The Gospel for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany (Luke 6:27-38) continues Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain.” It is the parallel to the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew but the two are different in content as well as in location.
The one thing they have pretty much in common is that while a crowd, a multitude even, is around, Jesus speaks his sermon specifically to his disciples — and here especially to the recently chosen Twelve Apostles (Luke has 6:13).
I think of this as a parallel to the perennial approach to evangelism of mainline Protestant and pre-Reformation churches:
- The community gathers as disciples on Sunday morning.
- The pastor preaches and teaches on the assumption that most hearers are already followers of Jesus.
- They aren’t called to a first-time faith commitment.
Visitors are welcome — indeed the congregation eagerly hopes for growth. The more imaginative churches will sometimes actively invite them. (Really. This can happen.)
But the visitors don’t get a special evangelistic message. They hear what disciples are taught, and eventually decide whether they want to join them in following Jesus.
Luke 6:27-38: Not the Law but the Kingdom
When you compare Jesus’ sermon in Luke with Jesus’ sermon in Matthew you find a very interesting difference:
In Matthew 5 these instructions are explicitly reinterpretations of the Law of Moses. The frame is along the lines of “You have heard that it is written… but I say to you…”
In Luke 6 there is no such reference point. Jesus is instead teaching on his own initiative, teaching his radical vision of the Kingdom of God. And he has a lot to say.
Most of it is a radically joyful vision of generosity.
Sure, there are some little bits that chide the disciples for being prone to do no more than anybody else:
- loving those who love us back,
- doing good to those who do us good,
- and lending to those who will have the resources and responsibility to repay us.
But if you forget Matthew and the Law, and cover up verses 32-34, the whole thing rolls out with a kind of giggly joy in blessing everyone no matter what, loving your neighbor without any exceptions.
It’s the kind of rare, absurdly happy Christian virtue that historically you almost only find in St. Francis of Assisi.
It all builds toward Jesus’ exuberant and, you might say, hedonistic argument for generous giving:
and it will be given to you.
A good measure,
will be put into your lap;
for the measure you give
will be the measure you get back.” (Luke 6:38 NRSV)
I think the whole passage is best read in a sort of giddy tone, with Jesus showing the way to the kind of joy most of us never find — the joy in a life poured out in love and self-giving. To me it sounds like good news, but news of a kingdom that is still off in the distance.
That biblical theme of bubbling, boiling joy is, I think, usually muted by the ponderous tone in which we read the words of Jesus.
Let’s get over that.
Radical Humility, Radical Generosity
Jesus tells his disciples to live lives that are radically different from the world — even the world of good people of faith. The life Jesus calls them to — calls us to — is counter to common sense.
For instance he tells them to
Give to everyone who begs from you” (Luke 6:30 NRSV)
When traveling to some parts of the world I’ve been sternly warned not to give to any beggars at all. They come in great numbers and if you give you will be swarmed. It’s just too dangerous.
When I walk or drive down the streets of my own city I may find myself carefully looking away from people with cardboard signs or cups held out. I’ve been told to worry that they’ll use the money for the wrong things. And anyway, It’s just too overwhelming.
Jesus’ radical generosity is challenging.
For another example, Jesus tells us to
… lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35 NRSV)
When I go to the bank for a loan they look hard at me and my papers to be sure as they can be that I will pay back every penny — with interest.
But Jesus isn’t calling me to be a bank. He’s calling me to be a person.
Let’s face it. The text is bracing.
But that vision of radical joy is also really something…
Underneath this very poetic discourse on life in Christ are some hints at principles. Let me briefly note three that I find both challenging and inviting.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31 NRSV)
This is, of course, the Golden Rule. We teach it to children as if it were easy and obvious. But it’s actually pretty hard.
Sometimes the children teach us in their intuitive misapplication that it is much easier to look hard at how others treat us and take it as an invitation to treat them the same way.
Unfortunately that’s the way toward the old “eye for an eye” thing.
It takes some serious pondering to look at a real life situation and reverse the roles: “How would I want to be treated in this situation?”
And of course it takes some Christ-like love to then actually do the answer.
Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37 NRSV)
That one is actually easy, except for in churches, politics, and the internet.
How hard it is not to condemn another — which is what we usually mean by “judging.” But really, offering approval is also a judgment.
What if we offered neither condemnation nor approval but simply loved people?
Personally I suspect that, especially in our churches, when we find ourselves condemning another the wise route is to take it as God’s call to our own repentance. There is something of the same sin within me or I would not have recognized it and hated it in another.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36 NRSV)
This is another place where the comparison to Matthew is illuminating.
Here’s Matthew’s version from the Sermon on the Mount:
Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48 NRSV)
Note the subtle difference.
With Matthew you have to wrestle with what “perfection” means, and whether it is possible, and so forth.
With Luke you just have to look at God’s mercy. Then do it.
Like look at your life, and see the daily ways, tiny and enormous, that God has been merciful to you.
Then you just go do that mercy thing toward other people.
That call to imitate God’s mercy lies behind the Golden Rule.
That call to imitate God’s mercy lies behind the call to be radically generous.
That call to imitate God’s mercy lies behind the call to not judge.
As we say in the Jesus Prayer,
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.
And as Jesus said to the one who identified the true neighbor as the Samaritan who showed mercy,
Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:37 NRSV)
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