Commentary on Luke 6:27-38
For many people, even those who identify themselves as Christians, this may be one of the most difficult passages in the Gospel. It seems to express an idealism that is totally unrealistic and unattainable.
We live today in a world of great violence, of terrorism, of increasing litigation – suing and counter-suing, violence and murder, of vicious vendettas often stirred up in the tabloid press and other media, the horror of terrorist attacks on the innocent. Are these things not to be avenged?
Where do Jesus’ words fit in? It may be worth noting that the passage (in the original – not in today’s reading) begins: “I say this to you who are listening.” In order to understand what Jesus is really saying to us, we have to put aside our prejudices and assumptions and really listen to what he is saying. This passage, in particular, is one where we are likely to react emotionally.
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” We may feel that to follow this teaching is to try something which is totally beyond our capacity, that it would require a tremendous amount of will-power and that it would only encourage those people to behave even worse. In the Old Testament hatred of evildoers is presumed to be the right attitude to have. But Jesus is extending love to the enemy and the persecutor.
This is the core of Jesus’ teaching, which he himself practised. The Golden Rule which is often expressed as “Do not do to others what you would not want them do to you” is expressed here in positive terms.
The first big hurdle is the word “love”. For us it is a very emotional word, implying both affection and intimacy. For us to “love” is often to “be in love with”, to “be attracted to”. But Jesus is not telling us to be in love with our enemies. He is not even telling us to like them. The Greek verb which the gospel uses is agapao (‘agapaw) from which the noun agape (‘agaph) comes. Agape [pronounced ‘ah-gah-pay'] is a special kind of love. It is not the physically-expressed love of lovers nor is it the love of close friends. It is rather an attitude of positive regard towards other people by which I wish for their well-being.
This, in fact, is the love that God has for us. It is a one-sided love in the sense that a return is not expected. God reaches out in infinite love to every single person without exception. God wishes every person to experience that love; God wishes the fullest well-being of every single person. That love of his is often not returned; it is often rejected or ignored.
But it continues unabated, like the father in the story of the prodigal son waiting for his boy to come back. The father continued to love his son even in his lowest moments of debauchery and degradation. It was the same with the people who were nailing Jesus to the cross. He prayed for them, for their being forgiven and that they might come to a realisation of just what they were doing.
In this sense, loving our enemies seems altogether reasonable. And not only not impossible but really the only thing to do.
Who are our “enemies”? First of all, they are not our enemies in the sense that we hate them or want to harm them. In that sense, Christians should have no enemies. Rather, they are people who are hostile to us. They want to harm us, take revenge on us, even destroy us, or whatever.
There are two ways we can deal with such people. We can set out to do more harm to them, to take revenge on them, or try to wipe them out completely. Or we can try and work to turn them round.
Our problem is that we tend to focus too much on ourselves and our own immediate needs and overlook the needs of others. To love as God loves is to focus more on others. We can only do this if we have a strong inner sense of security and self-acceptance. Then we are not too worried about what people say about us or do to us.
And then, too, we can turn our attention much more to the one who is hating or harming. We will begin to ask why do they have to act in this way. What is hurting inside them that drives them to such behaviour? Already we are just by thinking in this way beginning to care for our enemy and beginning to love him or her.
And is not this a much better solution to the problem? To bring peace back into that person’s life and initiate a healing process in them and between them and me.
Jesus is not at all asking us to do something “unnatural”. We do not naturally want to hate or be hated. We want to love and to be loved. We see many parts of the world where – for years – there has been a process of hatred and retaliation in a never-ending spiral of vengeance and loss of life.
The only way to break this cycle is to follow Jesus’ advice. It is not a lose-lose or lose-win situation; it is a win-win situation where everyone benefits.
Perhaps words of the late Mother Teresa are appropriate here:
“Love, to be true, has to hurt. I must be willing to give whatever it takes not to harm other people and, in fact, to do good to them. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no love in me and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.”
To put Jesus’ teaching into effect is not a matter of strengthening our will to do something very difficult but to change our conventional thinking at the deepest level, to see things his way. Once we do that, it becomes much easier.
Jesus’ application of this teaching also has been the subject of much mockery. “To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too.” In a world where macho reigns, this is just too much. Only wimps would follow Jesus’ advice because they are afraid to do anything else.
Schwarzenegger and Stallone know what to do in such cases: mow them down with an automatic machine gun.
Again, it is a question of seeing things from Jesus’, that is, God’s viewpoint. Turning the other cheek, as it is presented here, is not at all an act of weakness. It requires great courage and great inner strength and an awareness that the one who strikes is the one who is really weak. It is easy to lash out at another person by word or act. It is easy to hit back; it is almost an instinctive reaction but it is not the truly human response.
To hit back is to reduce oneself to the same level as one’s attacker and it solves nothing in the long run. Deliberately and calmly not to hit back is to refuse, in Eric Berne’s words, “to play the other person’s game”. It is to break the cycle and change the level of the playing field and move it to a higher level – the level of mutual respect and human dignity.
Jesus set the example when he was struck on the face during his trial. During the whole degradation of the Passion his dignity shines out in contrast to the pathetic posturings of his judges and tormentors. This was the spirit that guided Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King and which is behind all movements devoted to active non-violence.
Jesus sets the principle: “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” You do not want to be hated or struck so you refuse, no matter what happens, to hate or strike another person. “If you love those who love you, what thanks can you expect?” No, we will not react simply in the way others deal with us.
As followers of Christ, we see things in a completely different way and we want to behave differently. We believe that not only do we personally benefit from following Jesus’ way but that others too will benefit and may even come to our point of view.
Finally, Jesus calls us to follow the model of God himself: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” In Matthew’s gospel it is, “Be perfect as…” The meaning is the same: our perfection consists in our empathetic reaching out in compassionate agape to every single person.
And, through us, the compassion of God can then be experienced by people.
We are not to judge or condemn persons (although we may be asked and required to give an objective and discerned evaluation of a person’s behaviour or fitness for some task or position). And we are to forgive. Then we will not be condemned and will in turn receive forgiveness.
The emphasis is on reaching out to others rather than gathering for ourselves, being turned in on our little, insecure selves. “Give, and there will be gifts for you.” Jesus put this graphically when he told us to give not only our cloak to someone asking for it but our tunic as well. Given that the poor in those days only had two garments, that would leave the donor totally naked!
But that is the point: the one filled with the spirit of Christ has nothing to lose, nothing to be ashamed of. Life consists in what we are able to give and not what we can get. “The amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.”
And that, above all, applies to agape. Everyone can give an endless supply of that.