Commentary on Luke 6:27-38
This reading continues the Sermon on the Level Place which we introduced in the comments on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, Luke 6:17-26.
Three aspects of last week’s exegesis are essential for understanding the passage today. First, the phrase “level place” is a way of speaking about the fractious nature of life in the old age. Second, the teaching of the Sermon has in view the specific life circumstances of the Lukan congregation. Third, the sermon offers guidance in how the congregation can live and witness faithfully in its situation considering the partial presence and final coming of the Realm of God.
In the ancient world, many groups believed that the community was to imitate its leader. The Lukan Jesus draws on this principle when grounding the Sermon theologically in Luke 6:36. The community is to be merciful as God is merciful. Mercy is releasing people and circumstances from recrimination they deserve. Mercy is one of God’s primary qualities (see also Exodus 34:6-7).
The notion of mercy in Luke 6 has an eschatological frame of reference. The world deserves apocalyptic punishment. Instead, God is merciful by offering the possibility of turning away from disobedience and punishment (repentance) and turning towards the movement to the Realm.
Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Level Place show the community how to put eschatological mercy into practice. Luke 6:27-38 does not offer a comprehensive list of ethical maxims for the community but mentions several case studies, focal instances or representative examples of mercy in action in the circumstances besetting Luke’s world. Listeners can then reason their way into how to put the values of the Realm reflected in these imperatives into practice other situations.
Three things happen when the community acts on these directives. First, the witnessing community extends the mercy of God — and the hope of being part of the Realm — to those who otherwise face destructive lives. Second, those who extend mercy (and the Realm) find that their experience of mercy deepens as part of their present, if partial, experience of the Realm. Third, the church models the promise of the Realm for other communities.
Luke 6:27-29 presuppose situations of conflict. Luke perceived many Jewish leaders and many Romans as hateful, even as enemies. Instead of responding to various forms of threat with corresponding recrimination, the Realm calls for attitudes and actions that seek the good of the other, and, hence, that build up the community. Luke’s form of nonviolence in this passage thus goes beyond non-retaliation. The disciples are to take positive steps that promote the welfare of the parties with whom the community is in conflict.
Luke 6:30 presupposes an economic situation in which many people were exploited, lived in poverty, and sought to survive by begging. The instruction to give to those who beg implies that people in the eschatological community have an abundance out of which to share (see Luke 6:39). From Luke’s point of view, systemic economic change will occur only at the second coming.
The “golden rule” of Luke 6:31 has the Realm as the implied reference point. Jesus’ followers are to relate to others according to the perspectives and actions of the Realm. It might be stated this way: “If you want to live in a world that has the qualities of the Realm, then treat other people in Realm-like ways, especially as described in the Sermon on the Level Place.”
A widely accepted idea from the Hellenistic world is in the background of Luke 6:32-34: relationships were viewed as reciprocal. A person behaved generously towards another person in the expectation that in the future, the generosity would be returned. Jesus notes that such relationships are so much a part of life in the level place that even sinners love, do good to, and lend to their friends. If Jesus’ followers relate to others based on nothing more than reciprocity, they simply reinforce the qualities of life in the old age.
Instead, in Luke 6:35, Jesus exhorts the disciples to replace old-age qualities of behavior with those that are characteristic of the Realm. Indeed, in so doing, the disciples imitate God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. To be “kind” does not mean to approve but means to seek the best interest. God wants even the ungrateful and the wicked to repent and become a part of the movement to the Realm. Indeed, the word “kind,” chrestos, is related to the word “grace,” charis.
Christians sometimes mistake the admonition to stop judging and condemning in Luke 6:37 to mean that the church should never make a moral judgment. Rather, in the eschatological context of this Sermon, the saying likely means that the church should not act like it knows the final verdict on those who oppose the Realm of God. Human perception is always finite. Moreover, enemies have the opportunity to repent until the apocalypse.
To be unforgiven and unforgiving is to be imprisoned by the lack of forgiveness. In the security of the Realm, it is possible to forgive, which releases both those who forgive and those who are forgiven (Luke 6:37b).
Per Luke 6: 39, when the community gives, that is, when it lives on the basis of the Sermon on a Level Place, it will be in a position similar to the person who goes to the market for grain. The merchant fills the measuring container to the brim and shakes it down so that every cranny is filled, and then pours the overflowing grain into the apron of the buyer to carry home. In a similar way, God pours out the power of the Realm on the communities that live into it.
I confess to being perplexed about these practices for today. On the one hand, it is easy to say why Christians sometimes say that these principles, such as turning the other cheek, are unrealistic in such a violent world. The violent often run over those who do not retaliate. On the other hand, meeting violence with violence increases violence.
At the same time, sometimes the only thing that seems to limit violence is a controlled violent response. Those who choose this route should never accompany it with flag waving and bands, but should proceed with mourning, and with an eye for opportunities to exercise mercy.