When I hear Jesus talking about how we are to respond to people we dislike, our hated enemies and our fear and contempt for those we distrust (Luke 6:27-38), I am reminded of the non-violent activism of Martin Luther King Jr. in the US against racism, and Gandhi’s work in India against colonial imperialism. Both these movements were based on Jesus’ experience of God’s love for those who suffer.
In both Matthew and Luke’s gospel, Jesus asks people who are suffering to refuse to respond with ‘an eye for an eye’, their standard response and instead, to seek a new third way, to see the evil and choose to step into relationship with people who are hurting you. The description provided by Jesus is completely crazy:
Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Luke 6:27-29
However, lets unpack this a bit. This is not about becoming a doormat or a pacifist simply because you are a Christian. Jesus never behaved in this way. Nor is this about collaborating with the oppressor or being inappropriately meek and mild but actively offering informed, intelligent active love as we seek justice in God’s kingdom. There are generally three responses to wickedness:
In Luke’s Gospel 6:27-30, its worth asking why did Jesus use the example of hitting someone’s cheek? I don’t ever remember hitting someone, but I am reliably informed if I use my fist to hit someone and as I’m right-handed, I would hit the other person’s left cheek. To turn the other cheek for another blow would require me to give a back handed slap because in Jesus’ culture, the left hand was only used for unclean tasks. To slap someone’s face with the left hand was an insult. A backhanded slap was only used to rebuke inferiors, by men with their slaves, wives, children; and it was done to Jews by Romans.
Jesus’ listeners would have easily recognised the dehumanizing indignities inflicted by this normal, commonplace violence, and the experience of imperial occupation. By literally turning the other cheek to invite a further blow, the implied message says you have failed to humiliate me, you’d better try again. The one who did the striking would then be forced to calculate the price of a further blow, using the fist which makes them equal in a fight, or a slap which highlights the failure of the punishment. Even if the individual was flogged, the response to the violence becomes a visible act of defiance. No violence has been used by the victim, but the violent one has been pulled up by the unexpected nature of the response.
The same reasoning applies for the forcible removal of your coat. To demand a coat to redeem a debt was commonplace, particularly for the poor. To require repayment of a debt was understandable, but to reduce your debtor to nakedness because they give you their shirt as well was to embarrass the lender. Nakedness was taboo in Judaism. By compounding your nakedness in the face of oppressive debt, you have refused to be humiliated, you have reminded people implicitly of the rules in the Torah governing the respectful redemption of loans and support for the poor; and the act of defiance is clear. The response to violence is active radical expressions of love!
Let us shift now, as Jesus did (Luke 6:32-36), in his teaching from how we as disciples should respond actively to violence and explore how God invites us to give freely in response to the world’s selfishness.
In our world, we give a gift generally for three reasons; as a gift, or in exchange, or for punishment. In other words, in the first example, a rich benefactor gives a gift out of their own wealth to those who are without, to gain praise and indebted thanks. The giving can make the recipient uncomfortable as you wonder what you will need to do to repay the gift and get rid of the debt.
In the second example, the basic relationship is seen as a gift offered and received between equals, whether socially, or as business colleagues, where an exchange occurs for mutual agreed benefits.
In the third example, someone unjustly takes from another, causing the victim to seek retribution. A calculated risk and assessment of the ‘price’ for taking unjustly for it to be worth the theft in the first place.
Gift giving is complicated. We give to those we love, but if our gift is not accepted in the way we hoped or expected, we feel the emotional price on the gift. We may find we cannot keep giving and not counting the cost.
All cultures ritualise gift giving, with rules and expectations; and the acceptance of the gift carries a burden of repayment. Jesus’ discussion about it is extraordinary.
In Jewish law, God was clear with the Israelites about the expectations on one another, how to give generously and to care for those less fortunate. In following God’s direction, giving and receiving incurred obligations with God and one another. We are reminded it is always God who gives liberally without counting the cost in the face of human betrayal and forgetfulness. We need only remember Jesus on the cross.
Jesus reminds his disciples, giving and receiving between disciples based on expected benefits is the same as any other person or society.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. Luke 6:32-34
Instead, Jesus provides a completely radical and unrealistic invitation to his disciples as he tries to crack open this understanding of love.
…love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Luke 6:35
Its an outrageous request from Jesus and one we find impossible to do without God’s help. We don’t forget, we don’t like to be this foolish. Yet we are told, God is so profligate with God’s love and mercy, God gives it away without any strings attached. Those receiving God’s mercy resist evil by sharing God’s mercy with the ungrateful and the wicked without expecting anything in return just as God does (v.35). In this action, a new future is made possible as our enemies are placed in a previously unimaginable relationship with us.
Only God is rich enough in mercy to give love away even to the wicked and ungrateful, without concern for return benefits or gratitude. Christian disciples, receiving God’s superabundant mercy, are both victims and sinners turned benefactors. We are asked to regift God’s mercy to our persecutors. In God’s kingdom, the thief becomes the debtor; the robbed becomes the generous contributor and we can believe this truth without fear or mistrust.
The other night I was refilling a bottle of olive oil, and I misjudged the speed at which I was pouring it from one bottle into the other. I scrambled to stop the oil overflowing and spreading, but there was a mess of oil everywhere. So, when I hear:
Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. Luke 6:38
I rejoice in knowing and relying upon such generosity and kindness and the messiness of God’s abundant love overflowing everywhere. Whichever way we hear what Jesus is describing, there is huge relief in knowing I don’t need to listen to the harsh judgement of others. It is God I hear, knowing the world’s condemnation and unkindness is not reflected in God’s love for me. To know I am forgiven as I seek to forgive as God forgives, to love as God loves, and to be active like Jesus in the way I respond to injustice in the world is now my delight.
The Lord be with you.
Jarvis, C.A., Johnson, E.E., [Eds]. 2014. Feasting on the Gospels. Luke, Volume 1. Westminster John Knox Press, USA.
Wink, W., 2003. Jesus and Nonviolence. A Third Way. Fortress Press Minneapolis.