Epiphany 7: 18 February Luke 6:27-38
Last week we had the opening verses of the great block of teaching which Luke took over from Q and which we find in expanded form in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). This week we have a middle section: 6:27-38. The remainder, 6:39-49, will not appear in the lectionary, probably because preference is given to Matthew’s version and so will come next year. Matthew also has his version of what Luke brings in 6:27-38, but has set it within the framework of six so called antitheses (‘You have heard it was said, but I say..’) (5L21-48). Luke’s version is commonly acknowledged as being closer to what Q contained and so closer also to what Jesus was likely to have said. Its challenge is not to be missed.
Notice the way ‘Love your enemies’ comes both in 6:27 and in 6:35. The effect is to make a unit of 6:27-35 by giving it this common theme. Within it we find, to begin with, two sets of four instructions. ‘Love.. do good.. bless.. pray for’ and ‘give (the other cheek).. don’t hold back your tunic.. give (to someone asking).. don’t refuse (the thief).’ These are extraordinary challenges.
The first four subvert the principle of hatred. No human being is to be despised, written off, not even those who are the greatest threat and harm to oneself (or to others). There is no room for hate, not because Jesus is leading people into a fantasy that no danger exists. This is ‘eyes-open’ instruction. People will hate you - don’t hate in response.
The next four instructions itemise some of the ways in which enemies express themselves. They counsel not resisting the violations. They should not be understood as encouraging pretence that these things do not matter or the self deceit that these are not violations. While the instructions may be good strategies for survival in certain circumstances, the focus here not self preservation but attitude towards one’s enemy. The alternative in each instance is to resist, to fight.
These are confronting statements which subvert the norms of human behaviour for many. They are open to some dangers. If they are treated as laws, people will lose the flexibility to respond differently in different situations. They function as ways of uncrusting the hardened ways of hatred and revenge. Taken literally they may be the right way to go in many contexts. Some times they will be inappropriate. This will usually be the case when intervention is necessary to prevent harm to a third person.
These are all couched in terms of danger to oneself. There will also be times when resistance to injustice is the required action, for oneself, for others, even for the perpetrator. These instructions become problematic when people abuse them to avoid making difficult decisions. There are probably some who will be listening to us who have sat on experiences of abuse for years and have helped no one by doing so. They may need to help not to see these as laws. Speaking out about wrongs done to oneself can be just as important as speaking out about wrongs done to others. The nature of these instructions is badly misunderstood when it is made the warrant for a doormat
mentality which asks no questions and swallows everything.
6:31 reiterates the theme of compassion, although much less radically, as it recycles a common maxim of popular ethical teaching of the ancient world. There follow in 6:32-34 three instances of confining goodness to one’s friends. What ‘grace’ or ‘credit’ (Greek: charis), they ask, is there in such behaviour? So the radical call of 6:27 returns in 6:36: love your enemies. The ‘grace’ or ‘reward’ in that is to share the life of God, whose goodness extends to the ungrateful and evil people (enemies!).
We may baulk at the notion of reward here, but perhaps we should not play games about why we make decisions. We want what is best for us. We are always acting in our interests. The bid being made by Jesus is to persuade us that it is in our interests to merge with God’s interest and with others’ interests - to live in love and compassion. Any other choice breaks that unity of common life in which there is room for all and cuts someone out. The great deceit is to persuade ourselves that our interests are best served by not loving, which effectively makes everyone who is not our supporter our enemy.
6:36 is saying, God is love, in its own way. 6:37-38 continues the appeal to self interest. It is worth investing in giving, forgiving, not living judgementally, because the reward is abundance of a different kind. In one sense these verses are a threat and can be read as pointing to God as judge, threatening disaster if the instructions are not followed. This could lead us, however, to miss the positive generosity of the passage, which is appealing to people to be abundant, open, caring, self giving, forgiving (ie. not holding themselves back from others or holding things against them).
Jesus’ life is the best exposition of his teaching: self giving love even in utmost adversity generates life for oneself and for others. It is participation in God’s life. All this is in the context of good news for the poor (6:20). This kind of God and this kind of life really is good news because it leaves no one out of account.