Historical Cultural Context
The advice given by Jesus in Luke 6:27-36 is clearly directed to the elite. Only such would have two coats, or would be the targets of beggars and thieves, or would have surplus wealth to lend.
Jesus is asking the elite to behave toward strangers just as they would behave toward members of their own household. He is urging the haves to treat have-nots as if they were family.
He discourages negative reciprocity, that is, the attempt by the elites to take advantage of those in need.
Remember that all this advice is given with the beatitude “How truly honorable and esteemed are the socially unfortunate” still ringing in this elite audience's ears.
God alone reads hearts and knows people's true honor rating.
The categories “elite” and “socially unfortunate = poor” are products of another common Mediterranean cultural trait that Jesus challenges: stereotyping. This culture is not at all introspective. It routinely judges by external appearances (see 1 Sam 16:7).
It is also prone to generalizing and stereotyping people. “All natives of Crete are liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). “Judeans do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9). “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).
As repulsive as such judgments may sound to modern Western ears, they were very common in the ancient world. People pasted labels on others (sinner, tax collector, woman of the city, carpenter's son, whitewashed sepulcher, etc.) as a means of controlling and restricting their social interactions. Such name calling also attributed a status to them, whether it fit or not. The pity is how easily the stereotype stuck.
Jesus' rejection of such stereotyping efforts also resonates in the echo of the beatitude: “How greatly esteemed [by God, of course], are the poor [socially unfortunate, the stereotyped and rejected]. …” God alone reads hearts and knows people's true honor rating.
The familiar Western proverb declares: “Stick and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” We like to believe that we are immune from stereotyping and the exploitation it permits. Our ancestors in the Faith would vigorously disagree. Many Westerners would probably concur.
It may be time to revise our proverb.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University