Between Friday and Saturday, some persons have reached out to me asking for better clarification of this Sunday’s gospel reading (cf. Matthew 5:38-48), particularly around the teaching against revenge: “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well…” since I’ve not been able to respond due to some health reasons, I have decided to write an article in response to the question and to cover a wider audience.
To begin with, we must not just contemplate a slap on the right cheek at the superficial level, but consider what it really means in the Jewish socio-cultural context.
Ordinarily, if someone confronts you with a slap, that slap should land on your left cheek, especially if the person is a right-handed person. Jesus also lived in a right-handed culture where left hands were reserved only for unclean tasks. Therefore, it is understood that the person doing the hitting would use their right hand, and the only way to strike someone on the right cheek with your right hand is a backhanded slap. In other words, it would require striking with the back of one’s hand, and according to the Jewish concept, it inflicts more insult than pain. It was a normal way to reprimand someone over whom you had power (e.g. masters to slaves, Romans to Jews). To strike your equal in such a manner was socially and legally unacceptable, carrying with it a huge fine. Striking one’s equal must be a direct hit, not a backhanded slap, otherwise, it would be considered offensive.
With this new understanding of the context Jesus was speaking in, picture the scenario with yourself as the oppressor. You are a wealthy, powerful person whose slave has displeased you in some way. You reprimand your slave with a backhanded slap. The response you expect is for the slave to cower, submit, and slink away. Instead, your slave defiantly turns their other cheek and challenges you to hit them again. What can you do? You would like to give your slave another backhanded slap to show them their place, but to do that you would have to use your left hand which would admit that your action is unclean because of the use of the left hand. Another option is to use your right hand and hit them on their left cheek directly (not a backhanded one) instead, but it would be embarrassing to hit your slave the way you should hit your equal. You’re confused. You don’t know what to do. Flustered, you could order the slave to be flogged, but the slave has already made their point. They have shown you that they are a human person with dignity and worth. You don’t own them, you cannot control them, and they do not submit to your rule.
And so, Jesus’ instruction not to resist evil and to turn the other cheek transforms from an instruction to accept injustice into a challenge to resist systems of domination and oppression without the use of violence. Rather than ignoring an evil situation and hoping it will go away, Jesus is telling his followers to find creative, active, and nonviolent ways to assert their humanity and God’s love in the world.
Going further, Jesus said: “If anyone sues you to take away your coat (chitona), let him have your cloak (himation) also“: (v. 40). A chitona is a lightweight Jewish garment like a shirt (but long like a robe), worn close to the skin. according to Fr. Anthony Kadavil, a himation is an outer Jewish garment like a coat and is also long. To surrender both chitona and himation would render a man essentially naked, which suggests that Jesus is using exaggerated language to make the point that we are to prevent conflict by yielding more than is required. Jesus teaches that his followers should show more responsibility and a greater sense of duty in refusing to fight for privileges. And on “Going the extra mile (two miles)”, Fr. Kadavil explains that the Roman law at the time of Jesus permitted its soldiers and other officials to require people to carry a burden for a mile. Service of this sort could be quite oppressive. Here, Jesus tells us that a Christian has the duty of responding, even to seemingly unjust demands by helping or serving gracefully, not grudgingly. The principle is this: When we respond to a burdensome duty with cheerfulness rather than resentment, we may win over the one who gave us the duty.
Fr. Chinaka Justin Mbaeri, OSJ
Paroquia Nossa Senhora de Loreto, Vila Mediros, São Paulo
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PS: Have you prayed your Rosary today?