We return this morning to our sermon series on Q&A (or questions and answers) with Jesus from the gospel of Luke. In this short passage we’ve just heard, Jesus asks three questions in a row. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?... If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?... If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32-34) All three questions make a similar point. Are we loving, good, and generous only in situations where others have proven themselves loving, good, and generous to us? If so, Jesus says, there’s nothing terribly impressive about that. Quid pro quo, one favor in return for another, you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – much of the world operates this way. Or, in Jesus’ words, “even sinners do the same.” Jesus holds us to a far higher standard, with far more challenging requirements: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:35)
Oh, is that all?
“Love your enemies” is right up there with the most challenging things Jesus asks of his followers, isn’t it? If they are our enemies, then by definition what we’re feeling toward them is probably anything but love, right? And sadly, enemies have been commonplace in every generation of human history. Jesus’ words don’t require translation here. We know what enemies are. One nation or tribal group or gang against another. One racial-ethnic or religious group against another. Sometimes even family members are out to hurt each other. And far too often in many countries, including our own, one ideology or one political party against another. In such a world, tremendous energy is spent battling one’s enemies, trying to defeat them, to humiliate them even … Loving them isn’t often a priority, is it?
But again “if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?” Certainly it’s easier to spend time with those who are kind to us, those we agree with, those who look or sound or dress or worship or vote most like we do, or those who have something to offer us. It’s far more comfortable to give to those who give to us. But Jesus’ question here is convicting: “what credit is that to you?” Even sinners love those who love them, and do good to those who do good to them. Jesus asks far more of us than that. In fact the Greek word used for “credit” here is charis, which we more often translate as “grace.” So perhaps behind Jesus’ question, “what credit is that?” we might also hear the question “how is that being gracious?”
Notice, we’re not asked to cultivate an abstract feeling, but to behave in loving ways, doing good and giving with no expectation of reward. Why? Because that’s precisely what it means to show grace – totally unmerited, undeserved goodness - and the God we worship is all about grace. “Be merciful,” Jesus says, “just as [God] is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Give, without trying to get something in return. Love unselfishly. Show grace to those who show none to you. “Your reward will be great,” says Jesus, “and you will be children of the Most High.”
It’s far easier said than done. But here and there, now and then, we find powerful examples of individuals managing to demonstrate amazing grace, and to show love to their enemies. Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who’d helped rescue an incredible number of Jews, with her family, during World War II, managed years later, with God’s help, to forgive a former guard at the Ravensbrück concentration camp where she had been imprisoned and severely mistreated, along with her sister, and where her sister had died. Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, tells of a woman named Margaret, caught in the violence of Northern Uganda’s war against the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, who later forgave the former rebel who maimed and disfigured her. (The Hole in Our Gospel, pp. 142-143) We occasionally hear stories of abused children forgiving their abusive parents, or of enemies on opposite sides of a war showing tremendous kindness to one another. We shouldn’t expect this kind of forgiveness to be offered by those who’ve been deeply wounded. And certainly the perpetrators have no business requiring it. When it does happen, though, we can bet God is involved, because only God could give someone the grace to show love in the face of hate, or kindness in the face of cruelty. But here and there, now and then, it does happen.
Part of the genius of Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s was King’s recognition that love is actually far more powerful than hate. As he famously observed, “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Other groups fighting for the rights of black Americans at the same time channeled the desire for vengeance, and frankly, that path might have been more understandable to those who’d long been denied any kind of justice. But King consistently preached the power of love and this radical teaching of Jesus, to love one’s enemies.
So historically, we’ve certainly seen Jesus’ teaching in action. But what does it look like for those of us who are not among the great heroes of history?
Well, on a personal note, some of you know that the way I generally plan out my sermons is to take a chunk of time in the summer and outline whole series at once. So this idea of “questions and answers with Jesus,” and even the particular questions, were on my radar screen several months ago. But isn’t it funny how God can still catch us off guard in spite of our best laid plans? I had no idea back in summer of 2016 the kinds of things that would be weighing on my mind and heart in the winter of 2017. I’m not proud of this, but in the last couple of months I’ve found myself harboring plenty of negative thoughts about politicians, for instance, that I disagree with passionately. And then here came our text for this week, and Jesus question, which clearly was directed right at me. “If you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? … Love your enemies… be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Surely there are all kinds of ways to apply these verses today, in our contemporary American context, and it’s always tempting to point to others we feel are missing the boat. But my takeaway this morning cannot be about where someone else is getting it wrong, but should be about God speaking to my own areas of weakness.
We have every right to disagree, as individuals and as groups, to believe what we believe and to speak our minds. But are we consistently speaking and acting in love?
Just as we cannot allow the terrorists to win, by living in fear, we cannot allow the haters to win, by living in hate. There is a better way, a more powerful way, a more Christ-like way.
Are you there yet? I only wish I were. I am convicted by Jesus’ question today because it’s a real struggle, sometimes, to maintain a spirit of grace and love, particularly toward those I feel are not being gracious and loving toward others. But what breakthroughs might be possible if we consistently spoke and acted – even in strong disagreement – from a place of love?
“Love your enemies” and “do good… expecting nothing in return.” Like so much of Jesus’ teaching, it couldn’t be simpler and at the same time, it couldn’t be harder.
But “if [we] love [only] those who love [us], what credit is that to [us]?” How is that showing the grace of God? Let all of us who have ears to hear, hear. Amen.