Commentary: Luke 6:27-38 Part 4
These verses are a second segment of the “sermon on the plain” (see 6:17) in the Gospel of Luke. The first segment was the gospel reading for the previous Sunday. All of these verses closely parallel material in the “sermon on the mount” in Matthew’s gospel (Chs. 5-7). The theme in both gospels is the demands and rewards of discipleship in the service of God’s kingdom. The life of discipleship is often surprising and goes beyond the bounds of customary expectations.
In Luke Jesus seems to be addressing his disciples (v. 20), but there are hints of a broader audience of followers that might have been present (vv. 17, 27). Before examining the gospel reading for this Sunday it is important to note the gospel reading for the previous Sunday, which sets the stage for our verses.
Jesus offers beatitudes similar to those of Matthew 5, but more socially concrete and less spiritualized [e.g., “blessed are you who are poor” (Lk 6:20), not “the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3); “blessed are you who are hungry” (Lk 6:21), not “you who hunger and thirst after righteousness” (Mt 5:6)]. These sayings are surprising for they do not name those whom we conventionally think of as blessed. These unconventional dynamics of God’s kingdom are heightened by the inclusion in Luke of a corresponding series of “woes” naming those who are not blessed by God. These are reminiscent of the woe oracles of judgment in Israel’s prophets. The surprising list of those on whom woe is pronounced include all of those among whom we would wish to number ourselves: the rich, the well fed, the laughing, the well regarded (6:24-26). The kingdom of which Jesus preaches has been aptly described as an “upside-down kingdom.” God lifts in blessing those who have been brought low and brings down in judgment those who have been elevated. These are hard words to hear and suggest that the path of discipleship in God’s kingdom is not the path of social convention or customary success.
This pattern of surprising reversals of conventional wisdom continues in the verses for today’s gospel reading. These verses are the further teaching of Jesus on the demands of the kingdom. These demands are difficult and costly, but Jesus suggests that this demanding path also has its rewards. There are three segments in today’s gospel lesson: v. 27-31 the surprising extent of the love God demands; vv. 32-36 the motives for such love; v. 37-38 the reciprocity and reward of love.
Verses 27-31 end with Jesus’ statement of the golden rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (v. 31). Who would disagree with the importance of such a principle to guide our moral lives? The golden rule would surely be among the best known and most affirmed principles of moral behavior even among non-religious segments of our society. But most who would cite the golden rule have forgotten its radical context in these verses. It is easy to think of following this principle among those who also generally try to follow it. But Jesus says disciples of God’s kingdom should practice the love, forgiveness, forbearance, and generosity we would desire for ourselves among those who do not practice such qualities. We are asked to give love, not to the already loving, but to our enemy. We are to be the initiators of love, not the responders to love. We are to bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us. We are to return violence with forbearance and greed with generosity. Of course it is easy to practice the golden rule among those who are also practicing it. But Jesus reminds us that it is not the already loving who most need love. Disciples of God’s kingdom are to be the models.
Verses 32-34 develop this very logic. Even sinners give love and generosity to those who are loving and generous to them. What marks the disciple of God’s kingdom is the ability to go beyond self-interest. V. 35 puts it bluntly; it is loving, doing good, and lending that expects nothing in return that counts in God’s kingdom. It is the opposite of self-interest; it is the ability to sacrifice self-interest. And the reward is not in customary terms of self-interest. The reward is to be counted as children of God. We become those who live life as a part of God’s family, and God as the parent models the behavior expected of the children. God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (v. 35b). This section like the previous one ends with an important principle. “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (v. 36). The principle of the moral life demanded by the kingdom of God is imitatio dei. We are to imitate God. This is different than simply following the rules. Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees did that. It is going beyond rule morality to genuinely loving behavior toward those we are least prone to love. What a tough demand. Can we hear the challenge here to act with love toward those we are prone to hate? Gays and lesbians? Liberals? Conservatives? Pro-life/pro-choice? Tree-huggers? Red-necks? The homeless, the poor, the hungry, the welfare-recipients? If we trot out the stereotypes of those we most despise and least want to spend time doing good for we will probably come close to what Jesus is asking of us in order to be children of God. And Jesus reminds us that this is what God has already done. Maybe this comes uncomfortably close in reminding us that we may not always have been the most lovable ourselves.
In fact, the last section of today’s lesson reminds us that we must refrain from judging and condemning—we must offer forgiveness—precisely because we need such mercy (v. 37). If we can give in love we will receive love in abundantly full measure (v. 38). If we can only judge and condemn we cannot expect but to be judged and condemned ourselves.
The Old Testament lesson for this Sunday is Gen 45:3-11,15. This is the story of Joseph’s forgiveness and reconciliation with his brothers. If there was ever a man with the right to a little retribution and bitterness it would be Joseph. But this was not Joseph’s response, and out of his forgiveness and generosity the whole family of our ancestors in God’s promise were saved. A better story for illustrating the dynamics of the kingdom Jesus preaches in Luke could hardly be found.
There is a danger here, however. The call to live as disciples of God’s kingdom with its difficult demands is not just a morality for saints. Somehow when we think of the demanding path of love to those who have not shown love to us we tend to think of great figures in our tradition. Alongside Joseph we place the martyrs and saints of the church. We think of contemporary figures like Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day. These persons are, of course, great examples, but Jesus does not offer the path of discipleship in God’s kingdom as a path for the exceptional few. It is simply the path laid out for those who have received God’s love and mercy and are now called upon to give that same love and mercy in their daily walk as disciples.