*Sermon preached on 04 February 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton. The lesson from Luke has such familiarity it really requires one to slow down in reading the words of Jesus – there is that much to hear. We’ve had a couple of tough weeks as a church, so yeah… I kept it a bit lighter in the opening. -Vinson
Gospel of Luke 6:27-38 (New Revised Standard Version)
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
In some of his favorite verses from what he calls the “Book of Contortions,” a Baptist minister lifts up a long list of supposed scriptures which simply don’t exist – except in non-Biblical literature – and their actual roots. I’ve pulled a few of them.
“God helps those who help themselves.” Hate to tell you but this is from Greek mythology, an Aesop’s fable “Hercules and the Waggoner” written sometime between 620 to 564 BC. It’s about how a man’s wagon got stuck in mud and he prayed for Hercules to help. When Hercules appeared, he said, “Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel.” The moral given was “The gods help them that help themselves.” We probably know it because Benjamin Franklin included it in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it sure wasn’t talking about our God.
“Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be” Shakespeare wrote that in Hamlet, with Polonius giving this advice to Laertes. You’d be amazed at how many sayings comes out of Shakespeare that are mistaken as scripture.
“This too shall pass.” While there are several verses in the Bible reminding us our lives and, indeed, heaven and earth will pass away, such as in Matthew 24:35, it’s actually a misinterpretation of a line from “The Lament of Doer,” an Old English poem. When the poet is fired he recalls how several Germanic mythological figures went through troubled times, and each refrain ends with “that passed away, so may this.”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Does it help to be clean? Sure, but I’d point out that Jesus expressed more concern about the sin in our hearts than the dirt on our hands, if we read Matthew 7:18-23. Even if we think it’s buried among all the rules in Exodus and Leviticus, it originated as an ancient Babylonian and Hebrew proverb, one that would become popular during the Victorian era, in no small part because of John Wesley.
Of course, my personal favorite that isn’t part of this or any other minister’s list, but is what one kinda cranky gentleman would say to me on many a Sunday back in the 1980’s when I arrived at my student ministry church. He’d look at me and say “The Bible says you’re to shave before you come into God’s temple.” Needless to say, I had a beard, pretty much like the one I have now… uh… without all the gray… but as I could not recall such a passage, one Sunday I finally had to admit my Biblical ignorance when asked him where that was written. He said it was when David shaved. Of course, David had just committed murder and adultery and did so as a sign of his repentance, not to fulfill any “thou shalt shave thy facial hair” commandment. That’s when I thought about asking if I should do other things that David had done, like dancing before the Ark and losing his clothes in the process – but I successfully kept my thoughts and tongue to myself, much to Julie’s relief!
WHY I BRING THIS UP
All humor and anecdotes aside, Luke forces us to consider what scriptures actually say as to how we are to behave in relationship to one another – in and outside the fellowship. Luke compels us to hold Jesus’ words in our hands and in our minds, even as he brings to our attention the blunt questions Jesus puts to those who seek after him as to what makes us so different in doing for others as we would have them do unto us.
Now, most scholars consider Luke to have been written somewhere around 65 AD, plus or minus a few years, since Paul was noted as imprisoned during the narrative in Luke’s companion Book of Acts, while Jerusalem had yet to be destroyed by the Romans. Already there were elements of conflict: within the early church as Paul’s letters clearly testify, in the society of which they were a part, in churches not yet cleanly separated from Judaism, and in the early years of being persecuted by Roman authorities. Luke reasonably presupposes situations of conflict will confront the followers of Jesus because of our beliefs, and wisely shares the words of the Lord to equip us in the face of these.
It has been pointed that that in the Hellenistic world in which Jesus lived and Luke wrote, relationships were typically viewed as reciprocal. If one behaved generously towards another, it was with the expectation that at some point in the future, such generosity would be returned. Favors extended were favors expected. Love given was love expected. Kindness shared was kindness expected. It reminds me a bit of when we lived out in a neighborhood of Yokohoma, Japan, when any gift received from a Japanese neighbor meant one had to return a gift of equal or greater value. If it was greater, it might mean they would have to get a more expensive gift in return. If it was lesser, it could be viewed as an insult.
Jesus questions such a way of being in three clear statements amid this passage.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.”
“If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
“If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.”
You see, this would have made sense to those with means, while the Gospel is concerned with those of little or no means, economically, socially, and yes – relationally. That’s why there is that emphatic modifier in the Gospel when Jesus said “BUT…” before going on to describe how the Kingdom of God is different.
There are no strings.
There is no quid pro quo.
There is only being of grace… a new way of being in the world, one in which we imitate God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. It isn’t a whole new thought in God’s word, as evidenced in Hosea chapter 11, where God wrestled with God’s own hurt, before saying:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender. [Hosea 11:8]
Why? In the 9th verse, God says: “for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” God remembered His identity, that He is the Creator and the Creator can do nothing but love His creatures. God cannot be any other way. In Christ, we witness this, in and through the Cross. It isn’t the same as approving of any and all behaviors or anything else, but the knowing who one is as a being — and thus going on to behave without conditions. It is God’s strategy, not a sentiment, one that combats attitude, utterance, and abuse. Unlike the eros kind of romantic love or the philia kind of friendship love, this is agape love – a love which has nothing to do with merit, only the choice of who one is in relationship to others.
And that’s what it comes down to, Jesus is inviting us into living relationally, not transactionally. It is deciding who we are and whose we are, amid a world that can throw a lot at us. It’s to follow Jesus, to reflect God’s gracious love in him… even to the undeserved. Such grace is the only way change will actually happen amid God’s creation. It is the only way to break the cycle of damage, and to lay claim to a different life.
In short, if you want to live in a world that has the qualities of the Kingdom of God, then treat other people in Kingdom-like ways… even with the unlovable. It’s what makes us different, or should. It certainly is what catches attention, to “love (our) enemies, (to) do good to those who hate (us, to) bless those who curse (us, to) pray for those who abuse (us),” or to simply do to others as you would have them do to you in the absence of any anticipated return. Just to do, because of who our being is.
Full disclosure: it’s not necessarily easy. More often it isn’t. It doesn’t mean there aren’t ways in which we have to maintain appropriate healthy boundaries. But, it is claiming who are really are, just as much as God claimed himself in Hosea, because in such hard times – that is as much the challenge, remembering who we are.
I suppose this is why I have found myself at times reminded of a dear friend, a woman who was an elder at a church 30 years ago when I served over in Matthews, and who, years later, was an adopted grandmother to our kids when I took an assignment in Hawaii and there she was! There had been this one Sunday when all the lay folk did the service and Pluma gave a message. It was about when she had stood in one of those miserably long lines at Christmastime. An item needed to be exchanged and there weren’t enough clerks, and things were complicated, and the line just wasn’t moving, and people were stressing because time was slipping away and they had places to go and things to buy.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
It wasn’t just time slipping away, the cheer had been replaced with grumbling, under the breath swear words, and pretty much bah humbug. Pluma found herself getting caught up in the feeling until she remembered who she was, not who the other folk were, and stopped to just think about and pray love only for the woman right in front of her who was all stressed out. The line didn’t move, but after about five minutes of internal prayer, she noticed the woman’s shoulders shifted and she turned around smiling to chat with Pluma, who kept chatting while then focusing her prayer on the person in front of the woman. The line didn’t move but the same thing happened again. Even though over the next almost hour, the line moved very slowly, the entire line changed over 20 minutes to become the spirit of the season, not the spirit of unhappiness. The line wasn’t any faster. Stuff still needed to be done. But relationships had changed, the experience of the day was transformed. A quiet and unspoken gift had been given over and over, without expectation, and yet things changed.
We don’t always run across people who insult us, that left check phrase, nor curse us or abuse us, but we all run across folk who are stressed… folk who’ve lost sight of their better nature… folk who may be distant from God, but certainly are from others… Sometimes it sucks us in, and sometimes that is not a far path. Truth is, we don’t have a clue as to the full nature of others’ lives and whether we are right or wrong or halfway between as to our assumptions, but one thing is true: we are called by Jesus to be different inside and outside, to be something without price.
We may have different means, just as those we come across, but the one currency we can all spend as readily as Monopoly money is our attitude and our prayers, to do good for them… to speak graciously… to pray… to seek that God would change us as much as we would hope God will change them.