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Love is many things in our culture. For many it can be likened to an electric charge: either the zap of the feeling is there or it is not. For others love is an arrangement, almost like a contract, sometimes voluntary, other times imposed by circumstances. Love for family members is not a given; instead, events have necessitated it. Marriages often proceed with this kind of arranged love. As long as the contract works and the zap is present, the arrangement is on. Often such love is managed by performance. Love is to be demonstrated by what is done for me: "If you really cared, you would do this for me."
This kind of arranged or easy love is the foil for Jesus' description of what love is for the child of God. The love Jesus calls for is none of the things described above. Jesus decries our culture's version of love. What is required to possess true love is an understanding of what it is to be loved by God and how God wishes one to love. At the center of Jesus' sermon is a unique concept of love. This love cannot be reduced merely to the "golden rule"; it is love that is golden even when everything around is not.
Jesus does not wait to make his point on the unusual character of such love. Although the righteous will be persecuted and rejected and God will judge the persecutors, Jesus issues a call to love the enemy. In fact, Jesus' call is specific: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whether in attitude, action, word or intercession, the enemy is to be loved. Too often many in the church have a "Jimmy Cagney theology" where the message is to those who do not know God: "You dirty rat, you should not have done that." Jesus wants more than condemnation of the outside world. Jesus' call to disciples focuses not on our words to others, though 11:37-54 does issue a stinging challenge regarding our words. Rather, Jesus zeroes in on our actions and attitudes toward others. He offers no platitudes about how outsiders should be viewed. There is no abstract call to divide one's thought by "hating the sin, but loving the sinner." True as this saying is, Jesus is concerned that we follow through on it and show our love in concrete service for the sinner. Our model is God himself: "God so loved the world that he gave . . ." (see also v. 36). So Jesus calls for the performance of love—in action, thought and petition.
How often do we pray for those who hate the church? The very question shows how radically different Jesus' love is from the culture's view of love. This is "tough love" because it is tough on the believer who loves. It is "radical love" because it calls for denying oneself and being continually exposed to abuse. It is a love not of power, manipulation or arrangement but of service and meekness.
The exhortation is underlined by three concrete examples. First, if someone strikes you on the cheek, then offer him the other. Probably, given the context of religious persecution, the slap refers to exclusion from the synagogue (1 Esdras 4:30; Didache 1:4; Stahlin 1972:263 nn. 23-24; for conceptual examples of such violent actions, Acts 18:17; 21:2728, 31-32; 23:2). Such a slap would be delivered by the back of the hand, though the context here suggests any action that communicates rejection. Jesus' point is that even in the midst of such rejection, we continue to minister to others and expose ourselves to the threat of rejection. The ministry of Paul among the Jews in Acts is a clear example of such love. Love is available and vulnerable, subject to repeated abuse.
Second, Jesus gives the example of someone stealing one's outer garment. He advises letting them have the undershirt too! The point is that one should not seek revenge but remain exposed and be willing to take even more risks. Luke may well be thinking of the danger of missionary travel in the first century or the risk of violence against those who professed Christ. The situation of Sosthenes in Acts 18:17 comes to mind, as does Paul's risk when he was left for dead in Acts 14:19. Despite such danger, he continued to preach to those who rejected him (1 Cor 4:9-13; 2 Cor 11:21—12:10). As the parable of the good Samaritan shows, travel in Jesus' and Luke's day could be dangerous. In the face of such hostility, the call is to keep loving the enemy.
Third, one is to be generous and not keep account. Disciples should be marked by a genuine readiness to meet needs. To the one who begs, give. From the one who takes, do not seek to get it back. Begging here probably refers to almsgiving (Mt 6:1-4; Guelich 1982:223). Resources are not to be hoarded, but generously dispensed. Paul reflects a similar attitude in 1 Timothy 6:8-18. In the case of theft, there is to be no pursuit of retribution. Such self-denial is the essence of love. The consummate example is the cross. Jesus gave to those who had taken.
The sheer difficulty of these commands has led to discussion of how literal they are. Marshall (1978:261) points out correctly that the illustrations are somewhat figurative, since to follow Luke 6:29 literally would lead to nudism! Yet Jesus' life makes it clear that he took these standards seriously. When his opponents took his life, he did not seek retribution but prayed for their forgiveness. He was more interested in giving something that would build than in retrieving what had been taken. The three illustrations picture the kind of action that manifests radical love. The world's standards of love should be surpassed (6:32-34). But we can only accept such a standard if we believe that God will see and reward the faithful. Without a theological view to build on, Jesus' ethics wilt into futility and foolishness.
So Jesus offers what became known in the sixteenth century as the "golden rule": Do to others as you would have them do to you. The verse has Old Testament roots (Lev 19:18). In addition, numerous such ethical statements existed in ancient Jewish and Greek culture. Jesus' formulation of the rule, however, is the least self-focused. Jesus is not saying, "Do good deeds for others so they will return the favor." Instead he is calling for actions of love regardless of how the other responds. Nor is he saying, "Think of what you like, then do that for others." Rather, we are to be sensitive to the needs, feelings and concerns of others and seek to meet them. Sensitivity in love means listening and serving. This does not mean ignoring moral limits, as Jesus' own ministry makes clear, but it does mean caring enough to be concerned about how others feel. The old adage "walk a mile in my shoes" may fit here: look at things from another's perspective and then act with concern.
In the modern world, this would mean not just protesting against abortion but being prepared to care for the child that is born to a mother who has chosen not to abort. More than this, we are called to continue to love those who go ahead with their intention to abort. It means not just talking about ethnic oneness in the church but acting out oneness in community, like Paul's crossing ethnic lines to raise funds for believers in need. Even more, this passage calls us to show tangible concern for unbelievers in need, so when someone tells them that God loves them, they will have seen evidence of such love.
Jesus repeats his examples in verses 32-34 but adds one more point: If we love only those who give us love, what is so great about that kind of love? It is like the love sinners give. If we do good only to those who do good to us, what is so special about that? It is like the love sinners give. If we lend money only to those who will respond in kind, what is so honorable about that? It is the ethics sinners have. The clear implication is that the disciples are not to live and love like sinners. The love of believers is to be different from the love displayed by the culture. As children of God, believers have been transformed to live in contrast to the way of sinners, modeling the sacrifice of radical love.
So Jesus summarizes: love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. When we give, it should not be with strings attached. When we serve, it should be to meet needs, not to give tit for tat. True service involves a giving that does not demand a giving back. The essence of relationship for the child of God is to love and serve.
But Jesus also attaches a theological dimension of promise to the exhortation: your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. God does notice when we reflect who he is to the world. In such faithful, imitative service, promise and identity merge. He will honor us for reflecting our Father's values. God will reward our love, and our love will reflect our identity as God's children. Children of God, Jesus says, are called to imitate their heavenly Father. We are to be an audiovisual of him. For God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. The call of the disciple to radical love is "like father, like child." As Plummer (1922:189) notes, "Moral likeness proves parentage." Jesus' ethical call to love is nothing more than a call to imitate the Father. And to love is to have mercy.