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Luke 6:27-38 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 6:27-38. AN END TO RECIPROCITY
It is natural to reciprocate—to help those who help you and hurt those who hurt you. “Do unto others as they do unto you” is simple justice, and has been enshrined in law at least since the Code of Hammurabi (18th Century B.C.), which specified an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
Reciprocity is a natural, commonsense way to order one’s life, and is far more enlightened than the aggressive, selfish approach that many people favor today. “Do unto others as they do unto you” has morphed into “Do unto others before they do to you” and simply “Do unto others!” We live in a world where powerful and wealthy people use power and wealth to accumulate even more power and wealth—with little regard to the effects on other people. As a wealthy rancher is reputed to have said, “All I want is what’s mine—and what adjoins it.” In many circles, such aggressive behavior is not only condoned but is celebrated. In some cases, truly evil people deliberately inflict injury on others for no apparent reason. We can understand the person who would steal something of value. It is more difficult to understand a person who would set fire to a church because of racial hatred or shoot a passerby for a quick thrill.
In such a dog-eat-dog world, reciprocity seems positively enlightened. It does not seek to inflict injury except in cases where injury is deserved. Its goal is fairness. The bad person suffers, and the good person prospers. It is as it should be.
And yet Jesus tells us that reciprocity is not kingdom behavior. Just as God goes beyond justice to mercy, we are to do the same. It is a hard lesson, one that goes against the grain. It is un-natural. We can move beyond justice to mercy, but only through the grace of God.
LUKE 6:27-31. BUT I TELL YOU, LOVE YOUR ENEMIES
27“But I tell you who hear: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. 29To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other; and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also. 30Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask him who takes away your goods to give them back again. 31As you would like people to do to you, do exactly so to them.“
“But I tell you who hear: love your enemies” (v. 27a). Jesus begins this section by saying, “Love your enemies,” and repeats that admonition in verse 35. In between, he gives concrete examples to illustrate what he means. He organizes these in two sets of three examples. In the first set of three, he says:
• “do good to those who hate you” (v. 27b).
• “bless those who curse you” (v. 28a).
• “pray for those who mistreat you” (v. 28b).
In the second set of three, he says:
• “To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer also the other” (v. 29a).
• “and from him who takes away your cloak, don’t withhold your coat also” (v. 29b).
• “Give to everyone who asks you, and don’t ask him who takes away your goods to give them back again” (v. 30). (Some people count this as two examples rather than one.)
These examples are organized for emphasis. By giving two sets of three examples, Jesus establishes a rhythm that captures our attention.
• The behaviors outlined in the first set of three are general in nature: (1) hatred (2) cursing and (3) abuse. These manifest themselves in many different ways.
• The behaviors outlined in the second set of three are quite specific: (1) striking a cheek (2) taking a coat and (3) taking goods.
The specificity of verses 29-30 is further emphasized by the word “you”:
• “You” is plural in verses 27-28 (humin, humas, humon). When Jesus tells us to love, do good, bless, and pray, he is speaking to the crowd.
• “You” is singular (se, sou) in verses 29-30. When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to give to everyone who begs from us, he is speaking to us individually. His finger is pointing directly at you (singular) or me. The charge is specific not only in the actions involved but in the persons addressed.
• “You” in the Golden Rule (v. 31) becomes plural again.
Only the most literal-minded person could read these six examples without understanding that they could have been a thousand examples—or ten thousand. The principle is “Love your enemies,” and we understand almost instinctively that we must apply that principle creatively and faithfully in relationship to our enemies.
The examples which Jesus provides to illustrate the word “love” are not directed at feelings but at actions. Jesus calls us to love (Greek: agape), but that does not mean that we must have warm and fuzzy feelings for those who mistreat us. Instead, we are to act in ways calculated to benefit the other person—to make that person’s welfare our concern.
With the principle of love and the six examples, Jesus clearly establishes that we, as his disciples, are not to allow people of lesser principles to set the agenda. We are not to wait to see what the other person will do before we decide what we will do. Nor are we to be trapped in a vicious cycle that someone else starts. Instead, we are to seize the initiative by loving, doing good, blessing and praying. These behaviors might seem weak in the face of hatred and violence, but Jesus transforms them. He demonstrates at the cross how powerful they can be. On the cross, he did not curse his enemies, but prayed for their forgiveness. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other disciples have proven the power of love through the centuries. Love wins! It overcomes the world!
Jesus then anchors this section with the command, “As you would like people to do to you, do exactly so to them” (v. 31). We know this as the Golden Rule. This rule had often been stated in negative form. Philo said, “What you hate to suffer, do not do to anyone else.” The Stoics said, “What you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not do to any other” (Barclay, 77). Jesus’ positive statement of this rule expands its application considerably. We are not only to avoid behavior that we would not want to experience, but are to practice behavior that we would want to experience. This is much more pro-active and dynamic.
LUKE 6:32-34. EVEN SINNERS LOVE THOSE WHO LOVE THEM
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive back as much.”
Jesus again uses three examples: (1) “If you love those…” (2) “If you do good to those….” (3)“If you lend to those….”
In verses 28-36, Jesus has shown us how to respond to people who misuse us. Now he speaks of people who treat us well. He does not deny us the right to give good for good, but denies us special credit for doing so. Giving good for good is simply reciprocity, and reciprocity is not kingdom behavior. Even people who do not follow Christ give good for good. As Christ’s disciples, we are to give good whether we have received good or bad. We are not to be motivated by debts that we owe other people or that they owe us. Jesus calls for an end to such calculation. We are to break the cycle of calculation by giving good—period!
LUKE 6:35-36. BE MERCIFUL, JUST AS YOUR FATHER IS ALSO MERCIFUL
35“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back; and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind toward the unthankful and evil. 36Therefore be merciful, even as your Father is also merciful.”
Here Jesus gives us the theological underpinnings of non-reciprocal behavior. We are to love, to do good, and to act generously, because we “will be children of the Most High.” As children of the Most High, our reward is great, because we are heirs to the kingdom. We get to live under the king’s roof and eat at the king’s table. We get to enter into the king’s presence and to enjoy the king’s protection. We become like the king, and develop regal manners. It is a life of privilege—a blessed life.
LUKE 6:37-38. GIVE, AND IT WILL BE GIVEN TO YOU
37“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Set free, and you will be set free. 38Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you. For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you.”
“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged. Don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned” (v. 37ab). Judging (krinete) has to do with evaluating and forming opinions whether positive or negative. Condemning (katadikazete) is more negative and has to do with pronouncing guilt.
There is a genuine tension here. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus warns of false prophets and says, “By their fruits, you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). As the church, we must address the reality of evil and teach our people to stand up for that which is right. We must teach our children to recognize right and wrong. We must avoid doing evil ourselves. To do these things, we must be able to identify good and evil. This involves making judgments. Living faithfully involves discernment.
Perhaps the behavior that Jesus is proscribing here has to do with a mindset that is quick to pronounce judgments on other people—quick to assume God’s prerogatives. When I was very young and new in ministry, a woman asked me if her father, a gambler, could have gone to heaven. I answered that gambling was incompatible with the Christian life, so I didn’t think so. I shall regret that answer for the rest of my life. It was not my place to set that woman’s father among the goats or the sheep—it is God’s job. My answer brought that woman pain, and it was unnecessary pain. The truth is that I do not know what God did with her father. I now realize that I am guilty of sins more serious than gambling, and hope that the measure I gave that woman will not be the measure that God returns to me.
Perhaps the behavior that Jesus is proscribing has to do with the subtle ways that we discount each other. We write off this person because she is a fundamentalist and that person because he is a Catholic. Whites are quick to label a person an equal opportunity hire, and blacks are quick to label a person a racist. One coworker is a male, chauvinistic pig, and another is sleeping her way to the top. There is scarcely anyone who is safe from our poison if our hearts are full of venom.
“Set free, and you will be set free” (v. 37c). This promise can be understood on two levels. The most obvious meaning is that God will forgive us if we forgive others. However, it is often also true that people find it easier to forgive a person who has a forgiving nature. We need not choose between these two meanings. It seems likely that both are true.
This promise is consistent with the things that Jesus has to say about forgiveness elsewhere in this Gospel (Luke 11:4; 17:3-4; 23:34).
God rewards us for not engaging in such behavior. “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you”(v. 38a). The reward is not only more than we have earned but more than we can manage. Packed tightly, it is too abundant for us to contain. It spills out of our largest container, and runs onto the floor.
“For with the same measure you measure it will be measured back to you” (v. 38b). God will weigh our rewards on the scales which we have used to mete out our own generosity. God will measure us for the kingdom with the yardstick which we used to measure our neighbors.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1953)
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