How often we encounter the words, The most important person is You!
Early last century the Scottish theologian, James Denney commented: In himself every man and woman is in a sense the most important person in the world and it always needs much grace to see what other people are, and to keep a sense of moral proportion.
What Denney regarded as a problem for men and women is now promoted as a virtue. But that very ‘virtue’ has given rise to a hyper-individualism that has little regard for others. Born out of a narcissism that serves self, it does not augur well for the future of western society.
In both Greek and Roman society reciprocity was an underlying ethic. For example, in his advice to Philocraten (before 70BC), Aristeas wrote, As you wish that no evil should befall you, but to be a partaker of all good things, so you should act on the same principle towards your subjects and offenders.
The motivation in this is negative reciprocity: ‘I will not do to you what I do not want you to do to me.’
But in his Sermon on the Plain Jesus’ words are positive and pro-active: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). This is often called the golden rule. ‘Treat others as you want them to treat you’.
Jesus gives us examples of what his command to love looks like in practice. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” he asked (6:32). “Even sinners love those who love them.” Even people who have no fear of God have a sense of duty to those around them.
Jesus’ followers however, are to surpass this. Three times he speaks of the application of the principle of love – doing good, lending and giving. Each time he asks, ‘What credit is it to you?’ Credit here is the word normally translated grace (charis). Earlier in his Gospel Luke speaks of God’s favor to sinful men and women (1:30; 2:40; 2:52). Sinners is a reference to those who are ‘outside’ the community of God’s people. His triple repetition sharply defines his three points.
The standard the world sets for love is not sufficient. Doing good requires pro-active practical behavior that serves the real needs of even outsiders – not just the needs of those who might reciprocate or repay in kind.
Jesus raises the standard for anyone who would follow him. ‘There is nothing particularly meritorious in looking after people from whom you would normally expect a return,’ he was saying. ‘You are merely doing what the world does.’
And he goes even further: “Do good, lend (or give), expecting nothing in return” (6:35–36). He expects us to do good, lend or give, ‘despairing of no-one’, without expecting anything in return.
WITHOUT EXPECTING ANYTHING IN RETURN?
This does not mean that God doesn’t reward us. It’s important to know this, for rewards are part of life. Without them we can be tempted to become self-focused rather than God-focused and conduct our own self-review, chastising or rewarding ourselves accordingly. Jesus encourages us with his promises of reward. When we live out his expectations He will reward us with the special honour of our being called sons, and daughters, of the Most High.
Jesus uses a metaphor of beneficence that his hearers would have understood. Roman society and the economy were dependent on benefactors who often financed food (corn) for the city, and provided roads and public buildings. Public honors were bestowed for such generosity.
For his provision of cheaper corn, for example, Agathocles of Rhodes was honored: “It is hereby ‘resolved’ by the Council and the People to grant citizenship to Agathocles of Rhodes, upon equal and similar terms, to himself and to his descendants…to the end that all may know that the People understand how to repay with its favours those who are benefactors to it.” (BW Winter, Seek the Welfare of the City: 1994).
In saying that God, the Most High, would bestow honors on all who turn and follow him, Jesus accords his people with the highest honors. He is also saying that those who truly follow him live out qualities of God’s own character – for God is kind to the ungrateful and selfish (6:35). Character, not just a profession of faith, is essential.
With his words, Jesus laid the foundation for a new social order that over time has provided a framework for justice, tempered by mercy and forgiveness in constitutions and laws, protecting the rights of citizens and reversing many evils in society.
‘How much do we really care for and serve the needs of others?’ is the question.
© John G. Mason