Why was Jesus so adamant about mentioning “the right cheek” when he gave his command for followers to “turn the other cheek”? The answer lies in the social norms of that time in ancient Israel.
In Western society today, one person spitting on another is a contemptuous, especially offensive insult. In the time of Jesus, being slapped on the right cheek was similarly offensive. The average person was assumed to be right-handed, thus the perception was that striking a person on the right cheek required with a backhanded slap. That action was one of the more egregious insults in the ancient world. It communicated utter contempt toward someone considered inferior. In fact, it was such a serious offense that both Jewish and Roman law allowed a victim of this kind of slap to take his abuser to court and demand restitution.
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,” Jesus said, “turn to them the other cheek also.”
In this instance, Christ wasn’t simply speaking of cultivating a nonviolent attitude. In the context of that cultural setting, he was insisting that his followers instantly forgive—and refuse to retaliate—when others acted contemptibly toward them. Perhaps because this seems to be such an impossible demand for people like us, he later demonstrated this exact ideal during the hours leading up to his awful, humiliating, contemptible crucifixion and death.
[WOM, 42; BBC, 60]
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