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It was the Christian writer G.K. Chesterton who pointed out that it was not a coincidence that Jesus said we are to both love our neighbours and love our enemies since they tended to be the same people!
That may be so but that is not what Jesus means in the very challenging passage we are looking at together this morning in Luke 6:27-36.
Jesus has already made it clear to his followers and any would-be disciple, that the one thing they could count on was that they would have enemies, there it is in verse 22: ‘Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.’
The question then is: how are his followers- those who are ‘listening’, (v27)-to deal with it? What stance should they take towards those who are hating them, cursing them and beating up on them? Are they simply to ignore and endure? I guess that could be one response. At least it would be better than following our natural instinct which is to retaliate- giving ‘as good as we get’. But non- violence towards those who are turning on believers simply because they are Christians doesn’t go far enough. It may have been an option for Gandhi, but not for Jesus. No, the members of his kingdom have to go much, much further- they are not to ignore their enemies, but to love them. And what that looks like Jesus tells us in vv27-28:
Those who hate you, you are to treat well (which is what ‘good’ means). They give you a rough time, if you can; you are to give them a pleasant time, doing something which will in some way be of benefit to them. So here love equates with treat well. It is not a feeling it is an action.
As for those who are cursing you, blackening your name, wishing that terrible things would befall you, you are to bless. To bless someone is to speak well of them, presumably to God, which of course is what Jesus did from the cross regarding his crucifiers, ‘Father forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.’ So rather than asking God to bring about misfortune on them (cursing), we are to ask God to bring about good fortune (blessing).
And so it is not surprising that Jesus goes on to tell his disciples how they are to respond to those who are ‘mistreating’ them, literally threatening them, namely, to pray for them. ‘They are using bad words as a weapon to hurt you’, says Jesus, ‘Then you are to put in a good word to God to help them’.
Then Jesus switches in v 29 from the plural ‘you’ and ‘your’ he has been using, to the singular, ‘you’ and ‘your’ in order to emphasise the individual’s responsibility to act in a way which is befitting a follower of his. You see, Jesus won’t allow us to hide behind generalities, leaving such behaviour to some Christians but excusing ourselves, no, Jesus gets close up and personal-vv 29-30’ this is what each individual disciple of his is meant to do.
Offering your other cheek, having had the other one struck, is the opposite of striking your opponent in retaliation (v29). And this is not a slap to the face Jesus is speaking about but a punch to the jaw, which Roman soldiers were adept at doing. Allowing someone to take away your inner garment who has already taken away your outer garment is the opposite of putting up resistance. And giving to ‘everyone’ who asks you for something is different to loaning something with the hope of getting it back.
Now let’s be careful not to make Jesus out to be some dewy eyed idealist not living in the real world. He was living very much in the real world, a world of Roman occupation and religious opposition. Of course, taking what Jesus says literally would mean having penniless, naked Christians wandering around the place. Obviously, Jesus can hardly mean that! We must make room for the use of hyperbole- exaggerated figures of speech- to make a point. But on the other hand we are not to tone down the spiritual demands Jesus is making. Loyalty and love for Christ means being ready to be deprived and abused for Christ if needs be. That’s the point.
And all of this is completely radical and runs counter to our present culture which is becoming increasingly vengeful. Have you noticed that? With the new media it is now possible to access what people have said, however misguided and however out of context, and use it against them in a vengeful way. And so if a politician or some well know personality has said something in the past which is now regarded as ‘politically incorrect’, it will be paraded in public for all to see with no possibility of it being forgiven let alone forgotten. No wonder that people are afraid to say things which might be deemed controversial because who knows how it might be used as a weapon against them in the future? One innocent post on Twitter or Facebook could ruin a promising career. And maybe this has something to do with the increased anxiety levels and mental illness amongst young people today. What a world to live in where every word uttered has the potential to be used by someone to destroy you! That is what we are having to live with.
But at the heart of Christianity is forgiveness: the possibility that what has been said and done can be taken back to some extent- it is called repentance, and then to be restored through forgiveness. So rather than the Christian seeking revenge through whatever means at his disposal- an unkind word, the assassination of someone’s character through gossip pushed out by social media, the Christian will at least hold his tongue or texting and will try to be more in line with what Jesus says so that he will try and find something good to say about the one who has offended them. We are to cultivate forgiving habits.
But you say, ‘I am not sure when to hold off from criticising someone who has been criticising me.’ Well, Jesus gives a simple rule of thumb to help us, it is often called the ‘Golden Rule’, v31, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’
It is important that we see this as a positive command, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ Often, in our minds at least, we turn this into something negative and passive, ‘Don’t do to others what you would not want them do to you.’ And of course such passive righteousness is much easier to handle. We comfort ourselves with the fact that when someone has bad mouthed us we didn’t bad mouth them in return, although we probably did in our minds. If someone acts maliciously towards us, we gain a certain smug self-satisfaction that we have managed to hold back towards them. But that is not what Jesus says. Again what he is expecting from his followers is much more demanding. Would you like someone to treat you kindly? Well, that is what you should do with the one who is giving you a hard time, maybe at work because you are a Christian, making you the butt of all the jokes in the canteen. You treat them as you would want them to treat you even though they are treating you in the way you don’t want to be treated! Do you see?
But there have been and are places in the world where the treatment of Christians is far more severe than name calling and the demand of Jesus remains the same, often with amazing results.
A few weeks ago I mentioned the experience of the Romanian Pastor, Richard Wurmbrand and other underground believers under the oppressive heel of the then communist regime. Let me share with you something else he said which is a point for point carrying out what Jesus is teaching in this passage:
‘We know about the love of Christ toward the Communists by our own love toward them. I have seen Christians in Communist prisons with fifty pounds of chains on their feet, tortured with red-hot iron pokers, in whose throats spoonfuls of salt had been forced, being kept afterward without water, starving, whipped, suffering from cold-and praying with fervour for the Communists. This is humanly inexplicable! It is the love of Christ, which was poured out in our hearts. Later, the Communists who had tortured us were sent to prison, too. Under communism, Communists, and even Communist rulers, are put in prison almost as often as their adversaries. Now the tortured and the torturer were in the same cell. And while the non-Christians showed hatred toward their former inquisitors and beat them, Christians took their defence, even at the risk of being beaten themselves and accused of being accomplices with communism. I have seen Christians give away their last slice of bread (we were given one slice a week) and the medicine that could save their lives to a sick Communist torturer, who was now a fellow prisoner.’ He goes on, ‘A minister who had been horribly beaten was thrown into my cell. He was half-dead, with blood streaming from his face and body. We washed him. Some prisoners cursed the Communists. Groaning, he said, "Please, don't curse them! Keep silent! I wish to pray for them."
There you have it and it is quite extraordinary.
All of this is set in such stark contrast to the way most of the world operates, which is on a ‘tit for tat’ basis, ‘I do you a favour and in return you do me one.’ Vv 32-33, ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.’
Jesus is saying that even those whom most people would consider corrupt, the ‘sinners’, look after their own, of course they do. Even Adolf Hitler showed acts of kindness to other Nazis, that’s no big deal it is perfectly natural. What is more, it is generally expected that a lot of business is conducted according to some kind of patronage system, ‘You scratch my back and I will scratch yours’. ‘You help me out now and I will owe you one’. And usually the debt is picked up at some time or other. In Britain this is the ‘old school tie’ system, if you went to the same posh school it is expected that you would give preference to someone from the same school or same background over someone else from a different background. Of course it is corrupt with people being favoured not because of their talent but their connections. That is the way it goes in the world- v34, ‘If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you (that is what credit do you expect to receive from God)? Even ‘sinners’ lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.’ Jesus is emphatic that Christians are not to engage in that sort of favouritism which, at the end of the day, is little more than enlightened self-interest. It may look like you are being generous to someone, but in reality you are just looking out for number one! This is when you help someone out not because they are needy, but because it puts you in an advantageous position, because they become indebted to you. The Graeco- Roman world was based on this kind of patronage system.
But Jesus isn’t just talking about Christians showing favouritism to other Christians, but to their enemies, those who are giving you a hard time, hating you, threatening you. They are the ones you are to help out and so show real love (v32), costly, generous action which does not advantage you at all. So this is not being nice to someone who is being hard with you in the hope that they will cut you a bit of slack and ease off. No, you do it because it will benefit them full stop.
There is an Indian fable about a beggar who sat every day with his begging bowl as people came by. Sometimes he got money put into the bowl, but more often a little rice was all he could expect. One day he heard that the Maharaja of the whole region was coming on a visit to his town. The next day he positioned himself on the road side well before the boundaries of the town and waited patiently all day. At evening he saw the entourage of the Maharaja arrive and he quickly approached the great man, holding out his bowl with its day’s takings of rice and a penny or two.
The Maharaja took notice of him, as he had hoped, but instead of throwing money into his bowl he asked the beggar to give him something. Very shocked and disgusted, the beggar gave him a reluctant pinch of his own rice, just five grains in fact. That night he went back to his lodging house. In his room he went through his bowl examining his day’s takings. Suddenly he noted something glint in the bowl, and took out – a gold grain; later he found another, and after that another. Soon he had five grains of gold laid out on their own. But after that, no more!
Then the truth dawned on him. The Maharaja had slipped in a gold grain for each rice grain given. ‘What a fool I was! The beggar cried out in exasperation. If I’d known, I’d have given him everything!’
Now that, of course, is a story from the very world of patronage that Jesus is subverting. We are not to give in order to gain- we are just to give and to give to those who seem to be disadvantaging us the most.
Jesus gives the motivation in v 35-36, ‘Then your reward (that is from God) will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful as your Father is merciful.’
One of the biggest objections raised against the Christian faith is this: ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ Do you know what the bigger question is? ‘Why do good things happen to bad people?’ Your read of the Nazi guards at concentration camps like Auschwitz, having committed the most unspeakable atrocities during the day returning to their homes at night, playing with their children, listening to Beethoven, taking their pet dogs for a walk- pictures of pure domesticity. Where did those children, the music, the pets, the homes come from? Ultimately, from God of course. It is called ‘common grace’. Common because it is widespread, but still it is grace- shear, underserved generosity. That is what God is like- showing kindness to ‘the ungrateful and the wicked’. And when we show similar kindnesses to those who are equally underserving that is when we are being most God-like in this respect.
We have a saying: ‘Like Father, like Son’. You can tell who some children belong to not simply by their looks, but by the way they behave and speak. You think to yourself, ‘They sound just like their Father; that is what he would have said.’ Jesus is making a similar point with regards his followers and God.
Jesus refers to God in two ways.
He speaks of him as ‘The Most High’. There is no being or status greater than this. God cannot owe anyone any favours; he can’t be indebted to anyone because he owns everything. And when Christians show the kind of indiscriminate love God shows to everyone on this planet moment by moment, those who owe their very existence to him and who don’t acknowledge it, and, in some cases are plain resentful of the fact, then you are showing you are of the most noble pedigree of all- a son of the Most High.
But then Jesus speaks of God as ‘Father’. Do you know, the only reason you can call God ‘Father’ is because he has been merciful to you. When you didn’t want to know him, he came looking for you and made you his child, cancelling all your debts, overlooking all your sins, saying, ‘You are mine’. And Jesus is saying, ‘When you show such magnanimity and mercy, to those who are abusing you, that is when you are being most like your heavenly Father- and who knows, in so doing may be bringing others to know him as Father too.’
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