Grace in Action: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 7

 
Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week 7

Epiphany 7 (Year C): Luke 6:27-38 and Genesis 45:1-15

Big Picture:

1) This week’s Gospel reading continues Luke’s version of Jesus’ most famous sermon, often called the “Sermon on the Plain.”  Having opened with declarations of blessing (for the poor, hungry, sad, and outcast) and woe (for the rich, well fed, happy, and admired), Jesus now pivots toward instruction on living a graceful and grace-filled human life.

2) This passage includes what is arguably Jesus’ most well-known teaching, the so-called “Golden Rule:” “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31).  It’s a version of a common maxim across the ancient world, and countless generations of parents ever since (including all of us over here at SALT!) have sought to instill it in the hearts and habits of our children.  The phrase, “Golden Rule!” has become shorthand for, Treat others with the respect you would demand for yourself - or more simply: Hey, be fair!  It comes as something of a shock, then, that this isn’t what Jesus meant at all - and is actually the opposite of what he had in mind!  (Skeptical? We don’t blame you - but read on!)

3) The reading from Genesis is the pivotal scene in the Joseph story, one of the Bible’s most vivid dramatizations of mercy.  Sold by his brothers into Egyptian slavery, Joseph eventually becomes one of the highest officials in Pharaoh's government, and at long last, he comes face-to-face with his brothers - though they don’t recognize him in his new role (and new duds!).     

Scripture:

1) How then shall we live?  Jesus turns now to this question, and his answer is a stunner: “Love your enemies” (Luke 6:27).  How does that look in practice?  A quick series of slides flashes across the screen: “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you,” and offer those who strike, beg, or steal not retaliation but rather a startling form of assertive, flip-the-script giving: Here’s my other cheek, not just the first one; Here’s my shirt, not just my coat (and remember: most people in Jesus’ audience wore just those two garments, a coat and a shirt - that’s it!); Here’s what you stole from me - keep it, it’s yours (Luke 6:29-30).  Summing up, Jesus puts it this way: “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (Luke 6:35).  This last idea, “expecting nothing in return,” is the key to the whole series.  Jesus challenges his listeners to love not as a strategy for gain, a quid quo pro, but rather for the sake of love itself - or better, for the sake of the beloved.

2) To glimpse how revolutionary this “nothing in return” idea is, we only need to recall the relentlessly “return-oriented” ways of the world as we know it (including our own lives and relationships).  Sure, we may treat one another with kindness or respect - but only so long as it’s reciprocated. Who among us doesn’t insist on an ROI (Return On Investment)? It’s just business as usual, after all, and so it applies across the board: “fair exchange” rules the day.  I’ll treat you well, but I expect the same in return. If you love me, I’ll love you; if you do good to me, I’ll do good to you; if you’ll repay me later, I’ll give to you now; and so on.

3) But the very idea of a “fair exchange,” Jesus insists, can reduce love to a parody, even a commodity.  True love, by contrast, isn’t caught up in an exchange; it expects nothing in return. It invests - for the sake of investing.  It seeks no additional gain. It lends and does good to those who may never repay, and is kind to those who may never be kind in return (i.e., enemies!).  True love doesn’t rest on reciprocity or quid quo pro.  To the extent that “fairness” depends on such things, true love is isn’t fair.  It lives and moves beyond the arena of fairness; it keeps no accounts. Precisely as a gift and not a payment, true love requires neither spur nor return, neither prior merit nor subsequent compensation.  It’s completely free.

4) And what do we call this kind of love, this completely free, above-and-beyond, gratuitous giving?  We call it “grace.” We may think of grace primarily as the unmerited, saving love of God - and well we should, Jesus says, for God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35).  But at the same time, this is exactly the love Jesus calls us to live out, not as gods or angels but as “children of the Most High,” human beings created in God’s image: “Be merciful, just as God is merciful” (Luke 6:35-6).  When we love this way, we embody the imago Dei.  This is the love we were made for.

5) The Greek word for “grace” is charis (pronounced, “HAR-riss,” with a guttural “h”), and though the NRSV translation obscures it, charis appears repeatedly in this passage.  When Jesus builds his rhetorical crescendo criticizing reciprocal love (even sinners do that!), the word the NRSV translates as “credit” is charis: “If you love those who love you, what grace [charis] have you?”, or “what grace is there in that?” (Luke 6:32-4).  Like a drumbeat, Jesus repeats the word three times: What grace is there in that?  What grace is there in that? What grace is there in that?  His point is clear: We are made to be gracious, to love gracefully, to practice charis in the image of God’s Charis.

6) Embedded in all of this is the so-called “Golden Rule,” the supposed maxim of fairness (Luke 6:31).  But as we’ve seen, the love Jesus has in mind is anything but “fair.” In fact, Jesus’ critique of reciprocity (even sinners do that!) makes clear that “fair” is precisely what true love is not. Rather, true love goes above-and-beyond reciprocity. In this sense, Jesus is recommending an “unfair” kind of love, an extravagance that benefits not the one who benefits you, but the one who opposes you; or indeed, that gives more to a thief than the thief takes in the first place!  There’s a playful spirit of hyperbole darting in and out of these ideas, as if they’re designed to evoke a kind of absurd, ecstatic state of generosity, a state of pure mercy, a state of grace. Turns out this isn’t a “Golden Rule” at all.  It’s a Golden Love, a playful, beautiful, graceful way of life.

7) And when we live this way, as children of the God of Grace, everything fits.  We don’t condemn others; God doesn’t condemn us; we live in the image of the God of love.  Likewise, we forgive others; God forgives us; we live in the image of the God of mercy. We give and receive - not because of some “fair exchange” with God, but rather because we live in the image of God, the abundant Giver.  To no credit of our own, but merely and marvelously as God’s beloved child, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap” (Luke 6:38).

Takeaways:

1) Like any great teaching, this one is vulnerable to disatrous distortion.  The call to “offer the other cheek,” for example, or indeed to forgive or lend without return, can be misconstrued to prohibit withdrawing from abusive situations.  But this confuses love with acquiescence. True love acts to end abuse - primarily for the sake of the abused but also for the sake of the abuser, who harms himself as well as his victim.  Thus withdrawing to a safe harbor and holding abusers accountable are not only consistent with “loving our enemies” - they’re expressions of it.

2) How then shall we live?  Less by a Golden Rule, and more by a Golden Love: a love “expecting nothing in return,” a love beyond fairness, beyond exchange; an extravagant love of grace and mercy; the love we were born for, children of the Most High.

3) Finally, a constant challenge in understanding Jesus’ teaching is to avoid reducing it to a rather dour list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.”  As Luke presents him here, Jesus is more like a playful, provocative artist painting pictures of love, icons we can embody every day. For God is “kind to the ungrateful,” gracious to the ungracious - and we are made in God’s image.  Accordingly, with the Spirit’s help, grace is bubbling up all around us all the time; if we stay alert, we’ll notice it everywhere. Joseph doesn’t condemn, but rather comforts his brothers. Jesus doesn’t condemn, but rather prays for his persecutors (Luke 23:34).  And our everyday lives, too, full as they are of struggles and coats and loans and curses, may also be full of love, full of mercy, full of grace.  Grace in action!