Holy Cheek

But I say to you not to resist evil:

but if one strike thee on thy right cheek,

turn to him also the other.

Matthew 5:39

What does it mean to turn the other cheek? The wag in me would like to insist that, when insulted, we should respond with all the cheek we can muster.

Though that might be an exaggeration, however, it may be closer to the mark than the more familiar misreading, according to which Christians are to give way to evil rather than opposing it with all our might.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. We have it upon the very best authority that, while we are to avoid “rendering evil for evil,” we are not only permitted, but enjoined to “overcome evil by good” (Rom. 12:17, 21).

To persist in my own cheekiness, then, I ask: how can we overcome evil with our cheeks?

The preeminent example is that of Christ himself. When one of the Sanhedrin’s servants gave him  blow, “Jesus answered him: If I have spoken evil, give testimony of the evil; but if well, why strikest thou me?” (Jn. 18:22-23)

A similar incident occurs when Peter and John are arrested by the Temple authorities for preaching “in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” After the rulers “charged them not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus,” Peter and John turn their respective cheeks thusly:

If it be just in the sight of God, to hear you rather than God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard (Acts 4:1-2, 18-20).

What do these responses have in common? Both demonstrate what St. John Chrysostom calls “the strength of meekness.”

It is not only that Christ and his Apostles refrain from calling down lightning upon those who offend them. Even more striking (if Dear Reader will pardon the pun) is their recognition of the offender’s faculties of reason and free will. Christ insists that the servant explain his action, and Peter and John advise their judges to  judge the situation from a different angle.

By thus appealing to their persecutors’ better selves, our spiritual exemplars open themselves to the danger that the former will persist in their abuse of reason and freedom, and multiply their injuries. Nonetheless, they persevere in paying tribute to the image of God even in the wicked, and in so doing invite them to see it and respect it in themselves.

At the same time, these responses exhibit an unflinching dedication to the open proclamation of the truth. It is clear that the speaker knows where justice lies, and will continue to maintain it whether or not the aggressor takes this opportunity to repent.

In this precise sense, let us pray to be given the strength, when called upon, to demonstrate such holy cheek!

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