Then one of the Temple guards standing nearby slapped Jesus across the face. “Is that the way to answer the high priest?” he demanded.Jesus replied, “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, why are you beating me?”
Then Annas bound Jesus and sent him to Caiaphas, the high priest. (John 18:22-24)
Read: 1 Corinthians 4:1 – 7:40
Relate: In Matthew 5:39, Jesus commands, “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” Here at his own trial, it doesn’t seem like He is following His own maxim. Annas asks Him what He has been teaching. Jesus responded that He’s been teaching the same thing, publically, all along. Ask anybody.” At this the guard slaps Him for being disrespectful to the high priest (who isn’t really the high priest). Jesus’ response: “If I said something wrong, prove it. If not, why the attack?” Jesus did not turn the other cheek but rather spoke out against the injustice, the illegality of what the guard just did.
React: There are three valid responses to this which all show that there is no contradiction between what Jesus said earlier and what He now does. The first of these is that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is talking about personal, individual to individual, relationships. Even though lawsuits and court are mentioned, His focus is on one person’s relationship with another. If someone wants to take you to court, settle the matter before you get there. (Matthew 5:25) If they do sue you and demand the shirt off your back, give them your coat as well. (Matthew 5:40) These are one to one interactions, not directives for what to do when at a trial. Matthew 5 is not about exercising our legal rights when we do find ourselves in a legal situation.
The second thing to note is that Jesus did not respond with violence at His own trial. He did not return strike with strike. He did nothing to stop the blow and He did nothing to retaliate. All He did was question the validity of the action against Him. As Matthew Poole writes, “Our Saviour could easily have revenged himself upon this officer; but, to teach us our duty, he only gently reproves him, and lets him know that he did not behave himself as one ought to do in the face of a court of justice.”
The third thing to keep in mind is that Matthew 5:39’s command to turn the other cheek is itself a demand for justice. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr among many, many others took their cue for nonviolent resistance straight from the Sermon on the Mount. When you are going the extra mile with the soldier’s pack, you are causing him to break the law. A Roman soldier is only allowed to force someone to carry his pack a total of one mile. By going further, you are getting him in trouble, but what is he going to do, take it back through violence? If he tries that, he will also be getting in trouble. There is no way out for him. When you give the man who took the shirt off your back your cloak as well, you are in effect stripping down before him. Because he saw your nakedness, by Jewish law is unclean. You have effectively interfered with his ability to come before God until he has gone through ceremonial purification. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, basically, they have backhanded you. That is how you would strike a slave or a social inferior. By offering the other cheek, you are basically saying, “I will not retaliate but neither will I allow you to regard me as inferior. If you must strike me, you will punch me as an equal not slap me like a slave.”
From this perspective, the way I read Christ’s question fits quite well. He addressed the guard person to person. He questioned him rather than retaliating, and that question was in effect, “where is the justice in what you have done?” That policeman, and Jesus, and everyone else present all knew that the guard was wrong in striking Jesus. Jesus, in turn, made sure everyone knew that the injustice was not unnoticed and that He took exception to it.
God, let me be a voice of justice. Even in an illegal, kangaroo court that was a prelude to Your torture and death, You still spoke truth. Help me to live my life following the example You set. When I am wronged, help me not to retaliate, but help me neither to simply roll over and take it thereby devaluing myself, the perpetrator, and the God I serve. Help me to speak rightly and proclaim justice even when I am trapped in the most unjust of situations. In all things let me bring glory to You.