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Give Your Cloak As Well — Matthew 5:28-48

In her interpretation of Matthew 5:38–48 KATHLEEN RUSHTON shows how Jesus calls disciples to engage in non-violent resistance of evil.

The motivation for the all-embracing love of neighbour and enemy which disciples are called to in Matthew 5:38–44, is “so that you may be called children of your Father in the heavens” who makes God’s “sun rise/dawn on the evil and the good, sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:45) God’s control of sun and rain is part of Jewish thought (Gen 1:14–19; 2:4-5, Job 38). In ongoing creation, God’s life-giving action embraces all persons — “evil,” “good,” righteous,” or “unrighteous”. Affinity exists between nature and humans because God is creator and sustainer of both. By observing God in creation, one learns how God acts with humans. As God makes the “sun rise/dawn” so disciples urged by Jesus are to “let your light shine/dawn (same verb) before others” (Mt 5:16).

Only Matthew uses the term, “basileia of the heavens/sky” to evoke God’s saving presence. Heaven is the abode of God (Is 66:1) and origin of God’s reign. The heavens/sky refers to that part of the universe which along with Earth comprises the universe. Basileia (empire/reign) is used of the Roman Empire which the alternative basileia of the heavens/sky critiques. The challenge facing Christians is for the language of basileia/empire to function prophetically so as not to become complicit with the injustices of their context.

Probably, Matthew’s gospel arose in the densely populated city of Antioch in Syria where there was a significant Jewish population, which like the rest of first-century Judaism, was diverse in beliefs, practices and responses to the destruction of Jerusalem (70 CE). Tension with a synagogue was not just religious but resulted in estrangement from one’s people which had social, political and economic dimensions. Antioch was a Roman military centre and administered taxes, tolls and levies on goods and labour. In this context Matthew’s community was a minority and had a marginal existence.

Sermon on the Mount

The gospel readings for the 4th-9th Sundays of Ordinary Time are from the Sermon on the Mount which Jesus taught on a mountainside near the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is committed to the old and new. The enduring validity of the Old Testament is presupposed in his explanation in Mt 5:17–20 of how he interprets Scripture which is his preface to six “for examples” which follow (anger, relationships Mt 5:21–26; adultery, male lust Mt 5:27–30; divorce, male mistreatment of women Mt 5:31–32; oath-taking, integrity Mt 5:33–37; non-violent resistance to evil Mt 5:38–42; and love for enemies Mt 5:43–48).

Jesus’ sermon is poetic, dramatic and pictorial and is not to be interpreted literally. Rather it tells a story to inspire the imagination to resist the values of Rome’s basileia. It is not a complete rule book but offers disruptive, transformative “for examples” to give general directions to inform and form disciples more deeply in the way of life to which they have committed themselves (Mt 4:18–22).

Non-violent Resistance to Evil

Matthean scholar, Warren Carter, explains that the fifth “for example” (Mt 5:38-42) is about active non-violent resistance to the domination and violence of the oppressive imperial context. In Mt 5:38 Jesus summarises the lex talionis, the law of equal retribution, which limits revenge in proportion to the offence of the offender: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” (Ex 21:22–25). The lex talionis was practised within a court process.

Carter translates Jesus’ words: “But I say to you” as “Do not violently resist (antistēnai) an evildoer” (Mt 5:39). This verb indicates “armed resistance in military encounters” or “violent struggle”. A translation like “Do not resist an evildoer (or evil)” does not permit self-protection and promotes submission. Further, not resisting and opposing evil, which God seems to sanction, goes against Jesus’ words and actions (Mt 4:1-11; 4:23-25; 5:3-16). The “for examples” which follow Mt 5:38 show resistance to power.

The issue is not whether to resist evil or not, that is, submission or fight back, but how evil is to be resisted. Jesus offers four serious yet rather witty examples of active non-violence to illustrate this principle and to inspire the moral imagination to see God’s basileia at work and to understand both oppression and liberation.

Four Examples of Response

The first example (Mt 5:39b) presents a scene in which physical violence exerts control and enforces inequalities: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek”. This refers to a slap in the face with an open right hand. This insulting gesture acts out the power deferential of a superior who despises an inferior — a master with a slave, or a Roman with a subject, or when Jesus is slapped (Mt 26:67). The inferior is dishonoured and humiliated because no response except submission is expected. Rather than submission or a violent response, Jesus teaches a third response: “Turn the other also”.

The second example relates to the experience of indebtedness in loan collection proceedings in court: “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat” (Mt 5:40). A poor person had to pledge their cloak which must be returned by night to keep that person warm (Deut 24:10–13). Jesus’ response: “Give your cloak as well” is astonishing, for handing over one’s outer and inner garments meant being naked in court. Why? Enacted is the stripping of property and land by the creditor who would have both garments in his hands. Standing naked, shames and dishonours the creditor, exposes the greed of his action and the unjust system which he represents.

After examples of social (Mt 5:39b) and economic inequalities (Mt 5:40), the third example relates to a practice of Roman power: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Mt 5:41). The verb “forces” meaning to requisition labour, ships or animals for transport and lodgings is used when Roman soldiers force Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross of a convicted criminal (Mt 27:32). “To go one mile” most likely meant to carry a soldier’s pack for a mile.

The fourth example suggests alternative economic practice because giving benefited the giver by enhancing their reputation and status. Patron-client almsgiving enabled the prosperous and powerful to bind others in dependent relationships. “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Mt 5:42) presumes there is poverty and exploitation from taxes and debt. Almsgiving (eleēmosunē) which was assumed of all disciples (Mt 5:7; 43–48) comes from the word eleos/mercy which signifies the presence of God’s basileia. “Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” is not new (cf. Ex 22:25) but is an alternative to dominant practices by creating a system which ensures adequate support for all.

Scripture scholar and pastor, Walter Wink, describes this third way of Jesus in phrases like: seize the moral initiative, find a creative alternative to violence, assert your humanity and dignity as a person, meet force with ridicule or humour, break the cycle of humiliation, refuse the inferior position, shame the oppressor, be willing to suffer. While change is not guaranteed, God’s basileia presents and illustrates what an alternative might look like in several situations while exposing unjust systems.

The ideal may be beyond human grasp. Yet it offers hope and the call for non-violence and resistance to become an attitude in responding to others, oneself and the Earth. This call inspired the 2016 Vatican conference on just war theory hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi. Around 80 experts who are engaged in non-violent struggles gathered in Rome to discuss a new moral framework which rejects ethical justifications for war. Pope Francis gave it his support in his 2017 World Peace Day Message: “Non-violence: A Style of Politics for Peace.”

Published in Tui Motu Magazine Issue 212 Feb 2017: 22-23