like Paul—a man whose identity was rooted in his Jewishness, who did not despise the traditions of his ancestors, whose proclamation was shaped by the Hebrew Scriptures. Also, in antiquity, there was suspicion toward “new” cults (used here as a technical term, not a pejorative). The practices and beliefs of the Jews, as odd as they may have appeared to many Greeks and Romans, were usually tolerated because the Jews did have a history, a tradition. Whatever may be said of the “atheistic” beliefs of the Jews (since they acknowledged only one deity), they did qualify as an ancient set of customs. On the other hand, Christianity began with Jesus of Nazareth, a man crucified in the early 30s CE, and therefore was a “new” cult during the time in which Celsus lived. (Again, new cults were viewed with suspicion by most, which is not all that different from today where “foreign” or “new” religions are tolerated far less than familiar ones in any given society.) In order to counter the claim that Christianity was a foundationless phenomenon, Christians argued that their beliefs and practices were the outworking of the Hebrew Scriptures, if not the teleological necessity of those scriptures. Christians did have a history, a tradition, and it was that of the Jews.

According to Celsus, one of the examples of Christianity’s divergence from the Jewish Scriptures was Jesus’ command for his followers to offer their other cheek when they are struck on the first one. In Contra Celsum VII.25, Origen states that Celsus used this command of Jesus, found in Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:29, as fodder for his argument that Jesus’ teaching differed from the Hebrew Scriptures. Origen notes that Celsus does not provide a proof-text that contradicted Jesus’ command, but proposes that Celsus likely had Leviticus 24:17-23 in mind, the famous lex talionis, or “law of retribution,” wherein a punishment for a crime had to equal the weight of the crime itself: “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered” (Lev. 24:20, NRSV).

Origen was one of those Christians who found Marcion’s proposal unacceptable. In his view, Jesus’ teachings were in continuation with the Hebrew Scriptures when rightly interpreted. According to Origen in VII.26, the Law contained these sorts of regulations for the time when Israel was a self-governing nation. They were essential for the survival of the people, lest they be overran with lawlessness, or be exposed to invading enemies. But now, according to Origen, “the times they are a-changin” (in the words of Bob Dylan): Israel’s God no longer wants the nation to stand, so the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the end of its cult must be part of the divine plan (an argument rooted in a form of supersessionism). Presently, God’s focus has shifted to the spread of “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” so that the nations can receive the benefit of hearing Christ’s teachings. Israel’s role as a sovereign nation, at least as Origen argues here, appears to have played its role.

The difference between Origen and Marcion then is not that the Gospel is superior to the Law—both agree on this—but that the Gospel is the goal of the Law rather than something completely divorced from the Law. The lex talionis may have been necessary for a time, but the ethics of Christ are the norm for the new age. If the “Abrahamic Blessing” to the nations of Genesis 12:2/18:8 is to be fulfilled then the time when Israel defends itself against enemies must come to an end. Now the Gospel is proclaimed and it spreads the Abrahamic Blessing to the nations via representatives who do not war against their enemies, but who adopt a posture of radical enemy-love.

When we turn our attention to this “other cheek” pericope found in Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:29 we see several similarities between the two presentations, but we also see that each Evangelist uses Jesus’ teaching to make slightly different points. Matthew 5:39 is part of the First Discourse found in this Gospel, which stretches across chapters 5-7. The others are found in chapters 10, 13, 18, and 24. These discourses contain large blocks of Jesus’ teachings. This particular discourse is known popularly as “the Sermon on the Mount”. As many expositors have observed, the Evangelist desires to present Jesus as a Moses-figure. Moses received the Torah on Sinai then came down to deliver it to the people; Jesus sees the crowds and goes “up the mountain” in order to deliver instruction to his disciples (5:1-2).

Does Matthew want us to think of this as a “new Sinai” and if so, does it supersede or merely contextualize the original for a new era? In 5:3-12 we find the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc. Each group mentioned needs something it doesn’t possess. In verses 13-16 Jesus calls his disciples to be salt and light in this needy world. In verses 17-20 he clarifies that what he is teaching his disciples is not the abolishment of Torah (answering our earlier question), but its fulfillment (v. 17) and that the expectations of his disciples are the purest interpretation of Torah, not a departure from it. Then Jesus gives several examples of appropriate behavior for disciples, for those who would be salt and light, for those who would fulfill the Law through their actions: they must be unsatisfied with merely not murdering others (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17), but should not even harbor anger (vv. 21-26); they should not just avoid adultery (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18), but even lusting (vv. 27-30); even if Moses permitted divorce (Deut. 24:1), it is not permitted for a disciple because it is adultery and causes adultery (vv. 21-32); not only should they abstain from false oaths (Lev. 19:1), but all oaths, letting their words be “yes, yes” or “no, no” (vv. 33-37).

Prior to addressing the pericope concerning retaliation (vv. 38-42) allow me to briefly skip ahead to the pericope addressing loving one’s enemies (vv. 43-48). Jesus says in verse 43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” (NRSV) Now Leviticus 19:18 reads, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (NRSV) It says nothing about hating one’s enemy. That being said, verse 17 reads, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself ” (NRSV) The parallelism between “neighbor” and “kin” could be interpreted as restricting the meaning of “neighbor” to essentially one’s kin. While the text doesn’t say explicitly “hate your enemy” it does leave the door open to be read that love of neighbor may have limits and those limits may include enemies. Jesus argues that this interpretation makes Israel no better than the nations around them. Anyone can behave this way: loving those by whom they are loved. It is a divine act to love those who do not love you (v. 48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (NRSV)).

In-between the series of commands for disciples that build upon Torah (rejecting the loopholes that Torah may provide) and the command to love one’s enemies is where Matthew chose to insert this pericope regarding retaliation, which many scholars argue comes from the Q-Gospel (this is why Luke knows it, but uses it differently). Whereas the Law may offer retaliation for wrongs done, a disciple of Christ cannot accept this offer according to Matthew. Why? “Retaliation” in the Kingdom of God is humble service to the nations.

Some scholars have proposed that turning the other cheek is an act of loving resistance. It may be “non-violent,” but it is not pacifistic. To turn the other cheek, offering one’s enemy a second chance to inflict pain, conveys the message that the first attempt did not do what it was intended to do, namely, dehumanize the one being violated. If one retaliates then this conveys the message that the violence did succeed in dehumanizing the violated and now the violated will become just like the violator in return. Instead, Jesus teaches his disciples to bypass the opportunity to respond in kind. If someone takes one item of clothing from you, give them another, presenting yourself not as victimized, but free from the constraints of possessions (v. 40). When “forced” to carry a bag (presumably of a Roman or one of the Jewish elite) exert your humanity by “offering” to go a second mile (v. 41). Then, to flip the script, when it is your chance to either provide for those who are in need, or to contribute to their impoverishment, make sure to give them the opportunity to thrive by borrowing from you (v. 42).

Earlier I mentioned Jesus’ statements regarding enemy-love. This was done in order to provide some broader context for Jesus’ commands here. For Jesus his disciples are to live like the Creator. While it may be sufficient to merely not murder, not commit adultery, not divorce one’s spouse, and not give a false oath, it is not ideal. For Matthew, disciples attempt to live beyond what is merely permitted. Sure, murder can have worse consequences than hate, but Jesus does not lower the bar so that his disciples can settle for what is merely better, because neither does God according to verse 45: “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (NRSV) The surrounding nations have the policy “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” but the Creator does not. God gives good things to all people, so should those who recognize God as their Parent.

In the Gospel of Luke we are told that once Jesus has chosen twelve disciples (6:12-16) he comes to a “level place” where he can teach, heal, and perform exorcisms (vv. 17-19). This is the Lukan version of “the Sermon on the Mount” (called by many “the Sermon on the Plain”). In this version Luke offers blessings (6:20-23) just like Matthew did, but he accompanies them with “woes” toward the rich, those who are full (rather than hungry), those who laugh (rather than mourn and weep,) and those of whom people speak well (vv. 24-26). It is unlikely that Jesus was anti-laughing, against being liked by others, or against having a satisfied stomach (wealth may be more complicated!), but rather against those who have these things either at the expense of others or without any care for those who don’t have these things. Those who are satisfied by these things, but ignorant of the Kingdom, receive woes.

Then, turning his attention back to those listening to him (v. 27: “But I say to you that listen…”) Jesus “strings the pearls” one right after another: “love your enemies” (v. 27a); “do good to those who hate you” (v. 27b); “bless those who curse you” (v. 28a); “pray for those who abuse you” (v. 28b). Then, like Matthew, Luke puts together several other commands in verses 29-31: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (NRSV) Contextually, Jesus’ command is part and parcel with the Golden Rule. (Matthew places the Golden Rule at 7:12 toward the end of his First Discourse.) This is what we would want from others, so this is what we must do for them. We want our enemies to love us. We want those whom we hate to do good to us. We want those we would curse to bless us. Why? Because if they did these things maybe we would not want them to be enemies, or to hate them, or to curse them, etc.

In verses 32-36 Luke makes the point made by Matthew that this is how “children of the Most High” behave. Anyone can hate or curse, but as the Father is merciful so should be the children. Interestingly, Luke does not use Matthew’s strong language regarding being “perfect” or “mature” (Greek: teleioi…teleios) like the Father (a lofty goal if there ever was one), but rather to be merciful as he is merciful. In Luke’s version of “the Lord’s Prayer” the request for forgiveness is connected to one’s willingness to forgive others (11:4). Mercy and forgiveness are divine acts, modeled by God, mimicked by God’s children.

Luke doesn’t make the same argument Matthew makes. For Matthew, disciples live by the Law of Christ, which is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. Moses’ Law is not discarded, but intensified. For Luke, this commandment to turn the other cheek is sustained by the great principle of the Golden Rule. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ commandment is not static, but reusable in new contexts.

This brings us to our role as interpreters. Origen had his rationale for how Jesus’ commandments could be divinely inspired while retaining the confession that this is true of the Hebrew Scriptures as well. Matthew and Luke found similar ways to apply Jesus’ words, though not exactly the same. What are contemporary Christians to do with these texts? The command seems non-intuitive. We must avoid reading these words as a static, decontextualized command, but neither should we ignore the challenge they present us. What about Christians serving in the military or law enforcement? What if we see someone being harmed physically by another and we have the ability to stop it? Is non- violence necessary at all times and all places, or does the principle being taught apply only to certain situations? How should the privileged of a given society interpret this teaching and what about the marginalized and under-served? There are no easy answers, and due to space I cannot explore the question further, but I hope that like Origen, Matthew, and Luke, readers of this article will take a moment to ask themselves a few questions: How does Jesus’ commandment relate to the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures? What did Jesus’ teaching mean for his earliest disciples? How should these teachings be applied to contemporary situations? Are there times when a rigid, static reading of these texts may actually go against the heart of the message? If we ask these sorts of questions, in prayerful humility, we will go a long ways further toward finding the heart of God than if we ignore them or supposed we know the answers.

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