If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your cloak also.
~ Matthew 5:40
In our Remember the Bible series, we try to extract verses from the Bible by two criteria. First, how important is the concept they embody, how central to the Christian faith; and second, how widely are they ignored?
This verse is not terribly central; it is only one of dozens of specific commandments we are given in the New Testament. Unlike the Old Testament, the New does not seek to create a specific law for every aspect of human conduct. Rather, Christ uses specific situations to illustrate how a person will act when he is filled with the Spirit.
But His illustrations are specific and literal. When Christ speaks, He expects us to obey, in the specific as well as the general. And I will bet you, not one in a hundred thousand people who call themselves “Christians” even gives lip service to this verse. Courthouses used to hang copies of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms. (I don’t know if any still do, as there was a mass of First Amendment litigation seeking to have them removed. But how many courthouses hung a copy of this verse on the wall?)
Priests and preachers, churches and congregations, fight lawsuits against each other without blinking an eye. In 2014, the Episcopal Church and its parishes engaged in 91 new lawsuits against each other. They both try to hide the costs, but it is likely to total something in the $5 million to $10 million dollar range every year, in a rather small and rapidly declining denomination. Paul calls lawsuits by one Christian against another especially “shameful,” (1 Cor. 6), but Paul’s message has a different and less radical purpose.
Christ (unlike Paul) did not limit His commandment to Christian vs. Christian lawsuits. He says If “anyone” wants to sue you (or sues you), give him more than he demands. I have checked the Greek version, and “anyone” means “anyone.”
The universal nature is bolstered by the next verse: “Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” Some scholars say (rather convincingly) that this refers to a Roman right, the right of a Roman official to demand that an Israelite carry a burden for one mile. If so, the “two mile” passage would not only include Gentiles—the equivalent, today, of non-Christians—but would refer to them primarily.
The fundamental principle underlying His statement is that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. He wants us to care so much for spreading His message and showing, by our actions as well as our speech, that we care more for God and neighbor than for money, that if someone demands to take our money or our possessions, we simply give it to him.
But where does this lead? Whoever reads this, and begins to think about applying it his life, will immediately envision somebody taking away his house, his 401(k), his car, his children’s education fund. Unthinkable! But that is exactly what Christ wants us to do. He commands us to “hate” the things of this world. Remember the story of the rich young ruler, who asks how to find eternal life; Christ advises the man to give away all that he has to the poor, and follow Him. (Matthew 19:16-26)
To understand how radical this verse is intended to be, one must understand the value of a cloak in ancient Judea. It was the rock-bottom survival tool, and not only in winter. To a person without a roof, it was his bed and his blanket. A Jew who took someone’s cloak as security for a loan was required to lend it back to him at nightfall. (Exodus 22:26-27)
So, how many people reading this verse will actually follow it? Very few, if any, especially if the claim would severely affect our lifestyle. But we must know, and admit to ourselves, that if we fight a lawsuit, we are committing a sin. To pretend that this verse does not mean what it says is worse than knowing what it says and realizing we are not following it. Better to be a hypocrite, than to shut our eyes to God. For if we know our sin, the knowledge at least accomplishes the purpose of the Law: to show us our sin, that we might understand our absolute need for Christ.
Lord, let me never distort your Word to justify my behavior. Amen.
~ Mason Barge
Editor, Daily Prayer