Love Your Enemies Luke 6:27-38
Love your enemies” (v. 27) is a text often given to beginning seminary students as an example of a kind of scripture that may be preached directly off the page. Unlike many biblical passages, it does not require a great deal of decoding. Contextual issues do not significantly affect its message; its syntax and language are fairly clear. Luke’s version is addressed to “the disciples” (v. 20), so applying these words to the lives of contemporary believers seems fair enough. Yes, “love your enemies” is an excellent example of a text that is relatively undemanding exegetically and hermeneutically. A good thing, too, since it is radically demanding in every other way.
It does not help, either, that the structure of Luke’s thought in these twelve verses is so clear and strong. The passage begins with the organizing principle or theme, “love your enemies” (vv. 27-28), gives four applications of the principle (vv. 29-30), shows a restatement of the theme in positive terms (v. 31), then a restatement of the theme in negative terms (vv. 32-34), reinforces the theme (vv. 35-36) and finishes with a kind of symmetrical treatment. It is all very tidy. Preachers with a strong “J” function on their Myers-Briggs inventories will have a field day—or would, if the message itself were a bit more palatable.
The best solution may be the quick plunge. With difficult texts like this one, many preachers find it is best to just jump headlong into the icy waters. At least then we are likely to get the worst over with quickly, and there is always a chance we will find a warm spot or two once we start swimming. By all means, let us start by admitting that loving enemies is an impossible thing to do. Whether the text means for groups of God’s people to love groups of enemies or for individual believers to love individual enemies, makes little difference when it comes to the stringency of the requirement. This is a very demanding text. Perhaps an impossible one. Certainly it is the kind of text that would tempt a preacher to rush right to the “but with God all things are possible” solution. However, that is best delayed, if not avoided. For one thing, those words are not part of this passage.
One possible focus for the sermon, then, lies in this head-on approach to the lesson’s clear, uncompromising theme, “love your enemies.” Why do we find it impossible to love enemies? What would have to change in order for us to be able to do good to those who have spitefully used us? Do we know any people who are able to bless those who curse them? What are they like? Can we imagine ourselves praying for those who abuse us? Once the question of “who is up to this task?” is raised and the congregation is helped to imagine what such a person would be like, then an answer begins to come into view. The answer is God, of course. God is the only person we know who does very well with this. Only God is at all consistent in these areas. Only God, it seems, has much of a track record at loving enemies, doing good to users and blessing cursers. At one level, then, this is a text about the wideness of God’s love. Though disciples are commanded to imitate God’s way of being (vv. 35-36), in two thousand years of practice, we have made little headway on the task. The clearest message of the text and the most hearable one is found in its remarkable description of God’s wildly profligate, indiscriminate love.
A second focus for the sermon follows naturally upon the first: that of the shaping power of God’s love. In the lives of God’s people there is no other formative force like the power of God’s grace and love. Eduard Schweizer likens the believer to a riverbed, “through which flows the water of God’s goodness….Thus the life of God’s goodness seeks to open us...to a life that is carefree and therefore truly caring, not to patronizing ‘Christian love.’”1 Schweizer’s point is a good one. Any “love” that we whomp up on our own is likely to be the sickly kind. The only genuine love we have to offer is a product of the love we have received. Those who have difficulty receiving love need to hear this sermon over and over. It’s impossible to scrape together enough love to support an olive branch for more than a few seconds. The only hope is in being very serious about letting God’s love in. Grace makes us gracious; love makes us loving.
A third approach is suggested by the context of the text. It seems likely given what precedes and follows today’s lesson, that Jesus is speaking to a group of the poor who are oppressed by the wealthy. The ethic he is urging upon them is not passivity, but a kind of action that undermines hostility. If they can bring themselves to act in the way that God acts (as opposed to the way their friends act—vv. 32-24—or the way their oppressors/enemies act) they will effectively counter their enemies’ violence and hostility. “Don’t meet fire with fire,” Jesus seems to be saying. “Don’t be like your oppressors” “Don’t try to use your oppressors’ methods against them.” Instead, the disciples are instructed to aim to be like God. Not only is it good for the soul, Jesus implies, but it is an effective tool in the struggle for liberation.