First, let’s look at where the saying, “turn the other cheek” comes from. I actually just did a bible study on this passage from the gospel of Luke, so we’ll use that here, though you can also find this teaching of Jesus in the book of Matthew.
This comes from a passage of Scripture where Jesus is with his disciples and a large crowd – Jesus begins to teach them in what we now know as “the Sermon on the Mount”. Here is a small section of it:
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” – Luke 6:27-31
Does that sound like a pushover to you? Maybe. But let’s keep looking. The verses above are reminiscent of what I call the “Sunday School Jesus” – you know, the peaceful painting of Jesus smiling, holding a lamb, surrounded by children? I did a study on the book of Luke a couple of years ago, and I was really struck by portrait of Jesus that Luke paints – more than his gentleness, I was struck by his boldness. Jesus was not afraid to stand up for truth and to call out those who were distorting it. The words he spoke were often insulting to many, and yet he spoke them boldly. Here are a few examples of things that Jesus said and did that shatter the "pushover" mold:
- Jesus spoke against his own hometown (and they tried to drive him off a cliff): Luke 4:14-30
- Jesus angered the Pharisees by breaking their Sabbath rules: Luke 6:1-11
- Jesus insulted the Pharisees and Experts in the Law: Luke 11:42-53
- Jesus says he came not to bring peace, but division: Luke 12:49-53
- Jesus drove sellers out of the temple courts: Luke 19:45-48
Jesus so angered the religious leaders of the time, that they devised a plot to kill him.
So how do we reconcile the meek “turn the other cheek” Jesus with the intense “tell it like it is” Jesus? As best as I can tell, this is what it comes down to: when somebody inconvenienced Jesus or wanted to take something from him, he acceded. However, when it was something beyond his own self at stake, and especially when truth itself was on the line, he was sure to speak out and take action.
Look again at the “turn the other cheek” passage. Jesus is not only telling us to do good to those who hate us and to let people take things from us, but to give even more than what our enemies demand – and that not out of spite, but out of an honest love (Think: the Bishop to Jean Valjean in the story Les Miserables). Jesus had enemies. They wanted to see him crucified. And they did. But Jesus said this, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord (John 10:17-18).”
It’s not about letting someone “walk all over you” and take what is yours – it’s about freely choosing to give up your own rights. The book of Philippians tells us that Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Philippians 2:6-7).” Jesus literally gave up all that he had for us. Not only that, but he did so even while we were his enemies.
“For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” –Romans 5:10
When we realize the position that we were in when God chose to lay down his life for us, I think it gives us a better perspective on loving our enemies. I don’t see it as being a pushover so much as passing on the grace that God has given to us. Do our enemies “deserve” our love? Perhaps not. Will society scoff? Most likely. It’s counter-intuitive, and I think that’s the point. This is one way that we, as followers of Jesus, are to be set apart from the rest of the world.
Jesus continues his Sermon on the Mount saying,
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that…But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” –Luke 6:32-36
Just like Jesus, we are called to love others “with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:18). Sometimes this may mean laying down your own rights; other times it may mean boldly speaking up to defend the truth.
So, what do you think? Is Jesus a pushover? Are you willing to follow Jesus and love your enemies, even if the world labels you a "doormat" for doing so?
Excerpt from the 1998 film: Les Miserables