“If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also, and if anyone wants to take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” Those were Jesus’ words (The Gospel Reading for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – Matthew 5:38-48) to the people of Israel under Roman occupation. The people were the underdogs in that society and understood the value of a robe and a coat on one’s back.
In this teaching, the powerless is being deprived, presumably by the powerful, of even the basic necessity. “So they want to take your coat?” Jesus is saying, “give them your robe as well”.For a first century Israelite that meant being stark naked. In that society, the shame would be, not on the naked person, but on the one who took his covering.
Similarly, a Roman soldier could order anyone to carry his luggage for one mile – not more. So Jesus is saying, “That’s what he wants you to do? Carry it for two miles”. It is the soldier who will be in trouble for that breach of conduct.
One wishes that the members of Congress see that picture as they strive to take more and more from the little that is available for the poor and the needy. In first century Israel, this was a story of power, specifically the powerful and their treatment of the powerless. Jesus is teaching the powerless how to shame the powerful.
While persecution and even martyrdom were ever present realities for Jesus’ audience in the first century, today’s Christian – especially in the West – is, in many ways, in the equivalent position of the Roman Empire. Power manifests itself in various forms. I will cite here, the gun and firearms as examples for illustration.
A person with a gun feels to have – and indeed does have – power over one who does not have a firearm. That sense of power drives one to shoot at an unarmed adversary during an argument or when the latter defies instructions from the former. Ironically, and tragically, in perversion of moral law, the powerful can still find defense in some laws of “self defense” or “stand your ground”.
Clearly, Jesus’ teaching in this Sunday’s Gospel does not look like anything like self-defense or stand your ground in any sense, even with the powerless party, much less the powerful. So, how should we understand this Sunday’s message?
The First Reading from Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18 begins with the words: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy”. That is followed by ethical instructions on how to live with one another, especially how to treat the powerless, the less fortunate: Don’t be so greedy that you deprive even the needy; don’t cheat or steal; don’t defraud or make life unbearable for the less fortunate and so on.
The Epistle Reading (1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23) emphasizes imitating Christ, or having Christ as the foundation, in contrast to worldly wisdom. Similarly, what the final sentence in the Gospel Reading (Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect) signifies is to be Godly through God’s code of ethics.
The best summary is clearly in the Collect with this prayer: “Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue without which…” there is no real life.