There are many ways to read the Word of God. A dangerous way would be to read Scripture literally. “From the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic,” Jesus says in our Gospel today. Tell that to someone being robbed.
A more responsible way to read God’s word would be to put it in the social and cultural context of the human author of Scripture. In Jesus’ time, if you owed someone money but could not pay your loan yet, you could give your cloak as collateral. But this cloak should be returned to you at sunset so that you would not be cold during the night. In the morning, the person you borrowed from can collect the cloak again and hold on to it for the day.
Jewish law is very specific (see Deuteronomy 24:10-13): Your creditor cannot enter your house; he must wait outside until you bring your cloak to him. Jesus chooses his words carefully. He says, “From the person who takes your cloak.” This man is taking your cloak and not receiving it; he did not wait for you to give it.
In our time, it is shameful for someone if he or she is seen naked. In Jesus’ time, those who see someone naked are the ones who are shamed. So if someone takes your cloak and you give him your tunic – the only other article of clothing you have on – then you have just shamed him.
Hopefully, in his shame, he will realize that his first act (taking your cloak) was already shameful. His lack of respect in, as I imagine it, not waiting outside your house and barging in to take your cloak, his impatience, and perhaps his greed in prioritizing your cloak over you had shamed him even before you stripped yourself naked.
Take a second look at what Jesus wants to happen: He is not merely suggesting a creative way to turn the tables on a lender who has overstepped the bounds of the law; Jesus is telling us to shock this person and to shake him into learning something. He may be shamed, but he should also come out a better man. As Jesus summarizes later in the Gospel: “Love your enemies, and do good to them.”
This way of reading needs curiosity, research, and trust that there is more to the text than meets the eye. But even if this way of reading already goes deeper, the social and cultural context of the human author still does not exhaust Scripture. The Bible after all is not just made up of human words but is also God’s word.
Today, the imagery of giving your cloak and then, though it may leave you naked, your tunic as well can shock us and shake us into seeing just how demanding Jesus’ message is. We think that we are already being good by loving our parents, our spouses, our children, our family. But Jesus shocks us again, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” No, we are called to a higher standard. Again, “love your enemies and do good to them.”
I am sure you have heard these words before, but I hope they have not stopped challenging you to be better. At least, they should help us realize that we are always being called to give more. As we push ourselves more, we can also push the words in our Gospel more: “Stop judging even if you are judged. Stop condemning even if you are condemned. Forgive others even if they do not forgive you.”
Is this really possible? “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” But that is God, and I am not God! It may seem impossible if we focus only on the “Be merciful” part and not see what is more important: “Your Father is merciful.” If we fall short, he will give us a second chance. The source of our mercy cannot be ourselves for we all have limits. The source of our mercy is God’s mercy, and he will always replenish our supply when we run out of mercy because we have given it away to others.
During Passover, the Jews proclaim God’s mercy in a song entitled “Dayenu,” which can be roughly translated as “It would have been enough.” It would have been enough for the Jews if God just brought them out of Egypt. Dayenu. But it was not enough for God. The song continues. It would have been enough for the Jews if God just split the sea for them. Dayenu. But it was not enough for God. The song continues. God gave them manna in the desert. God led them into the Promised Land. The song continues… because it is never enough for God.
Continue the song. When you feel you have given enough, think how much more God has given you. It would have been enough if God just gave us his son. But his son also died for us. That would have already been more than enough. But God raised his son again for us. And God continues to bless us with life and friends we do not deserve and graces that exceed our expectations… Continue the song.