We are studying Luke 6:27-36 for Sunday, October 11. This is a short section in Luke’s parallel to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, sometimes known as the “Sermon on the Plain.” Here are some notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text is from the gospel of Luke, so we’ll want to remind ourselves of the things we know about Luke: it seems it’s written to Gentiles, or to an audience that includes Gentiles; it’s definitely sympathetic to Gentiles – the gospel shows Jesus including Gentiles and Samaritans, praising them for their faith, using them as positive examples in stories like the Good Samaritan, healing them, and so on; it includes and emphasizes women; the Greek vocabulary and style is elevated, suggesting an educated and cultured author, and probably also readers; the Holy Spirit is particularly prominent and active; and there is a special emphasis on the poor and on economic justice. Luke, for instance, is the evangelist who records Jesus saying “Blessed are the poor,” which he does just a verse or two before our text for the week.
Luke’s egalitarianism and Gentile sympathies both show up in the context for our text. Jesus has just chosen “the twelve” as apostles, after a night of prayer (Luke 6:12-16). Then he’s stationed himself in “a level place,” to address a crowd of disciples and an audience that includes people from “the coast of Tyre and Sidon” – that is, Gentiles.
As for literary allusions, we might think here of Isaiah 49:1-7. But, also: people often read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew as an allusion to Moses, Mt. Sinai, and the giving of the law. If we followed their lead here, we might think of Moses addressing the Israelites on the Plains of Moab, in Deuteronomy.
Whatever we think, this sets the immediate context for our text, which comes part way into the Sermon on the Plain. The sermon then continues with instructions not to judge, to forgive, and to do what Jesus says to do.
This address comes early in the gospel, after the opening events – the story of John the Baptist, the Annunciation to Mary, the Nativity – and some of the first acts of Jesus’s ministry – his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, preaching at Capernaum (where he mentions Gentiles explicitly), specific acts of healing, teaching, calling disciples, and statements about the sabbath in connection with eating and healing.
[The sabbath narratives in particular suggest that, in a larger symbolic sense, all of Jesus’s ministry in this gospel occurs on “the sabbath,” the last day of creation. Jesus’s resurrection then inaugurates the “eighth day,” or new first day of an entirely new creation.]
Everything else in the gospel of Luke – the rest of Jesus’s teaching, ministry, and the Holy Week narrative – follows and gives concrete substance to the instructions in this teaching discourse. Jesus’s journey to the cross, really and concretely, illustrates the point he makes here. “Do as I say – like this.”
This text, along with the next two verses on not judging, is in the lectionary for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany in Year C, and is likely familiar to churchgoers. Most Christians know Jesus told us to love our enemies. How hard we try to do that is a different story. What we think that means might be a different story, too.
CLOSER READING: The teaching is addressed explicitly “to you all, the ones hearing,” making it very inclusive. Sometimes we wonder whether the text is addressing us, really. In this case, we may be sure this text is addressing us, really, along with anyone else who hears it.
In a second, we may wish we could be a little less sure of this.
Now follow eight specific behavioral instructions. Imperatives. “Do this.”
The people we are supposed to love (the agapē kind), do good to, bless, pray for, and so on are identified by their behavior. They are people who are out to hurt you; they seem to be succeeding, too. They hate you. They curse you – that is, they say things like “May you never be happy, and then die.” The word translated “abuse” in verse 28 means literally something like “try to ruin your reputation” – like spreading stories that you’re a murderer or are running a child sex ring out of a pizza restaurant, for instance. They beat you up. They take your property. Or they “borrow” it.
[This is not a strategy for “winning.” At least not in the ordinary sense. It’s not even a strategy for self-defense.]
This is the context for the instruction to do “as you want people to do to you.”
If Jesus hadn’t explicitly told us he’s talking about people, we might start to get the impression that the most important “other” he has in mind is God.
In verses 32-34, the term translated “what credit is that” is literally “what grace is that” – that is, how is that “grace”? Similarly, in verse 35, the “ungrateful” are literally the “ungracious.”
Sinners play “tit for tat.” God, on the other hand, is gracious, and good and kind, and merciful. To scumbags, jerks, and mean girls.
So are the children of the Most High, who are also identified, here, by their behavior.
Can we let this sink in … ?