Sermon Ideas For Luke 6:27-38 Part 5
This scriptural selection can be troubling. An overly literal interpretation of what is being demanded here violates our increasing awareness of the toll that spousal and child abuse exacts by recommending that victims of abuse should turn the other cheek and love those not good to them. For families struggling with a family member who has a problem with alcohol, the notion that the family owes it to the alcoholic to go another mile and to give up goods sacrificially can be destructive of family cohesion and stability. In other words, to understand these verses as prescriptions for human perfection is to assign them a literal content that can harm. On the other hand, not to realize that they express profound truths regarding how God loves the world and how human beings can be impacted by that love is also to mistakenly invest them with only their literal meaning.
They are most profound when they are understood as truths about the nature of God. The reason given for turning the other cheek, giving worldly goods to others instead of lending them, and providing both your cloak and your coat to a bully and a thief is that God does this for creation. If this is the way that God loves God’s created order, what does it mean for human beings?
In a short passage in Vol. 1, Part 2 of his Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich provides a brief but cogent discussion of what the phrase “God is love” means. He defines three types of love as follows. “Love as libido is the movement of the needy toward that which fulfills the need. Love, as philia is the movement of the equal toward union with the equal. Love as eros is the movement of that which is lower in power and meaning to that which is higher.”1 The fourth type of love, agape, he defines at greater length.
Agape is the love that yearns for the fulfillment of the other, not in terms of the self, but in terms of the characteristics of the person who is loved. We catch glimpses of it in human existence, for it is not unusual that people who think very differently from one another can love one another devotedly and wholesomely. For instance, a father who is an artist and views the world as a comprehensive whole learns to support his son’s desire to order that world through the meticulous work required by the concrete and focused world of accountancy. Another example is the mother who treasures security but manages to endorse her daughter’s desire to become an actor, despite the difficulties of maintaining work that pays regularly.
Tillich argues that the phrase “God is love” refers to this sort of love. Agape confirms the other unconditionally, and accepts people with whom a relationship is possible, regardless of their attractiveness, vulgarity, pleasant personality, even temperament, resistance to being loved, or willingness to return the love. This unconditional acceptance signals the unbroken bond between God and God’s creation. Unconditional acceptance is necessary because human beings have finite freedom, and as such are driven to differentiate themselves from their Source. This development of uniqueness means that they are aware they stand apart, and are in some ways separated, though not cut off, from God.
This individualization produces a longing for reunion, and when this reunion takes place, Tillich says that human beings experience it as “bliss.” He defines the fulfillment of life as God’s working toward the bringing together into God’s life all who are separated and disrupted. He understands this as a primary task of the Spiritual Community, the most usual example of which is the church. Although the church cannot legislate that its members love one another, it can work toward abolishing political, social, and economic exploitation that make it impossible for the full humanity of others to be expressed. He cautions that activity of this sort must be undertaken both within the church itself, and on behalf of the wider society.
These scriptures call upon us to “love” our enemies, and go on to describe what that means. Using the definitions that Tillich has provided, it is evident that we are to work toward the fulfillment of the other, not because the other deserves our approbation or help, but because we are so constituted as Christians that we participate with God in agape. To be sure, we can choose to enter into a cycle of hatred, retribution, and rejection of those that have offended, mistreated, or abused us, or we can work to be sure that basic human needs are provided to those who are without shelter and food. It is not love in the sense of agape if those we love benefit us by loving us in return, provide us with equal measure for our generosity, or return borrowed goods adding to them a bit more in gratitude for our graciousness in lending. The work is in extending to those people who do not benefit us, in fact who cause us to miss out on some good, the recognition that they, too, receive God’s mercy, sustenance, and fulfillment.