Jesus and Justice
When people cry out for justice now, it often means they want someone who’s guilty to be punished. “An eye for an eye” says the law of Moses. A punishment appropriate for the crime was considered “justice” in the kingdom of Israel (and other kingdoms of the earth). It’s biblical.
But Jesus tells his disciples not to punish like that (Mt. 5:38-39). Unlike the kingdom of Israel, Jesus’ new kingdom of disciples is to function on a higher level–on a nonviolent, patiently gentle level. A kingdom of earth with civil laws and punishments cannot function on Jesus’ level. The righteousness (justice) of the kingdom of heaven is different from the righteousness (justice) of the kingdom of Israel, or any other kingdom of earth. So this command of Moses is passing away, now surpassed by Jesus new fulfillment of the law. Jesus’ new law replaces this old law.
Instead of reacting to an evil person by executing the same evil against them, Jesus’ disciples are to respond with the justice of Jesus. The first example Jesus gives of how to do this is: whenever someone slaps a disciple on the right cheek, the disciple should turn the other cheek. Since most people are right handed, when they hit the right cheek of another it is with the back of their right hand. This is more of an insult than an injury. An evil person is insulting a disciple due to controversial prophetic words or unconventional righteous deeds (compare Mt. 5:10-12).
The Greek word for slap in Mt. 5:39 is used again in Mt. 26:67 where, after the high priest and (national) council in Jerusalem condemn Jesus to death, some slap him. In Jn. 18:22, in the same context of Jesus before the high priest, a police officer of the high priest slaps Jesus because his words challenge the high priest. Jesus does not slap him back; he turns his face to the one who slapped him and challenges him (Jn. 18:23). Jesus asks the officer to tell him what he said wrong, and if it was not wrong, why did he slap?
Turning the other cheek thus means disciples of Jesus continue to speak boldly, even if it means they continue (to “offer” their cheeks) to be slapped. When slaps are meant to stop controversial mouths, the appropriate response is to continue patiently to speak against evil, thereby offering one’s cheek anew.