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For Bible Study Nerds

“If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic,” Jesus preached in his Sermon on the Mount, “let him have your cloak also.” With all this archaic talk of tunics and cloaks, it’s easy to overlook the devastatingly difficult demand of this little statement.

Consider:

• In Jesus’ time, most people wore a thin tunic—a long-sleeved inner garment akin to a modern day undershirt. It was the basic clothing item for men and women, rich and poor alike. Men typically wore shorter tunics, while women wore longer, ankle-length versions.

• Over the tunic, people wore an outer cloak made of thicker material (comparable today to a light jacket or heavy shirt). Among the poorer classes—thousands in Jesus’ audience—owning only one tunic and one cloak was the norm.

• A person’s outer cloak was considered nearly inviolable. Theft of even the poorest beggar’s cloak could, and most likely would, bring swift legal repercussions.

• A garment used as a cloak during the day commonly did double duty at night, serving as a blanket for warmth against the cold. Among the poor, it was their only blanket.

• Because a cloak was often used as a blanket, when a person gave his outer cloak as a pledge or collateral, it was required to be returned to him by nightfall. It was unlawful for a cloak to be kept from its owner overnight.

• By law, creditors were not allowed to take a poor person’s outer cloak as a collection for debt, regardless of the amount of debt due.

In the context of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount then, the cloak and tunic represented not just some random clothing, but everything a poorer person might own—literally “the shirt off his back.”

Jesus command here wasn’t simply “be generous,” but for his followers to be willing to be stripped nude, both physically and economically, in order to demonstrate love for a greedy, callous, undeserving enemy. It demanded a complete abdication of a person’s legal and moral rights in favor of kindness toward one who only intended harm.

This was a hard teaching in Jesus’ time—and it’s no less difficult today. How does it apply in 21st Century American society, particularly in the battleground arenas of politics and social activism? Maybe it’s time for Christians to find out.

 

Works Cited:

[BBC, 60; ZB1, 41]

 

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About: Mike Nappa

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