27 “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.
32 “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. 34 If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. 35 Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. 36 Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate.
37 “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return.” (CEB)
Yesterday, in Saint Louis, Missouri, the Special Called Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church opened for a day of worship and prayer. They didn’t get to any business—that part begins today. Yesterday, they spent the hours worshipping and praying together. What they’ll be discussing and voting on today, tomorrow, and Tuesday, are four plans for A Way Forward for the United Methodist Church. The conversation is about one issue: human sexuality. How will we, as United Methodists, move forward?
I have to admit that I don’t know the answer to that question. Depending on how the General Conference votes, we might allow for the ordination of LGBTQ persons or we might not. We might move forward together as one United Methodist Church, or we may move forward on divergent paths by separating from those who think and believe differently from us regarding human sexuality. So you’re aware, the Council of Bishops recommended the One Church Plan, including our bishop, Julius Trimble. They don’t want to see a divided or segregated church. They believe we can move forward together, as one United Methodist Church.
As for me, I hope our bishops are right. I don’t want to see division. I don’t want to see the pointing of fingers and other actions that would inevitably follow a path that leads our church to break apart. I’d rather our church not rename itself The Divided Methodist Church. So, I ask you to pray for General Conference. I ask you to pray for our delegates. And I ask you to pray for yourselves. Ask God for the grace to see you through whatever the General Conference decides for our church.
Yesterday Bishop Gary Mueller said, “One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced as a human being, as a Christian, as a bishop, is to set my desires aside and to seek God’s will. I have a hard time surrendering to God’s purpose. I think it’s because I like what I like. I think it’s because I can dress up whatever I like with fancy-sounding theological words, with eloquence and beauty. And I think it’s because I find myself able to convince myself that what I want is also what God wants. I suspect that many of you can identify with that.”
And I think he’s right. Sometimes, we put our desires, our beliefs, our thoughts, and our ideals into a box and label it with God’s name. We assume that God must be on our side of whatever issue we’re examining in the moment. Prophets throughout Judeo-Christian history have smashed religious ideas that everyone else knew to be true. In Jesus’ day, everyone knew that people who were handicapped, sick, or poor were in that state because God was punishing them for their sin. God is just, and obviously God doesn’t let bad things like that happen to good people. Yet, the prophet Jesus challenged that notion several times (c.f. Luke 13:1-5; John 9).
So, whatever convictions you hold, whatever you believe to be true, we all need to ask God for grace. God’s grace is the only thing that will see us through this process as one body.
It’s probably not without some irony that the Gospel lesson for today is Luke 6:27-36. That’s just what the Revised Common Lectionary provides for the Seventh Sunday after The Epiphany in Year C. I think God must enjoy making real-world events and the lectionary texts collide in potent ways. It happens enough that I’m fairly certain God does it on purpose.
The first words of this text, “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27 CEB) contain a paradox. You see, the word enemy here is ἐχθροὺς, and the root meaning is hate. Jesus tells us, “Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (my trans.).
One thing we need to be careful of when we look at this text is that Jesus is not encouraging a passive response to violence, evil, or abuse. In no way does this text suggest that an abused woman should stay in a relationship with an abusive man and meekly offer her other cheek every time the jerk beats her. We need to keep the context of Jesus’ words in mind.
So, let’s put this in its proper context. Slapping someone on the cheek was a way of mocking them and paying them back for blasphemy. Two instances of this kind of religious retribution come to mind. One was when Kings Jehosephat of Judah and Ahab of Israel were considering military action. First, they consulted the prophets who all said the kings should attack because they would win.
Except for one. Micaiah said that he saw all of Israel scattered like sheep without a shepherd (cf. 1 Kings 22:17). “Then Micaiah said, ‘Listen now to the LORD’s word: I saw the LORD enthroned with all the heavenly forces stationed beside him, at his right and at his left. The LORD said, “Who will persuade Ahab so that he attacks Ramoth-gilead and dies there?” There were many suggestions until one particular spirit approached the LORD and said, “I’ll persuade him.” “How?” the LORD asked. “I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets,” he said. The LORD agreed, “You will succeed in persuading him! Go ahead!” So now, since the LORD has placed a lying spirit in the mouths of every one of these prophets of yours, it is the LORD who has pronounced disaster against you!’ Zedekiah, Chenaanah’s son, approached Micaiah and slapped him on the cheek. ‘Just how did the LORD’s spirit leave me to speak to you?’ he asked.” (1 Kings 22:19-24 CEB).
The prophet Zedekiah slapped Micaiah because, to him, Micaiah blasphemed against the Lord by accusing the entire company of prophets of speaking in the Lord’s name by a lying spirit. These prophets were called by God to speak God’s word, and Micaiah said they’d been infected by a lying spirit so they couldn’t speak God’s word. It was blasphemy. But, as it turned out, it was also the truth.
The other instance is when Jesus stood before the High Priest and answered his questions. “After Jesus spoke, one of the guards standing there slapped Jesus in the face. ‘Is that how you would answer the high priest?’ he asked. Jesus replied, ‘If I speak wrongly, testify about what was wrong. But if I speak correctly, why do you strike me?’” (John 18:22-23 CEB). The Gospel of Matthew records that, when Jesus was mocked by the chief priests and council, they spit in his face and hit him saying, “Prophesy for us, Christ! Who hit you?” (Matthew 26:68 CEB).
So, in this text from the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus told the people in the crowd that when someone strikes them for blasphemy because they believed in the kind of healing and salvation that Jesus offered, or the kind of faithful living that Jesus demanded, they should offer the other cheek and get on with living faithfully. Christians are not to participate in that kind of religious retribution, which is often born of self-righteousness rather than true faithfulness to God.
Jesus does not call us to suffer endless cycles of violence. Rather, Jesus calls us to live faithfully even when others mock us or declare to the world that we’re wrong, that we’re blasphemers, that we’re not holding to religious law and propriety as we ought.
“Love the ones you hate. Do good to those who detest you” (Luke 6:27 my trans.). It’s not only a paradox, but also a challenge that acknowledges there are people whom we—yes, even we wonderful and innocent disciples of Jesus Christ—there are people whom we hate. And there are people who hate us. The challenge of discipleship is to love those we hate, and to do good to those people whom we know—beyond the shadow of a doubt—detest us. That’s. Not. Easy.
That’s why Jesus goes on to say, “If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that. If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, why should you be commended? Even sinners lend to sinners expecting to be paid back in full. Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. If you do, you will have a great reward. You will be acting the way children of the Most High act, for he is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Be compassionate just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:32-36 CEB).
Sometimes loving others is difficult business. Yet, the demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ demand this bigger picture of love, and broader inclusion of those whom we love.
The last verses of this text have to do with judgment verses forgiveness, and it’s really about the way these two disparate things work. These words are as difficult as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:12 where we ask God to forgive us as we forgive others, and the place where Jesus said, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15 CEB). “Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned” (Luke 6:37a CEB) is a tall order to fill because we’re really good at making judgments, whether is unfiltered and voiced or the inner monologue of our minds that we don’t dare speak out loud.
The reason we’re told not to judge is because only God is good (c.f. Luke 18:19). Only God is capable of making right judgments. So, when we live into a religious or social culture based on judgment, the inevitable result is condemnation for everyone and everything. As one scholar put it, “A world bent on justice through judgment fulfills the anonymous maxim “And eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless.” (Allen in Feasting on the Gospels: Luke vol. 1, p. 172). When we live into judgment, we draw lines, define purity, and defend the borders that separate righteousness from sin.
But disciples of Jesus Christ must live into a different reality than that of judgment. When we live into God’s generosity of forgiveness and grace, we can find goodness that overflows. When we remember that we, too, are sinners, yet God has deigned to forgive us and include us in God’s coming dominion, we’re set free from the bondage of judgment. “Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good portion—packed down, firmly shaken, and overflowing—will fall into your lap. The portion you give will determine the portion you receive in return” (Luke 6:37-38 CEB). When God’s people live into the overwhelming abundance of grace and forgiveness, we’ll find that God’s good measure is overflowing in our lap and spilling all over those around us—even those we hate and those who despise us.
Can we live with that?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay