Tag Archives: Sermon on the Mount

turn the other cheek

OK, this isn’t a word. It’s a phrase. But it’s a phrase that can serve as an excellent illustration of the value of historical research and awareness of cultural context.

I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase turn the other cheek. It’s a popular admonition to forgive wrongs and not to fight back. Someone does you dirty? Turn the other cheek. You often get this advice from people who have not likewise been wronged, and sometimes from people who are the wrongdoers. It is open to abuse because it seems to give carte blanche to abusers. And, on the other hand (ignore the pun), you get instances like a particularly stupid one I once accidentally saw in a terrible TV show where Michael Langdon played an angel. Some bad guy punches him in the side of the head. Langdon turns his head and gets punched on the other side. Then he says, “I turned the other cheek,” and belts the bad guy. (Of course bad guy punches never knock a good guy out, but good guy punches usually knock a bad guy out. But I digress.)

The phrase comes from the Bible, from the Gospel According to Matthew, the part popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Here’s the line from the King James Version: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” But let me give you a bit more context, and let me give it to you in a better version. (The King James Version is a 400-year-old translation of the Hebrew and Greek sources. The state of scholarship and research has advanced much in the intervening four centuries, and the language has changed too. We think the KJV is elegant because it – and Shakespeare – is held up to us as examplary of beautiful English: it’s what we learn to judge beautiful English by, so of couse we revere it. But it’s no longer a truly accurate translation, if it ever was.) Here, Matthew 5:38–41 in the New International Version:

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 anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

That seems plain enough, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the problem. We see words we understand, referring to things we can picture (even if we don’t experience them much), so we assume that we can take it at face value. We treat the cultural context of the Bible as effectively identical to our own cultural context.

“We,” I am happy to say, does not include scholars like Walter Wink. Walter Wink was a minister and professor. He wrote several books, and coined (among others) the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence.” Walter Wink did the hard legwork on this passage. He looked at the history and the cultural norms at the time. The time and place in which Jesus lived was a Jewish nation under Roman occupation, a nation subject to its own laws and norms as well as to an imposed Roman occupying law. Walter Wink also worked through the physical implications of this passage.

Jesus didn’t say a cheek or your cheek. He said the right cheek. Say someone slaps you on the right cheek. They’re facing you. How do they do that? With their left hand, right? No, wrong. The left hand was unclean. It was not to be used for touching other people. No matter what. (This rule still stands in some cultures.) So they’re backhanding you with the right hand. This was a kind of slap of rebuke given to a social inferior. It wasn’t a fighting blow; it was a reprimand. Master to slave. Father to son. Husband to wife. Roman to Jew. Anyone who struck a social equal that way was subject to a fine. The rule of law was important!

Now, if someone struck you that way, and you invited them to strike the left cheek, you were inviting them to an open-handed blow. That’s an entirely different kind of slap. It was not a rebuke to an inferior. It was a challenge to an equal. You’re inviting them to hit you again, but you’re inviting them to hit you as they would hit an equal. If you are their equal, the first blow was improper. If they are your social superior, the second blow would be. You’re forcing them to be open about the imbalance, the injustice. It’s not violence. It’s peaceful. But it’s resistance. It’s a dare. It’s cheeky.

How about if someone sues you for your shirt? Let’s not forget that they didn’t wear three-piece suits then. They wore an inner garment and an outer garment. These have been translated as shirt and coat, but actually they were khitona, or tunic, and himation, or toga. The coat, the toga, was the outer garment, but it was actually more essential, because it’s what you slept in at night. Deuteronomy 24, verse 13, lays down the law that if someone gives you their coat – himation, toga – as a pledge, you must return it by nightfall so they can sleep in it.

So, now, they’ve demanded from you the shirt off your back. Literally, that’s what they’ve taken you to court for. You push it. You get cheeky. You give them the coat too. They’ll be required by law to return it. Oh, and if they have both your shirt and your coat, what are you wearing? …Nothing. Which exposes you to shame – at their instigation – but also exposes them to shame for viewing it. So you’re really pressing the point. You’re not letting them get away with a halfway villainy, a socially allowable injustice. You’re making them commit to an obvious injustice, to face the full force of their actions: “Stop, why are you doing that? You’re making me feel like a bad person.”

Now. How about that extra mile? We know that “go the extra mile” line too. But this isn’t a running club buddy asking you. It’s not your aunt saying “Can’t we stroll a bit longer.” It’s not your friend saying “Dude, help me move this sofa to my new place.” Judaea was under Roman occupation, and Roman law permitted Roman authorities to require any inhabitant of an occupied territory to carry messages and equipment for the distance of one mile – but prohibited forcing them to go any more than one mile. They could be punished for making you go farther. So. You’re walking along the road in your country , which is occupied by these Romans, and a Roman comes along and says you have to carry something for him. This blows your lunch plans a little bit, maybe, but it’s not terrible; a Roman mile was a bit shorter than a modern mile, and might take a person 20 minutes or less to walk. It’s just an indignity, an injustice. But it’s one permitted by law, so it’s OK, right?

So at the end of the mile you keep going. “No,” says the Roman, “you don’t have to go any farther. You can hand it over now.” “Oh, no problem,” you say, smiling. “I can do two.” Why not? You’re keeping someone else from having to do that mile. And you’re putting this occupier in an uncomfortable situation. “You’re making me look bad!” “But I thought you wanted me to carry this for you!” Cheeky.

So you do not return violence for violence, no. That would compound wrong on wrong. It would also make you lose. They could have you arrested for it. Instead, you turn the other cheek, go the extra mile. But, in its historical origins, that is also not meek acquiescence. It’s pressing the point. It’s making the injustice plainer to see. It’s making it awkward. Politeness lets injustices pass. But pushing politeness can expose them, too, without giving any excuse for further injustice. You just have to turn… cheeky.

The phrase turn the other cheek is well ingrained in the language, of course, as is go the extra mile. It would be far too much to expect people to instantly change the usage to refer to a kind of meekness that presses the point and exposes the injustice. Still, it’s worth knowing, to appreciate historical context and to reconsider the value of the usual intention of the phrase.


This word may sound waspish, like a bee attitude, but it’s a much more blessed attitude of being. It sounds too much like platitude – an anodyne pronouncement that feels beatifying in the abstract but when someone asks you to live up to it you say “Beat it, dude.” But a beatitude is an example, a prescription, not just a description.

Let’s start by noticing that there’s beatitude and there are beatitudes. Beatitude, the abstract mass object, uncountable, is also unaccountable, blissful – supreme blessedness or happiness. You can be in a state of beatitude. It means you are #soblessed. The word comes from Latin beatus, ‘blessed’, which may look ironic, since if we’re so blessed, you can’t beat us. It sounds ironic, too, because beatus is said like “bay at ooss” but if we’re so blessed, it would be obtuse to bay at us.

Beatitudes, on the other hand, are individual pronouncements about who is blessed. They are rather like desiderata. If some set of people are blessed, then it’s a good idea to be one of those people. There’s a specific set of beatitudes that the term usually refers to. Here’s the Latin – it’s not the original; it’s translated from Greek, which may not have been the original language either but then again may have, but in the Latin you see the point:

beati pauperes spiritu quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum

beati mites quoniam ipsi possidebunt terram

beati qui lugent quoniam ipsi consolabuntur

beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt iustitiam quoniam ipsi saturabuntur

beati misericordes quia ipsi misericordiam consequentur

beati mundo corde quoniam ipsi Deum videbunt

beati pacifici quoniam filii Dei vocabuntur

beati qui persecutionem patiuntur propter iustitiam quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum

beati estis cum maledixerint vobis et persecuti vos fuerint et dixerint omne malum adversum vos mentientes propter me

Hard to miss, isn’t it? Nine beati in a row. That’s the plural of beatus, and here it’s the predicate – it means not just ‘blessed’ but ‘blessed are’. Here’s the same set in an English translation:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.

Does that sound familiar? Some of my readers will know it well; others may not. It’s the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, a section of the Gospel of Matthew in the Christian Bible (I used the New International Version translation). The Sermon on the Mount is presented as one great extended sermon by Jesus to a crowd, but it was probably put together from various teachings of Jesus remembered from various occasions, passed on by word of mouth, and written down in various times and places, all put together in a coherent format. Notwithstanding that, it is one of the central texts of Christianity – even if some of its teachings can be rather challenging and open to competing understandings – and these nine beatitudes that make the opening lines of it are statements of essential values that Christians are supposed to try to live up to.

Supposed to. Well, some do, and some pay great lip service. Some remember the last two very well and fancy that when people criticize them it’s proof that they’re among the blessed. But people may be criticizing them for not living up to some of the others, such as “blessed are the meek,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” and “blessed are the merciful.”

And here is one indubitable thing: if you are too waspish about your beatitudes, you should look carefully to see who is stinging and who is being stung.