Luke 6:27-36 (Common English Bible)
Behaving as God’s children
27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.
32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.
Thoughts on the passage:
John Wesley organized the original Methodists into classes and societies that were meant to gather to strengthen each other in the faith. One of the things they would do would be to gather for accountability for as it was put “It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation.” To this end, people were asked to do three things.
“First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced … second, by doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men … finally, by attending upon all the ordinances of God. “
Bishop Rueben Job reduced these to three simple rules: do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. We will be looking at each of these rules to see how they can help us be better disciples of Christ.
Do no harm is a great place to start, but it fails to fully capture the Christian call to action. “Do no harm” removes the danger, but as Martin Luther King said, “true peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” We are not just asked to not do harm, we are also asked by God to do good.
Our text this week comes from Luke’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount. Immediately after saying who is blessed (in Luke it those who are poor and marginalized in this world), Jesus gives the command to “love your enemies.” While there are lots of rules that each of us struggle with individual, it is safe to say that loving your enemies would be a universally challenging rule because almost by definition your enemies are the people you do not love and usually for a very good reason. Yet still, Jesus challenges us to love them.
The Sermon on the Mount in Luke is clearly directed to a dispossessed and powerless group of people. The language is all directed at people who are lacking things. For this audience the enemy is the people who are oppressing, the people who are causing them harm. When faced with such circumstances there are two ways to overcome the powerful, violence and nonviolence, hatred and love. Jesus calls us towards a path of nonviolence and love that is intended to be transformative and to mirror the love that God has for all of us. “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” is how he ends this passage.
The theologian Walter Wink talks about the many ways that turning the other cheek is not merely a passive action of not doing harm to your aggressor, but is instead a positive action meant to challenge the status quo and transform the moment into something more. Each of the examples that Jesus gives can be read in a first century context to have far more meaning than we might place in them today. From those of us who live in a fairly free and open society, the actions described all sound like crimes, but in the brutal and oppressive time of Roman rule in Israel, they were par for the course. A man of privilege and power was entitled to strike someone who was “beneath” them. Those who were in debt to others could be forced to give up even their cloak when demanded as a form of repayment. Roman soldiers were allowed to demand someone to carry their pack for up to one mile without repayment. All of these are reminders of the oppressiveness of the time.
When Jesus talks about turning the other cheek he is advocating what I like to call Jesus Judo. In the first century, you could give a backhand slap with your right hand to a slave (you would never use your left hand). To give an open faced slap however would be seen as a challenge among equals. When treated as an inferior, by turning the other cheek you are claiming your own power. Now the person must back down, since they can no longer humiliate you with a slap because that would actually elevate you to their level. When they go to claim your cloak and you give your shirt as well, your action is not meant as an act of generosity, but instead highlights their greed in taking so much from you that you are left naked. Your actions change the dynamic by forcing the aggressor to confront their own violence in contrast to your love.
There is a story about Archbishop Tutu, an African priest during the time of Apartheid in South Africa. When walking along the sidewalk he reached narrow stretch of the path with mud on either side. A white man approached the same stretch from the other side. “Out of the way, I don’t move for monkeys,” the white man yelled. “Ah, but I do,” Tutu said as he stepped aside. Whether or not the story is true, it is a great example of how we can use the power of love to transform the situation.
Doing good is not merely a quid pro quo response that we give to people who deserve good from us. Doing good is responding with grace and love, even when confronted with evil and violence. Doing good is seeking to transform the world by mirroring the love that God offers us to others. Doing good is not easy.
Doing good is likely to require sacrifice on our part. It can also cause us to ask some uncomfortable questions. Doing good is rooted in Jesus’ command to treat others as we would want to be treated. That means we have to think about our actions and how they would look in return. We have to be aware at times of our own privilege and power and what that means for others.
Doing no harm and doing good both sound simple enough but both of them compel us to act in ways that are counter to so much of our culture. Sadly, for all of its greatness, the United States tends to perpetuate a culture of winners and losers, one that is predicated more on the virtues of our individual successes rather than the goal of a collective success for all of us. God does not want some of us to succeed and others to fail. God does not want us to have clean water in Willmar and the people of Flint to be forced to drink contaminated water. We need to see ourselves as deeply connected to each other.
This week a person came into the church asking for help. There was a fire at the person’s house and so possessions had been lost and the building was no longer safe for people to live in. Now it would be easy to ask questions like “why didn’t you have insurance” or “don’t you have friends who can help.” What Jesus asks us to do is simple, put ourselves in this person’s shoes. If we had lost everything in a fire and did not have insurance to cover it, what would we want, judgement or grace and dignity.
Our second baptismal vow is “do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” If we are going to live into the “I do” we all give to this question, then we need to follow the second simple rule and “Do Good.”
Questions to Ponder:
What does doing good look like you?
Who is someone who exemplifies following this rule to you?
What is the biggest challenge you have to loving your enemies?
Prayer: God, as we seek to follow you in this new year, give us the courage to ask the challenging questions and the strength to follow these simple rules you have us. Help us to take the time to learn about your will for us, and give us the patience as we struggle to follow it. Remind us always of your grace in our walk of discipleship. AMEN