“But 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”.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:27-38 – NRSV).
This text follows immediately on Luke’s presentation of the Beatitudes and “woes”. It is part of the “sermon on the plain” (6:17-45) – Luke’s equivalent to Matthew’s much longer Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:29). It is a summary moral charter: This is what discipleship in the Kingdom of God will look like. Timothy Luke Johnson writes: “From verses 27–35, Jesus develops the proper understanding of the law of love by which this community lives. The ethical standard set by these commands is remarkably high, and they take on added significance by following so closely the final blessing and woe. The command to love enemies, do good to those who hate, bless those who curse and pray for those who scorn is not, we are to understand, hypothetical, but is to be taken as the norm for those who are in fact hated, scorned, set aside, reviled and cursed” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 111-112).
Jesus clearly has something bigger in mind for the community of disciples than a group that is self-referential and self-defensive and limits its moral aspirations to the “golden rule”. This is not just the “golden rule” in different garb. This envisages the community of disciples becoming instruments of God’s love in the world. The ultimate expression of this will be the Cross. Johnson continues: “Luke has Jesus demand of his followers a standard for human relationships that involves a ‘going beyond’ or ‘more’ than the norm of reciprocity, of do ut des. The ‘golden rule’ of ‘do as you would want done’ is not the ultimate norm here, but rather, ‘do as God would do’. The repeated reproach, ‘what sort of credit is that to you’, is aimed at the minimalism of an ethics of ‘tit for tat’, as is also the repeated comparison to ‘the sinners’ who live by just such a norm rather than by the standard of excellence demanded of this people by its prophet. Ultimately, of course, Luke grounds this morality in the covenantal attitudes and actions of God. As God is kind toward all creatures, even those who are not themselves kind, even wicked, so are these disciples to be. The reward is itself the reality of being ‘children of the Most High’, who can imitate in the world the kindness of God toward the world” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 112).
Love your enemies: The Greek verb here is agapao. And it is a verb, not a noun. Johnson writes: “Like the other evangelists, Luke prefers to think of this characteristic Christian attitude in terms of a verb (the noun agapē is used only in 11:42). In the NT, it appears as an attitude and mode of action rather than an emotion. It means to will the good for another, as Luke’s own exegesis immediately makes clear: ‘act well (kalōs) toward those who hate you’. The radical nature of this command remains as fresh and paradoxical as when it was first uttered (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 108).
The Greek word kalōs holds a key here. William Barclay writes: “We may best of all see the meaning of kalos, if we contrast it with agathos which is the common Greek word for ‘good’. Agathos is that which is practically and morally good; kalos is not only that which is practically and morally good, but that which is also aesthetically good, which is lovely and pleasing to the eye. …. When a thing or person is agathos, it or he is good in the moral and practical sense of the term, and in the result of its or his activity; but kalos adds to the idea of goodness the idea of beauty, of loveliness, of graciousness, of winsomeness. Agathos appeals to the moral sense; but kalos appeals also to the eye” (William Barclay, “KALOS: The Word of Winsomeness”, in W. Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1980, 154).
To act in a way that is beautiful rather than ugly is perhaps a good guide to what Jesus is calling us to.
do good to those who hate you etc: Luke goes on to describe the beauty that should characterize the behaviour of the disciple in contrast with the ugly behaviour of the “enemy”: “Jesus calls for the reversal of the universal urge for retaliation. By so doing, he also turns the attitudes of outsiders toward the community (6:22) around. To bless rather than curse not only recalls the deuteronomic pattern of blessings and curses (see Deut 30:1–7), but more pertinently, the fact that Jesus was cursed for being crucified (Gal 3:10, 13; 1 Cor 12:3), and his followers could expect the same, as when ‘their name is cast out as an evil thing’ (6:22). Similarly, they are to ‘pray’ for those who ‘abuse’ (epēreazō) them’. The term has the same sense as oneidizō in 6:22. Matt 5:44 has “pray for those who persecute you” (Ibid).
The real beauty of agapao response is that it manifests the Presence of God. God’s Kingdom is among you! (See 17:21)
Today’s Gospel – Luke 6:27-38 – reminds us of Jesus’ core moral teaching: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you etc”. Are there not, on too many occasions in the life of the Church, examples of egregious violations of that teaching? So how can such a contradiction come to be? In part, it might be due to a misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching. Let’s explore that.
The first thing to note about this teaching of Jesus – as with any of his teachings – is the biblical context. Nothing in the Hebrew Scriptures is written before the Exodus, everything is written after it and in the light of it. Nothing in the Christian Scriptures is written before the New Exodus – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – everything is written after it and in the light of it. At the heart of all Sacred Scripture – Hebrew and Christian – is the twofold revelation: “I am with you” (Exodus 3:12) and “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). The great unfolding salvific event revealed in the Bible is God’s initiative, God’s work and we are invited to participate. Thus, when Moses is told: “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10) – the emphasis is not on Moses but Moses-as-servant-of-God. He is being anointed as God’s instrument. This “command” is actually an invitation to become part of God’s work. And God’s work is the work of liberating love. A lived and living awareness of God and God’s love and God’s presence and God’s intentions are crucial to the outcome.
Just so, when you and I are told, “Love your enemy”, we are being anointed to be God’s instruments in the world. As with Moses and the people of old, a lived and living awareness of God and God’s love and God’s presence and God’s intentions and our privileged part in that, are crucial to the outcome. This “command” of Jesus is an invitation to be part of the liberating love of God. Our loving behaviour – of enemies and others – is an expression not of our will power and moral self-discipline but of divine grace and God’s liberating love. Except for God’s grace, we are incapable of fulfilling the command to love.
Perhaps our forgetfulness of this truth, of the primacy of grace and our unmerited participation in God’s liberating love, is one reason we fail so badly in fulfilling Jesus’ command. The command is actually beyond us as human beings. Forget that it is the work of God and the command to love becomes organized despair. Caught in a despairing bind therefore, we dissemble and rationalize and eventually contradict ourselves by our unloving behaviour. “Love is from God” (1 John 4:7). All love is from God. Love is always liberating. If your experience of love feels like bondage, ask yourself if it is of God. It might in fact be something other than love masquerading as love.
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