Luke 6:27-36, A New Kind of Reaction

[April 28, 2013] Today’s passage began with beatitudes and woes in verses 20-26. Jesus said that the poor, the hungry and the weeping who become His disciples are blessed even when human beings hate and ostracize and insult them and scorn their name as evil for His sake. But even if you are rich and well-fed and all human beings speak well of you, there is only woe for you because you have not become His disciples (you choose these things instead). This statement corresponds to the commission Jesus announced as His own in 4:18-19. When the Holy Spirit came upon Him at His baptism, She remained on Him as an anointing, giving Him power to tell the Gospel (euangelizō) to the poor, to proclaim (or give notice of: kērrusō) release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to send forth released (apostellō aphesis) those who are oppressed. The poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed in 4:18 correspond to the poor, the hungry and the weeping in 6:20-21. Side by side they bracket and thus interpret the work that Jesus did in Capernaum and during His circuit of Galilee between 4:31 and 6:11. Together they launch Jesus’ apostolate (His mission) that unfolds in the remainder of the Gospel, and the apostolate of His disciples—once they receive His anointing on Pentecost—that unfolds in the Acts of the Apostles.

Jesus does not expect that people will react well to His work. They react well to the work of false prophets. In 6:26 Jesus said, “Woe to you when all human beings speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets in the same way.” But His disciples can expect to be hated, ostracized, insulted and scorned for His sake (the sake of the Son of Man). This in fact is how He has been treated from the beginning. In Nazareth they were filled with rage and drove Him out to the brow of the hill on which their village was built and attempted to throw Him down the cliff (4:28-29). When He goes to Capernaum, a man in the synagogue accuses Jesus of coming to destroy them. It turns out that he was demonized and the demon, recognizing Him, was terrified that He had come to rout them and destroy their work. The Pharisees and their scribes began to think He was blasphemous in 5:21 and in 5:30 they were grumbling about with whom He was dining. Then in 6:2 they accused Him of violating the Sabbath (though He was not), in 6:7 they “were watching Him closely … so that they might find reason to accuse Him,” and in 6:11 they were “filled with rage, and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.”

The Believer’s Reaction (Luke 6:27-31)

There is naturally a question about how Jesus reacted and is going to react to this opposition, and how His disciples ought to react to the bad treatment that they can expect to receive. Jesus frames His answer in verse 27 and 35 with the words, “Love your enemies!” Corresponding to the four ways in which you will be treated–you will be hated, ostracized, insulted and your name will be scorned—Jesus gives four ways that they are to react: you are to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” Jesus follows this with four commands in terms of giving to those who take—whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him as well; give to everyone who asks of you; and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back—which He summarizes with the “Golden Rule” (an eighteenth century label): treat others the same way you want them to treat you.

Paul continually reiterates this command to the new churches (see especially Romans 12:14-21).

The Reward (6:32-35a)

In verses 32-35 Jesus gives a threefold admonition when He says that there is no grace to you (hymin charis estin)—from God—if you only love those who love you, and do good only to those who do good to you, and lend only to those from whom you expect to receive: sinners do the same. Instead, love your enemies, and do good and lend without expecting anything in return. Then your reward will be great. Grace is a thanks or favor from someone (here the implied someone is God). It has the overtone of reward, the word that is used in Matthew 5:46 (“if you love those who love you, what reward to you have?”). Why did Luke use the word grace instead of reward? It has the sense of something gratuitous. Though God “rewards” us, it is really His favor, for we are only doing what we are obliged to, it is what we owe. Or another way to look at it—depending on how one interprets the dative in this instance—is how Robert Young translates the phrase: “what grace do you have?” If you only love those who love you, etc., what evidence is there that you have God’s favor? You are only doing what you are able to do without God’s grace (if proves nothing)—so there is no reward for you.

The reward of verse 23 (when you are hated, ostracize, insulted and your name is scorned, “be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in the heaven”) might depend on the disciple’s reaction as spelled out in verses 27-36. The word for reward (misthos) literally means payment or wages for work done, though both in the Septuagint and in the Greek world it was applied to moral and ethical conduct as its “reward.”

Heaven is the realm of the unseen, that reality of the created realm that is in more immediate proximity to God, the realm of the angels. That your reward is in heaven implies that the cause and effect, the work and the wages, are played out between earth and heaven: while the work is done in on earth, the wages are stored up (kept and saved) in the heaven; while the cause is in the realm of the seen, the effect is in the realm of the unseen.

What is the reward is concealed in the word “blessèd” in verses 20-23. The word describes the blessedness of Jesus Himself. Jesus, “for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). The joy set before Him was the glory of His resurrection (John’s gospel), which was the deification or divinization of His humanity. His Person is divine and so the divine nature was always His, but when He took on our human nature, His human nature concealed His divine nature, until His resurrection. He “emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7), restraining His human nature so that it did not share the perfections of His divine nature until He had submitted His human nature to the judgment of God on the cross. So His “reward” is the full sharing of His human nature in the perfections of His divine nature. For us the reward is the same. The divine nature is not ours but by grace we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

I think our reward also is our participation in creation itself—not just our humanity but the whole of creation—when it is divinized.

The reward may also be our “inheritance.” Our inheritance is not simply the gift of eternal life (which in this sense is only its promise by the sealing of the Holy Spirit within us) but the joy of eternal life, the enjoyment of its richness. When Jesus says, “yours is the kingdom of God” and “you shall be satisfied” and “you shall laugh,” this is to what He is referring. There is no promise of this kind of consequence in the visible unfolding of this life. But in the hereafter (in the resurrection) it will be there as God’s purpose for the creation works out, and inwardly there is a taste of it now. An unfaithful disciple (or believer) can miss this enjoyment for a time (even for a long duration), though they still have the gift of eternal life (which stays with them as a promise of that for which they will eventually be made ready, though they must now wait for it with bitter regrets).

The Reason Why (6:35bc)

When you love your enemies, and do good and lend without expecting anything in return, “you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil people. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Why should we love our enemies? Why is this kind of reaction rewarded? It is because when we do this, we become like the Most High God (see Luke 1:32 where Jesus is called “the Son of the Most High”); we become like our Father (this is the first time Jesus uses this expression, “your Father,” for only the children of the Most High—those born of God—can act like this). Though Luke does not teach the doctrine of our divine birth per se, he does teach that the disciples, by virtue of their relationship to Jesus, share in His relation to His Father. The summary command is to be merciful as our Father is merciful: to love our enemies, and to do good and lend without expecting anything in return, is to be merciful. As children of the Most High it is natural for us to act like our Father from whom we derive our nature. When we do act like our Father, we are showing some maturation in who we are. We are growing up. Therefore Jesus uses the word “sons.” Sons are more than children. Children, after all, can be undeveloped infants, that is, their behavior does not yet reveal who their parents are. Sons, however, refer to those who are mature enough to take on adult responsibilities, who are old enough to take on their inheritance (this is the “reward”). Our inheritance is Christ’s inheritance; we are co-heirs with Him (see Galatians 4:6-7 and Romans 8:14-17).

The creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19).

Our Father (the creation’s Most High God) is kind to ungrateful (a-charistous) and evil people, for He is merciful (Exodus 34:6; Deuteronomy 4:31; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). This can be seen especially in YHWH’s treatment of Israel. Mercy in the Old Testament is the compassion of God, the word “compassion” being used mostly of God (thirty-five out of forty-seven times). It is derived from the Hebrew word for womb (they are spelled with the same Hebrew consonants); it is therefore the feeling that a mother has for her children. The Father’s compassion speaks of His natural bond to His creation, though the feeling is at root motherly. Even though people are ungrateful and evil, God still owns them and has compassion for them as His own creation. They breathe with His breath. He sustains them from their conception, moment by moment, and grants them their death. Even though Israel mistreats Him again and again, He cannot renounce them. Neither can God renounce ungrateful and evil people, namely the people who persecute us, who hate, ostracize and insult us and treat our name as evil.

Even though Jesus does not say that we ought to treat our enemies with such love in order to change them, as if our love were strategic, He does say that we ought to do it with the compassion (or mercy) of our Father Who cannot forget them and never gives up on them. In other words, we treat them as the Father’s own (though they are not yet His children), as those whom He loves with the feeling that a mother has for her child. We cannot harm them as if we had a title to do so. They belong to the Most High. Though God is their judge, we cannot treat them as if we had part in that, as if we were judges. We give all judgment to God (see the next few verses in Luke). Instead, we treat them according to the feeling of God, the longing that God has for them. The judgment is impersonal; it is the consequence of the divine nature and human beings’ treatment of it. The compassion of God is personal, and if we are to be sons of the Most High, it is to this that we must conform. God is not personally vindictive to those who despise Him. Rather He is compassionate, and kind, and therefore remarkably patient.

(This seems to me to be an important distinction: the impersonality of divinity, the nature and “what-ness” of God that confronts our acts, versus the Triune personhood of the same, the Who of God, Who encounters us as persons.)

The expression “your Father” tells us the source from which we find the wherewithal to love our enemies. It is only in relation to Jesus, as His disciples, His believers, that we can do this. We cannot do this on our own. He is that “grace” that enables us to do more than sinners can, for apart from such grace we ourselves have no more to give than any other sinners, for such are we also.

Luke’s Sources

Luke artfully crafted this part of Jesus’ sermon from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Luke takes 6:27-31 from Matthew 5:44, 37-42 and 7:12; and he takes 6:32-36 from Matthew 5:46-47, 44-45, and 48.

Commentary

These words of Jesus (here and in Matthew) are among His most well-known, and perhaps least applied. If unbelievers know anything of what Jesus taught, it is usually these words. They have had a profound affect on the world, especially in modern times, from Thoreau, to Tolstoy, to the history of India (Gandhi) to the history of the American Civil Rights movement (King), to the liberation of South Africa from Apartheid. (Interestingly, when it came to nonviolence, it was not Hinduism that most inspired Gandhi—who remained a Hindu—but the words of Jesus.) When the Amish and Hutterites and Mennonites and Quakers have put these words into practice, the world takes notice. Earlier examples still resonate with the world, such as Francis of Assisi. It has also been profoundly noticed by the world when the church does not put these words into practice. It is not Jesus they condemn but the church. When Native American converts to Christianity put into practice these words and were slain by “Christian” European settlers it has been to the white invaders’ everlasting shame. We ignore these words of Jesus to our peril.

In Luke’s gospel, the first sermon that Jesus delivers in chapter 4 concerns Himself and His apostolate. This is the second sermon and it corresponds to the first. Here, however, Jesus describes for the first time and in a comprehensive way what He expects of His disciples. This teaching describes that which ought to be the most characteristic features of the Christian life.

A Christian’s reactions to mistreatment have to be different than that of a non-Christian. It ought to reflect the reactions of Jesus, especially as they led Him to the cross. The issue of the cross is much bigger than this, for it was the working out of God’s will on a cosmic scale, yet it nevertheless was not an isolated event but rather the epitome and conclusion of an entire path. Jesus took upon Himself our penitence, our repentance, and bore our judgment before God as faithful and obedient to God, devoting Himself in absolute love and offering Himself up to the Father as an “intercession” on our behalf, not just on the cross but in His entire human life, signifying this by His baptism. His non-retaliation was part of His accepting God’s judgment upon Himself (for nothing at all happens to us apart from the divine providence). And His love of His enemies was part of His intercession for us. We too live under the judgment of God, and are to do so with the same attitude of repentance that Jesus had (in faithfulness to God, affirming the righteousness of God, and loving God who is righteous); and though we do not bear the judgment of others (though we share it), we too intercede for others with the compassion of God. We are to be in the world as Jesus was. Even though our faithfulness cannot be an atonement for the sins of others, we can nevertheless share in Christ’s intercession for others. The earliest Franciscans considered themselves “penitents” in just this way: the Christian in identification with Christ is a lifelong penitent—and therefore adopts this way of Jesus as her or his own way of life.

The normal reaction to mistreatment is to become angry and to reason about it and then either to fix things (even if it is only the balance of things, i.e., our sense of the fairness and justice) by retaliating or to endure it, that is, to simply suffer it (usually so as to not make things worse). The believer’s reaction is not either of these. It is to transcend the mistreatment. It is not an eye for an eye; but neither is it to let things be: the believer’s reaction is—to speak hyperbolically—to give another eye. This is unreasonable, and that is the point. When I turn the other cheek I am acting as if humiliation before another (or even all others) is not an issue for me. If I give someone my shirt after they have taken my coat, I am acting as if my necessary possessions do not matter. If I give to anyone who asks and I do not demand back what is taken, I am saying the same. This actually is going beyond treating others the way I want them to treat me. It is so unreasonable, it is beyond what I am capable, and that also is the point (see verses 32-34). I am acting as if I am so conscious of being before God that humiliation before human beings is irrelevant. I am acting as if I am so conscious of God as my Provider that what material possessions are left me are irrelevant. This consciousness of the reality of God is the “perfect joy” that Francis of Assisi teaches Brother Leo in the Little Flowers. This kind of consciousness can only be a gift from God. When we are in this position, we can transcend what is reasonable to others and act on a completely different basis.

When I can give what is taken and then give more, I am acting as if I have not been deprived but as if I have an abundance to give. I am acting as if God is generous to me without restraint and that no one can put me at a loss—even if they kill me.

If I have such an awareness of the reality of God in relation to me, I am also free to act on the basis of the compassion that God has for the other; indeed, having such an awareness of the reality of God in relation to me, and in relation to the world, I have no freedom to act otherwise than on the basis of God’s compassion. Knowing that I myself stand under God’s judgment (in solidarity with all others), I must leave God’s judgment of others to God, and I am free to do so (by my awareness of this judgment).

While this “transcendent” behavior sounds like something a Christian might eventually attain to, this commandment is given by Jesus at the beginning; He gives it to new believers. It is something that we all should practice from the beginning of our Christian commitment. Acting this way, putting this into practice, enlarges us, increases our measure, and teaches us to depend on God Who is rich towards us and Who is our Protector and Sustainer and Judge.

Counterfeits

There are two things for which to watch out, two counterfeit behaviors, both of them pathologies: One is to allow an abusive person to abuse you within a relationship. We can add to this the behavior that permits people to take advantage of us. Jesus did not allow Himself to become a rug for people to walk on. He was capable of saying “no” and saying what He wanted and expected. Within a relationship, we enable our abuser by not allowing the abuser to have any consequences for their abuse. A telltale sign of this is when we are acting out of weakness and not strength and we are not acting out of the sense of freedom that comes from our consciousness of the fullness of God’s reality. By allowing a person to be abusive in a relationship we are condemning them to continue their behavior rather than witnessing to them of the compassion of God. We want them to get help, but the first thing we must do is to stop their behavior with respect to ourselves even if it means removing ourselves from the situation. Whether we have been able to stop their behavior or we have had to remove ourselves from our entanglement with them, it is their own responsibility to get the help they need, not ours!

The second pathology is “reaction formation,” a defense mechanism in which we master people’s abuse of us by exaggerating the directly opposite behavior. This seems to describe what Jesus is recommending, but it is actually a very unhealthy and painful counterfeit. It essentially is a mask for what one actually feels. For example, if someone strikes me I am angered and want to hit back. But if I am very afraid of my own feelings of anger and what I might actually do (what I imagine here is subconscious and probably infantile), I then obsessively refuse to be angry and mask my anger by acting the opposite; I become kind instead. The truth is that we do not love our enemy; we hate them, but probably cannot admit this to ourselves. In reality this has nothing to do with what Jesus is talking about.

What Jesus is talking about does not require that we deny our anger but that we become genuinely aware of the reality of God: that we are conscious of living in God’s sight and under His providential care and generosity, and are also conscious both of the divine judgment under which we ourselves stand and of the compassion with which God longs for the other. This transcends our anger, which is different than suppressing or repressing (denying) our anger. The key here, I think, is to become increasingly aware of our anger until it is no longer hiding from us but we can lay it out plainly before God, and to become strong in prayer to God, meditation of God, and the contemplation of God’s presence.

The fruit of proper discipleship should be genuine love and an interior sense of “perfect joy.” The emotional suffering caused by our pathologies is overcome when we straighten out the paths of the Lord (see Luke 3:4).

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