Matthew 5:39 Whosover shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also

Retaliation & Violence

I believe that when we examine what the scriptures teach about resistance to evil, that the Savior does not teach that we should lie down and take it.  Certainly there are times in the scriptures when the righteous are abused and do take it.  In Matthew 5, Jesus is addressing a group of people who have been subject to Rome.  They have at times been abused, and there must have existed a group among His hearers who felt that they should do something about their treatment.

The Greek word translated as “resist” in Matthew 5:39, “resist not evil” is antistenai, meaning literally to stand (stenai) against (anti).  This translation, “resist,” creates the impression that only two alternatives exist, resistance and nonresistance.  Since Jesus clearly forbids resistance, nonresistance alone remains.  What this has frequently meant in practice is passivity, withdrawal, submissiveness in the face of evil, an unwillingness to stand up for one’s rights or the rights of others, and supine cowardice.

What some translators have overlooked is that antistenai is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare (44 out of 71 times).  “Stand against” referred to the practice of marching one’s army up against the opponent’s until the two fell upon each other in battle.  The same usage characterizes Josephus’ use of the word (15 out of 17 times).  Ephesians 6:13 reflects this idea: “Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand (antistenai) in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (stenai).”  This idea in this verse illustrates not a war of attrition, where two sides beat each other up endlessly, but rather is an image of one standing his ground, not yielding to sin.

Jesus is not telling us to give in to evil, but rather to refuse to oppose evil on its own terms.  He is urging us to avoid mirroring evil, to refuse to let the opponent dictate the methods of our opposition.  Another way to read the intent of Matthew 5:39 is to not repay evil with evil.

The example that follows this command confirms this reading of the text.  “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).  In the words of Walter Wink:

Readers generally imagine this as a blow with the right fist.  But such a blow would fall on the left cheek.  To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand.  But the left hand was reserved only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, even to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days.  The only conceivable blow is a right-handed backhand.  The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade.  It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior.  Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews.  The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into his or her normal social station.

Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.”  These are people used to being degraded.  He is saying to them, “Refuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore.  If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.”  By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again.  The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals have fistfights, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.  Logistically, the superior is deprived of any way to make his point.  The servant has irrevocably conveyed the message: I am not a “thing,” I am a human being, and nothing you can do from now on can deprive me of that status.  I refuse to be humiliated any longer.  I am your equal.  I am a child of God.

Such defiance is no way to avoid trouble.  Meek acquiescence is what the master wants.  Such “cheeky” behavior may call down a flogging or even worse.  But the defiance has had its effect.  The Powers That Be have lost their power to make this person submit.  And when large numbers begin behaving thus (and Jesus was addressing a crowd), you have the makings of a social revolution. 1

There are several illustrations of this idea taught in scripture and found in history.  We have the examples of the midwives in the Exodus account.  The defied evil, but not with evil.  They saved the lives of innocent babies in defiance of the evil dictates of the Pharoah.  Another example of refusing to oppose evil on its own terms comes from the story of the people of Alma during their subjection to Amulon.  When they were told that they were not allowed to pray, they continued to pray in their hearts.  They defied Amulon in a way that was nonviolent.  I like the term nonviolent civil resistance.

“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Two examples from history that youth are familiar with are Dr. Martin Luther King and Gandhi.  Both of these great men were able to resist evil, but in nonviolent and civil ways.  I believe that these two individuals are excellent examples of what it means to “turn the other cheek.”  There have been times when I have heard this verse to mean that wives should be subject to the violent outbursts of their husbands.  I disagree with this interpretation, in fact, I take this verse to mean that a battered woman should meet this evil in a nonviolent, civil way.  A way whereby the husband has his ability to abuse his wife revoked.  She should refuse meet evil on its own terms, nevertheless, she should oppose it with all the power in her possession.


  1. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. See also Daniel K. Judd, Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Religion, p. 287.

About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives:
This entry was posted in Gospels, Healing, Jesus Christ, Messiness of scripture, Principles, Protection and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Matthew 5:39 Whosover shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also

  1. rex pond says:

    I’m typing this reply with my right hand only…

    Love this Mike.

    Jesus empowers weak & vulnerable people in virtue of their very weakness and vulnerability. This is the power of the weakness-of-truth in the face of violence. Weak truth confronts evil and violence on it’s own turf. There, impossibly, it makes its demands and gives its commands. Gabriel: “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Lk 1:37).

    Jesus is awesome!

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