The voices around Valentine’s Day say that ‘love is everywhere’. It’s a wonderful thought but is it true? Where there is disagreement today, we find hostility, bitterness and anger. Rarely is genuine, thoughtful conversation exploring points of difference welcome. If someone disagrees, they are considered an enemy.
It is not without significance that Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Plain: “But I say to you that hear, love your enemies” (Luke 6:27).
Moses had commanded, love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). In Jesus’ day the Jewish leaders had narrowed the application of neighbor to refer to people with similar religious views; it did not include enemies. But Jesus went further and said that his followers cannot be selective about whom they love.
To love one’s enemies means loving those who oppose, mock or persecute us. It’s a call not to retaliate in kind for that only exacerbates the issue. Rather, we are to pray and do good. This was a real challenge for Jesus’ hearers in Roman occupied Judea; it’s a challenge for us today.
Love distils the essence of Jesus’ ethic. Significantly this love is not simply brotherly love, romantic love, or even natural affection, but rather the kind of love that God practises: a love that chooses to love those unworthy of love – even enemies. The original language uses a rare Greek word, agape.
Jesus explains what agape love looks like: “Pray for those who abuse you; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you”, he says (6:28). Love calls for practical action. The kind of love of which Jesus speaks means praying for the persecutors – even the unjust and violent.
Doing good means being willing to forego personal ‘rights’ – being prepared to be vulnerable and ‘go the extra mile’. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek,” Jesus continues, “offer the other cheek as well” (6:29). The image is of a slap across the face with the back of the hand, a humiliating action. It’s an abuse of power (such as we find in Luke 12:45f; 18:3-5; 23:36f). But, Jesus is saying, true neighbor love is the willingness to forgive and not retaliate, to offer support and even minister to the persecutors. Such love may mean understanding what may lie behind someone’s aggressive anger – it may be a genuine personal injury. Revenge is not on.
A similar point is made with Jesus’ references to cloak or coat (6:29). The illustration here carries the idea of theft. But the response is the same: again, revenge is excluded. Forgiveness and vulnerability are called for when dealing with personal injustice and religious persecution.
Now we need to understand that Jesus is not referring here to governments. One of the tasks of good governments is to protect its people – which may, in extreme circumstances, involve taking up arms. But this is not what Jesus is speaking about here. Luke tells us in 6:20 that while vast crowds are present, Jesus’ words are carefully and deliberately directed to his followers – his people in their personal relationships.
So in verse 30 he tells us that the self-giving nature of the love he is talking about also demands a response of assisting the destitute. The reference to begging is not so much to beggars on the street but to people who are genuinely in need. Love requires unexpected generosity. And he tells us, such love doesn’t expect anything in return.
Now I need to stress that Jesus expects us to act with godly wisdom in the way we express our love in practice. Such are the needs of the world that if we gave to every needy person around us, we ourselves would become destitute and homeless, needing others to provide for us. It’s important we understand that Jesus is laying out principles to frame the attitudes and actions for anyone who says they are a follower of his.
With that he sets out what has become known as ‘the golden rule’: “Do to others as you would have them do to you…” That is, ‘Treat others as you would want them to treat you’ (6:31). Jesus’ words here are positive and pro-active.
They are based on the principle of the Old Testament command in Leviticus 19:18: You must love your neighbor as yourself. In Luke chapter 10 we learn through Jesus’ parable of ‘The Good Samaritan’ what the practice of neighbor love looks like. It means caring for anyone we come across who is in need and whom we have the power to help. Jesus doesn’t expect us to act if we don’t have the resources to do so.
He was laying then the foundation for a new social order that over time has provided a framework for justice tempered by mercy and forgiveness, in marriage and family, in constitutions and laws, protecting the rights of citizens and reversing many evils in society.
Jesus’ definition and practice of the law of love radically reverses the way we relate to one another. And this reversal is grounded in the character of God and his nature of love: “Love your enemies, do good and lend, expect 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” (6:35).
In John Stott’s last book, The Radical Disciple (IVP: 2010, p.40), he referenced a Hindu professor who, ‘identifying one of his students as a Christian, once said, ‘If you Christians lived like Jesus Christ, India would be at your feet tomorrow’’.
A Prayer: Grant us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, so that we who cannot do anything that is good without you, may in your strength be able to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© John G. Mason