My last post dealt with Walter Wink’s interpretation of “turning the other cheek” in The Powers That Be. Moving on the the next section, he deals with Mat. 5:40, in which Jesus says “if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.” I must admit, this is not a passage I’ve ever given the slightest bit of thought to, but Wink makes it come alive:
Jesus’ second example of assertive nonviolence is set in a court of law. A creditor has taken a poor man to court over an unpaid loan. Only the poorest of the poor were subjected to such treatment. Deut. 24:10-13 provided that a creditor could take as collateral for a loan a poor person’s long outer robe, but it had to be returned each evening to the poor man would have something in which to sleep
…Indebtedness was a plague in first-century Palestine. Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives. Heavy debt was not, however, a natural calamity that had overtaken the incompetent. It was the direct consequence of Roman imperial policy. (Wink details this policy at some length, which I shall omit.)
It is to this situation that Jesus speaks. His hearers are the poor. They share a rankling hatred for a system tha tsubjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, and finally even their outer garments.
Why then, does Jesus counsel them to give over their undergarments as well? This would mean strippling off all their clothing and marching out of court stark naked! Nakedness was taboo in Judaism, and shame fell less on the naked party than on the person viewing or causing the nakedness. By stripping, the debtor has brough shame on the creditor.
Imagine the guffaws this saying must have evoked. There stands the creditor, covered with shame, the poor debtor’s outer garment in the one hand, his undergarment in the other. The tables have suddenly been turned on the creditor. The debtor had no hope of winning the case; the law was entirely in the creditor’s favor. But the poor man has transcended this attempt to humiliate him. He has risen above shame. At the same time, he has registered a stunning protest against the system that created his debt. He has said in effect, “You want my robe? Here, take everything! Now you’ve got all I have except my body. Is that what you’ll take next?” (103-105)
This is biblical exegesis at its best. What was once something to skip over without thought becomes a living, breathing story with profound relevance to the story of our own lives today. Jesus’ genius and artistry in getting to the root of things is astounding.
We’ll conclude our tour of Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence with going the second mile in the next post.