The title of this blog is a bit of a play on words. For those who are not aware, if you say a joke or something you think is funny and no-one laughs I would say “I’ll get my coat” in other words, that was so not funny, it was embarrassing so I had better leave! The actual title of this blog should be “you’ll get my coat!” But what is this verse talking about?
Our possessions are a huge part of who we are and how we are perceived, especially in our Western culture. We can be judged, even subconsciously, by what we wear, by the labels on our clothing and the possessions we own. The possession of money is a huge issue in our society and whatever is a huge issue in society can also seep into the church. John Wesley famously once said that “The last part of a person to be converted is his wallet.” Today’s verse is about not holding on, but letting go of our possessions. Holding everything we own ‘lightly’ when it comes to doing the right thing.
On the surface and with just a cursory reading this verse can seem very dangerous. Are we just to give everything away if someone asks for our possessions? Is this to be taken literally? I don’t believe it is asking us to give everything away just because someone asks for it. Let’s examine the passage and discover what it is saying.
In the previous verse Jesus was talking about the evil one who slaps you round the face. This thought is carried through to this verse where the evil one tries to take your possessions. Someone might try to sue you through the law courts to make you pay your debts, which would often include surrendering your possessions.
The modern phrase of ‘taking the shirt off your back’ was probably taken from this time when it was literally possible to sue someone for the very shirt on their back. When a person had no money or other possessions the court could require that the fine be paid by clothing.
The tunic (chiton) was the long cotton or linen inner garment which was worn next to the body. It was relatively inexpensive and even poor Jews would have a change of tunics. The cloak (himation) was the long outer garment that looked something like a modern robe. It was made of a thicker more expensive material and was used as a blanket at night. Most Jews would only have one cloak. The cloak was such an important piece of clothing that if it was taken in a pledge it had to be restored before sundown according to the Old Testament;
If ever you take your neighbour’s cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate. (Exodus 22:26-27).
Jesus is saying that if a man takes you to court and goes after your tunic (the inexpensive inner garment), then do not fight the lawsuit, but settle immediately and even give him the cloak also if it will bring the lawsuit to an end. It may be a legitimate debt you owe or someone is just trying to pull a fast one. It doesn’t really matter, it’s your reaction that counts.
There are probably two main reasons Jesus gave this command;
Firstly, Christians living in a hostile pagan culture would have been wise to suffer minor personal loss than stir up trouble with their opponents. If a believer in such a scenario insisted on their rights, it was quite probable that they would win their case; but in the process they would likely make some enemies. Such an outcome would not be good for the Christian community and it would make the spread of the gospel more difficult. By letting it go they would be following Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:18
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Secondly, it would have been better to suffer the minor loss of personal items than to be distressed in spirit. Entering into emotional legal battles would not have been good for a believer’s inner peace. Getting into legal wrangles would have tempted the person to get angry and seek retaliation, which was to be avoided. As I said last week, when we leave the vengeance to God, trusting that he will protect us and provide for us we send a powerful message to the world about how good our God is.
Even when the law protects us it may be necessary to forego our rights for the sake of peace, the honour of God, the demonstration of love and the spread of the gospel.