Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
This passage from Luke comes toward the middle of Jesus’ second major address, “The Sermon on the Plain”. In the first portion of the sermon, Jesus speaks in rather broad generalities, startling in their implication, but sweeping nonetheless, “Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are hungry, woe to you who are rich, woe to you who are laughing now.”
Today’s gospel reading is far more specific. Offering concrete details on how one could implement the general observations Jesus mentions in the beginning of the sermon. In particular he says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” These are examples of a strategy for doing good to those who hate you.
But what does it mean to do good to those that oppress you? It’s hard to imagine that Jesus would really want his followers, the poor that he has just proclaimed as blessed, to actually give away their shirts to those who ask for their coats. This wasn’t a purely hypothetical situation in Roman occupied Palestine. A Roman soldier could, quite legitimately, approach a civilian and demand that he give up his coat, his donkey, his food – if the soldier could claim military need. It was a common occurrence. So what was Jesus suggesting? That the poor willingly comply with the demands of those in positions of authority? That the powerless submit to the powerful? It doesn’t seem likely. Not for a Jesus who spent much of his ministry befriending the poor and powerless and proclaiming them blessed.
Imagine how the situation might actually transpire and how Jesus’ suggestion that his followers offer their shirts might be executed. An officer in the Roman army approaches a Jewish peasant and says, “Give me your coat, I have a soldier who needs it.” The peasant could protest, but it would probably be pointless. Soldiers who occupy foreign countries often come to regard the inhabitants of the occupied territory as less than human and certainly are not taught to be mindful of their wishes. If the Jewish peasant protested too much, he risked imprisonment and might even be killed on the spot. So what does Jesus say for this poor man to do? Offer a kind of non-violent resistance. Instead of simply relinquishing the coat, the peasant says, “So, why don’t you take the shirt off my back, too?”
The Roman officer might still take the peasant’s coat or he might be shamed by enough by the response to leave the peasant alone. If the peasant were theatrical enough, I can imagine him taking off his shirt and standing naked before the soldier and the gathered crowd, exclaiming, “So what else do you want?”
It would have been an act that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whose feast day we celebrate this week, would have applauded. It was fully in keeping with the practice of non-violent resistance that he brought to the civil rights movement in the United States and that he practiced throughout his struggle to bring freedom to an oppressed people. Leading boycotts, non-violent mass demonstrations, resistance of all kinds, the actions led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He then focused his attention on the economic empowerment of the poor and to opposition to the War in Vietnam, recognizing that racism, poverty, and militarism are intertwined. I wonder what Dr. King would say today about our occupation of Iraq?
Enlightened by the great traditions of Jesus, of Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, we must ask ourselves how we too are called to resist – to resist the powerful economic, military, and political forces that oppress and do violence to the defenseless. Remember the poor, the hungry, those who weep, if they are truly blessed, perhaps we are being asked to make sure they receive that blessing.
Siloam Springs, AR