Luke 6:27-36: Love Your Enemies
June 22, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
2 Kings 18-19, Psalm 119:169-176, Luke 6:27-36, Philippians 3:15-21
This famous teaching is as controversial now as it was then. Should it be taken literally? Are we truly intended to “love our enemies”? If someone takes our cloak, are we meant to also give them our tunic? Are we meant to give to everyone who begs from us?
Various teachers have attempted to explain this teaching correctly in realistic and practical ways. Others have attempted simply to assert that the teaching is to be taken in its maximum possible interpretation. A famous approach along these lines is that championed first by the Russian novelist Tolstoy, whose teaching was then picked up and put within a different theological framework by Mahatma Gandhi, and who in turn influenced Dr. Martin Luther King. King called it nonviolent resistance, and in that way to enact civil disobedience for the purpose of bringing about change. Gandhi even famously advised the British people that they should not resist the Nazis.
Let us look at what Jesus teaches a little more closely. First of all, the context: Jesus is speaking to his disciples. They are not military leaders, nor heads of government charged with defending a country from invaders. They do, on the other hand, have to live in a country under occupation, and they are increasingly likely to be faced by those who do not agree with their profession of faith in Jesus.
Second, let us look at the words themselves more closely. To love our enemies does not necessarily mean to agree with our enemies. It does not necessarily mean to passively allow our enemies to triumph. Would it have been loving to the German people to allow Nazism to triumph? Love can be strong. But remember, again, that Jesus here surely is thinking primarily of the relationships among his people (rather than that of civil government).
So in Romans chapter 12 verse 9-21, Paul speaks of the triumph of love over evil as expressed by the Christian community. But then in chapter 13, when he talks of the rulers, he observes that they are “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad…[who] does not bear the sword in vain… an avenger who carries our God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” We really must read Jesus’ words in the context of his teaching more generally, and in the context of Scripture as a whole. The Bible does leave room for the exercise of governing authority, and punishment of evil by those who are charged to maintain civil order.
When someone strikes one cheek, should we turn the other? If we take this literally, Jesus does not command that we accept a third blow! If someone takes our cloak, should we give our tunic? To that, let it be said, that if someone is desperate enough to steal your actual coat to keep them warm at night, then it is most likely that they could do with another garment, too. And what about giving to everyone who begs from you?
Well, Jesus does not tell us what we are to give them. When someone who is an alcoholic asks for money, it is not loving them to give them money to spend on drink. When someone who is a cheat asks for money, it is not loving to feed their cheating. We should give them blessings and prayers, and food if hungry or help if addicted to insolvency. But not necessarily money—it is rarely a good idea to give cash when someone begs on the street. A meal is a better idea normally.
Nonetheless, while therefore leave room, as Jesus does in his teaching, for governing authority, for a just war of defense against invasion by a sovereign country, for police and judges—while that is all true, we must not thereby downgrade the radical nature of what Jesus is asking. The world works by an entirely different principle. “Even sinners love those who love them.” The system works by “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
But God, who is merciful, is not like that. He pursues the unrighteous, even his enemies, in order to rescue them, to the extent of giving his life for them. That is the kind of people we are to be, too: sons of the Most High. Let us then be characterized above all by radical, cross-centered, merciful, generous love. If that is what marks us as a people, then our reward will be great.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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