Preaching next Sunday so I am in research mode, writing mode, searching mode, fretting mode.
I am struck by how much certain phrases from next Sunday’s Gospel lesson have become part of our culture and are still used to endorse a kind of passivity and over-the-top niceness: “An eye for an eye,” and “Turn the other cheek.”
Did Jesus really mean that we should stand there, like a boxer being beaten and pummeled, and do nothing? Individually? As a country?
The writer and theologian Walter Wink gives this insightful analysis of one of the passages from Sunday’s lesson: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.”
He writes: “The situation here is dealing with collateral for a loan. If a person was trying to get a loan, normally they would use animals or land as collateral for the loan but the very poorest of the poor, according to Deuteronomy 24:10-13, could hock their outer garment. It was the long robe that they used to sleep in at night and used as an overcoat by day. The creditor had to return this garment every night but could come get it every morning and thus harass the debtor and hopefully get him to repay.
Jesus’ audience is made up of debtors — “If anyone takes you to court…” He is talking to the very people who know they are going to be dragged into court for indebtedness and they know also that the law is on the side of the wealthy. They are never going to win a case. So Jesus says to them, ‘Okay, you are not going to win the case. So take the law and with jujitsu-like finesse, throw it into a point of absurdity. When your creditor sues you for your outer garment, give your undergarment as well.’
They didn’t have underwear in those days. That meant taking off the only stitch of clothing you had left on you and standing nude, naked, in court. As the story of Jonah reminds us, nakedness was taboo in Israel. The shame of nakedness fell not on the person who was naked, but on the person who observed their nakedness. The creditor is being put in the position of being shamed by the nakedness of the debtor. Imagine the debtor leaving the courtroom, walking out in the street and all of his friends coming and seeing him in his all-togethers and saying, ‘What happened to you?’
He says, ‘That creditor has got all my clothes,’ and starts walking down to his house. People are coming out of bazaars and alleys, ‘What happened? What happened?’ Everyone is talking about it and chattering and falling in behind him, fifty to a hundred people marching down in this little demonstration toward his house. You can imagine it is going to be some time in that village before any creditor takes anybody else to court.
What Jesus is showing us in this example is that you don’t have to wait for a utopian revolution to come along before you can start living humanly.”
Hey – not all creditors are bad, are they? Does passive resistance have a place in our lives or not? How do we live today “humanly” and with dignity? What does it mean that we are called to “turn the other cheek” if someone hits us? (this also is in Sunday’s Gospel).
And so then, what about the politicians who say that the only things bullies respect is strength? And that “when it comes to bullies, might makes right.”
In the sermon Sunday, we’ll look at these issues. At least that’s what I’m thinking today, but it’s only Tuesday and I have work to do….
See you in church.
(Cited is Dr. Walter Wink, “The Third Way,” radio address November 14, 1993).