Be Merciful as God is Merciful

Sermon on Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 37:41-42  But the deliverance of the righteous comes from [God]; [God] is their stronghold in time of trouble. [God] will help them and rescue them; [God] will rescue them from the wicked and deliver them, because they seek refuge in [God].

Introduction

Being told to “love your enemies” is easier said than done. The command is muddled by how we define “enemy” in a way that leans toward those *we* don’t like. It’s definitely hard to override disdain with feelings of love; when we don’t like someone, we just don’t like someone. Enemies also aren’t the people who we can’t forgive because they hurt us once in some way. That’s a real feeling and one I understand very well. Yet, it has its own category. Still, that person is not an enemy, no matter how angry you (still) are.

Who is the enemy?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines “enemy” in his text, The Cost of Discipleship, writing on Matthew 5:43-48:

“By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, who forgive us nothing when we forgive them all, who requite our love with hatred and our service with derision…”[1]

Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in 1937, was already a target of Hitler’s personal aggression. Two days after Hitler took office on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer aired a public radio broadcast in which he offered criticism of the Führer (without naming him directly); this broadcast was cut off before it was finished.[2] The text quoted above came to Bonhoeffer in response to his contemplation of the Sermon on the Mount and how it impacted the believer in terms of Christian-life formation related to “what it means to follow Jesus Christ.”[3] As the church struggled to find it’s voice under the tyranny of Hitler, Bonhoeffer sought to articulate something into the void. For Bonhoeffer he himself in specific and Christians in general were at a “fork in the road.”[4] He and other pastors were under great pressure to capitulate to the oppressive demands and threats of the NSDAP[5] who was strangling and starving all resistance.

All that to say: Bonhoeffer, even with his privilege, wasn’t writing about enemy-love from a secluded and safe distance. He wasn’t instructing people who were fighting for their lives while he grew fat from luxury and comfort. He was in the thick of it, guiding others into it, and teaching those younger about this radical conception of love even for those who are threatening your life and survival.

“Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it. And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love? Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy? Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies.”[6]

Cost of Discipleship

Who loves the one who bullies them? Who loves the ones who are bent on violence and destruction and death? Who loves those enlisted in this service of a fascist dictator in the Sturmabteilung (SA)[7] and the Schutzstaffel (SS)?[8] But yet—in the face of fear, terror, threat, and very real death—this is what Bonhoeffer was asking from all who would listen to the exhortation of Christ.

Luke 6:27-38

“But to you all I say to those who are listening: Love your enemies, in the same way act toward those who hate you, bless those who are cursing you, offer prayer concerning those who are reviling you. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, present also the other; and from the one who removes your cloak, do not hinder the tunic also. Give to all who are asking you, and from the one who removes things form you do not demand [them] back. And according to the manner you wish people do to you, you do to them likewise. [9]

Luke 6:27-31

When Jesus exhorts “those who are listening” to do what seems like the impossible, he is elevating the call to righteousness.[10] While you might have believed x, or thought y, I say….[11] (Something utterly new.) Whatever was assumed, is no longer. Jesus begins by calling attention to an alteration, specifically about “enemies.”

For Jesus, and especially for those who follow him, Love—divine love—is more than a feeling; it’s an action.[12] And not a passive action, but a proactive one; love empowers us to love in radical ways, even to love those who hate us.[13] Love, for Jesus, is done toward others (those least deserving and most in need) in such a way that it reflects what you would want done to your own body and person. In the love-economy of the reign of God: love loves, no matter the status of the other person. [14] In the love-economy of the reign of God not even enemies are the categorical other; for this new community of Christ—the ones who follow after Jesus in person (flesh and bone)[15] and then later by the power of the Holy Spirit—there are only porous boundaries. It is this very community who refuses to declare definitively that another or an other is an “enemy”, undeserving of love, kindness, mercy.[16] Jesus exhorts all those who are listening to love especially the “enemy.” [17]

The reason for the exhortation is embedded in the second half of the text, “And your wages  will be many, and you will be children of the highest, because God is gentle on behalf of the ungrateful and wicked people,” (6:35). In other words, love is about mercy, and God is merciful—abundantly merciful. So, as God is merciful and kind,[18] so too are those who follow Jesus, God of very God.[19] The basis of the ethical posture of this new community: do as God does because God’s nature made manifest in God’s Christ is the starting point for any and all discussions of “Christian” ethics.[20] And this Jesus will allow love to cover over and define every space and distance between him and the other so that he can declare that other as beloved even when we’d say otherwise.

Conclusion

In the encounter with God in the event of faith the believer is tossed about and placed in the world in a way that is right-side-up even if it feels completely up-side-down. It is in this new life in God, fueled by the receipt of divine love, and from the magnitude of mercy we proceed (like being (re)born) into the world bearing the image of God in our features and new genetic code marked by love.[21] Because we have been recreated through faith, through our encounter with God in the event of faith, this puts a pause (even if momentary) on our desire to judge others by their actions. We are asked to think of what we would want from someone when we were acting in such a way; thus, we cannot determine who is and who is not to receive our mercy and grace if God does not withhold either from us.[22] If we so desire grace and mercy; are we also able to grant such things to others?

Loving the enemy feels impossible if it means I must hug and kiss and “love-on” the one who is hurting me, wounding me, being violent toward me. It’s just another violent Christian doctrine if it means I must lose myself to become a vacuous vehicle for abuse—this actually isn’t love because love is not vacuous existence lacking self, but active participation in the activity of love.

But maybe I’m radical enough to think it’s possible: because with God all things are possible. If we walk in love because we’re born of Love, then where we are there that space is filled with love. If God is with us, so too is God’s love. It does not mean I now think this enemy is just great, but it may mean I see them with God’s eyes. Maybe, I see a human, stuck in a misconception of the world detrimental to others and to themselves. I might see one who was a mere baby, held tightly by loving arms of a mother; I might even cry for sadness of the pain that caused this one to be as they are right now.

I know by standing in love and stepping forward in love, love goes with me. I do know that—like tiles being flipped over from the side of “not-love” to the side of “love”—the space and distance between me and my enemy is overhauled from not-love to love. (I do not even need to be physically close to my enemy to alter the space between us.) I know that by dropping the term “enemy”, I’ve already lost one; I know that by declaring “beloved” this one is now not my enemy. There is power in words. So, what happens when we use our words to alter the space and distance between us and our enemies? Would we not want that for ourselves? Would we not want someone else to see us as “beloved” and not as “enemy”? When we allow love to redefine our space and distance and location, then anything is really possible because love will always crack open what is to make room for possibility to blossom.

Beloved, you’re loved by God; mercy is new every morning. This divine love and mercy, forever altering the space between God and humanity bent on their own determinations and judgments and gains, is the very love that is glorified among those very children of God at their worst and best. God’s love is most exalted when it does what it loves to do: bringing God’s life and light to the farthest corners of the cosmos, overhauling death to make room for life, declaring beloved those whom were once called “enemy.”


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship New York, NY: Macmillan, 1959. 164. Emphasis, mine

[2] Christiane Tietz Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Tran s Victoria J. Barnett. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2016. 36.

[3] Tietz, Resistance, 60.

[4] Tietz, Resistance, 63.

[5] Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; The National Socialist German Worker’s Party.

[6] Bonhoeffer Discipleship 164. Emphasis, mine.

[7] Trans: Storm Division; the original para-military force of the Nazi’s.

[8] Trans: Armed Military/”Protection Squad”

[9] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[10] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 94 “The Sermon on the Plain now turns to those who are ready to accept Jesus’ call to a greater righteousness, and is therefore introduced with the words, “But I say to you that listen.” This may also be read as a further explanation of the last beatitude and its parallel woe, which have to do with the hatred of others toward the disciples.” See also: Joel Green (bibliographic material below): “A new beginning in Jesus’ sermon is marked by his words, ‘But I say to you that listen. …’ This should not blind us to the intimate relationship of this section of the address to what has preceded…” 269.

[11] Green Luke 272. “…he is asking people to accept an inversion of the world order, to agree with him that the world order has been inverted, and to act accordingly.”

[12] Gonzalez Luke 94. “Significantly, when one compares this section in Luke to its parallel in Matthew, it is clear that Luke emphasizes the use of possessions, and that he wants to make clear that Christian love is not just a sentiment or a feeling, but also an attitude leading to concrete action: “do good to those who hate you.’”

[13] Green Luke 272. “Love is expressed in doing good – that is, not by passivity in the face of opposition but in proactivity: doing good blessing, praying, and offering the second cheek and the shirt along with the coat.”

[14] Green Luke 272. “The category of “enemies” may include others, however, and not only those who deliberately oppose Jesus’ followers. Because the beggar is habitually defined as outside the circles of companionship of all but other beggars, they would not be classed as “friends” but as “enemies,” outsiders. Love is due them as well, as though they were comrades and kin, and in their case love is expressed in giving.”

[15] Green Luke 271-272. “Jesus’ sermon, then, serves an interpretive function for the narrative as it has developed thus far, casting in positive and constructive terms the worldview and concomitant practices Jesus’ message portends. It is also challenging, summoning its audience(s) to adopt this alterative view of the world and so to measure its practices by its canons.”

[16] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 270. “One corollary of Jesus’ message, then, is the construction of a boundary, the delineation of behavior characteristic of those within the community. This is an important observation, since one of the distinguishing marks of his ethic is a worldview that advocates love of enemies. But as a practice, it would appear that love of enemies is designed to mitigate social tensions that, if habitual, would jeopardize the identity of any group. How can this community be distinguished by a practice that dissolves any such distinctions? …in essence, Jesus calls on his followers. To form а community the boundaries of which are porous and whose primary emblematic behavior is its refusal to treat others (even, or especially, those who hate, exclude, revile, and defame you) as though they were enemies.”

[17] Green Luke 272. “Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” lack any commonly held ethical base and can only be understood as an admonition to conduct inspired by God’s own graciousness (W 350-36). This is not love for all humanity in general, but more specifically for those who stand in opposition to Jesus’ followers – those whom Luke has already noted in narration (5:27-6:11) and about whom Jesus has already spoken (vv 22-23).”

[18] Green Luke 271. “…in redefining the world for his followers, potential and actual, Jesus posits as its foundation his image of God as merciful Father (6:36) – a base on which he can draft the character of his followers, character that will manifest itself in the demeanor and practices here described.”

[19] Gonzalez Luke 94. This is parallel to Matthew’s ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. S:48). While Matthew’s words have often been taken out of context as the basis for a theological claim about God’s ontological perfection, Luke’s leave no room for such an interpretation. The divine perfection that the disciples are to imitate is the perfection of an all-embracing mercy

[20][20] Gonzalez Luke 94. “Furthermore, even though we often tend to think that the basis for the Christian ethics of love is the Golden Rule, in the final analysis the basis for Christian ethics is the very nature and action of God.”

[21] Green Luke 273. “…he incorporates into one utterance the character of this new people and the practices it engenders; theirs will be a countercultural existence indeed for their lives are based on an inverted understanding of their social world.”

[22] Green Luke 275. “Just as the merciful God does not predetermine who will or will not be the recipients of his kindness, so Jesus’ followers must refuse to “judge” – that is, to prejudge, to predetermine who might be the recipients of their graciousness. This is nothing but the command to love one’s enemies restated negatively. In an important sense, Jesus’ instructions are to refuse to act as those scribes and Pharisees had done in 5:27-32, as they calculated beforehand the status of those toll collectors and sinners and thereby excluded them from their circles of social interaction. …Jesus’ followers give freely, without dragging others and especially those in need into the quagmire of never-ending cycles of repayment and liability. And God will lavishly repay them.”

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