Children of the Future
Luke 6: 27-38
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
February 24, 2019
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Are you kidding? These words are at odds with human nature, at odds with our culture, at odds with life as we know it. It sounds like nonsense to our ears.
OK—we may be faulted for many things, but let us not be accused of running from a text. We are not about to let this text scare us off, especially this one that comes from the very heart of the teachings of Jesus! How do we get a handle on this and make any sense out of it for our real world? (Incidentally, I have to admit my amusement when I hear some people say, “I just live by the sermon on the mount.”)
To help us get a handle on this, I want to begin by saying that this statement about loving your enemies is not a sentiment, but a strategy. Sentiment is largely beyond our control. When someone betrays your confidence, for example, you feel hurt, betrayed, angry. Those feelings are sentiments that you cannot help. When Jesus spoke of loving your enemies, he was not talking about having warm and cozy feelings toward them. Do you imagine he had warm and cozy feelings toward the Roman soldier who was hammering nails into his hands and feet?
The truth is that you cannot help the feelings you have when someone bullies you, walks all over you, and generally does everything possible to make your life miserable. This is not about feelings! When someone wrongs you, you may feel rage and the urge for revenge. You may take pleasure in imagining all kinds of horrible things happening to your enemy. But Jesus in this text is talking about a strategy, not sentiment. He is talking about behavior, not feelings.
He is talking about an ethical strategy that is made prior to the eruption of feelings. Think of it this way: if we were to base our ethical strategy solely on our reaction to the way other people treat us, then we are dependent on other people. Jesus is urging a thoughtful ethical strategy that is not dependent on other people. So this is not sentiment; it is a strategy.
Now let us take this a step further: the strategy he proposes is positive. Retaliation is negative. The ethic of retaliation has become quite popular in recent years, but it should be noted that it goes all the way back to a Babylonian king named Hammurabi, who lived eighteen centuries before Christ! Hammurabi developed a series of laws that dealt with how to treat an enemy. This Code of Hammurabi, as it is called, lies at the very foundation of law. It is the first code of law that sets limits on revenge. The victim could only take revenge in equal measure to the offense. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That came from Hammurabi, and it was a step toward a more civil society.
But Hammurabi’s Code is negative. If society carefully followed that code of equal revenge, it would invite endless escalation of violence or potential violence. It is a tit for tat, blow for blow, measure for measure, pound for pound, quid pro quo, taste-of-one’s-own-medicine, just deserts kind of society. Not many thoughtful people find that kind of ethic appealing.
It is significant, I think, that Jesus gives in this passage a positive form of the ancient “golden rule”: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. In virtually every other instance of the golden rule in antiquity, reaching back into the ancient Semitic culture, the ancient Greek culture, and even back to Confucius, the golden rule is present in its negative form: “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do unto others.” It places the emphasis on what you do NOT do.
Here in this text Jesus is positive. The kind of love he is talking about is not a sentiment based on feelings; it is a positive strategy for a way of treating others in any society. It has nothing to do with liking your enemy. It has everything to do with deliberate action that seeks the good of others. Ethically, this is a much higher level than Hammurabi’s Code, and a far more sustainable and civil way of living than the popular notion of doing unto others BEFORE they do unto you.
OK—now, let us take this one more step and say that this strategy is not only positive, it is expansive. By that I mean that the common ethic of retaliation that shapes so much of our contemporary culture is a narrow ethic. It confines good will only toward those who give good will back to us or from whom we can gain something. On a personal level, it provides a very restricted circle of friends. On a national level, it determines foreign policy based solely on utilitarian grounds: we help only those who help us.
It was on this narrow ethical definition that Jesus showed the deficiency of an ethic that fails to extend beyond those who already do us good: If you love those…if you do good to those…if you lend to those…who reciprocate in kind, what credit is that? Anybody is happy to confine their caring to those who reciprocate!
The expansive ethic Jesus is urging reaches out to do good to the very people who are left out of that narrow circle of tit for tat. And those who practice that expansive ethic, he says, will be what he called children of the Most High. God’s love is not limited to our response to God. If that were the case, would God love you all the time? Would God love our nation all the time? If that were the case, we would never quote John 3:16: For God so loved the world…! The truth is that God loves the world indiscriminately. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Or, as Jesus says in this text, God is even kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
So I appeal to you and to myself to think of those hard words of Jesus, the words that call on us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us and to bless those who curse us and to pray for those who abuse us, not as an appeal to have warm fuzzy feelings toward these people, but as a positive, aggressive way of undermining a culture of retaliation and violence. It has to start somewhere! The alternative is bearing bitter fruit in our time. The way of Jesus is not some absurd, unworkable idealism. It has always worked when it has been faithfully tried. What has not worked is the ethic of retaliation.
Tom Long, a Presbyterian minister, described watching ice skaters at Rockefeller Center in New York City. The music was playing, and as usual the skaters were gliding in time to the music…around and around the rink. But there was one skater who was different. While the crowd went round and round, this fellow skated freely, first one way and the other. He made figure eights and curly-cues. He wove in and out of the other skaters, responding not to the crowd, not even to the taped music blaring over the loudspeakers, but to another song, another pattern, an internal melody. His skating was beautiful, and of all the people on the ice, he was the one who captivated the eyes of all who watched.
Just so, says Jesus, are the children of the Most High, the children of the future. We are called to follow a different melody! We are skating into God’s future…skating figure eights of God’s reign amid the bland ovals of the world’s addiction to retaliation and violence, confident that one day all the world will lift up their heads and dance across the ice to the rhythm of a new song!