“And just as you want that people should do to you, do to them likewise” (Luke 6:31, my translation). Interpreters have worried for a long time whether Jesus’ formulation of the “Golden Rule” here is rooted in a less-than-altruistic reciprocity ethic. Is Jesus telling his disciples that they should only give what they get? If so, how does that fit with the anti-reciprocity sentiments elsewhere in the Sermon on the Plain? And, in addition, how does that fit with the command to love our enemies (full stop, no reciprocity required)?
Is following Jesus about more than giving in order to get? And if so, what’s the “more”?
Perhaps you will have time to read Alan Kirk’s fine 2003 article on enemy love, the golden rule, and reciprocity here in Luke 6. On the off chance that you have other things to do, I’ll try to summarize and reflect on that article here. It has been cited in most of the commentaries on this passage and is worthy of our time and analysis.
“Reciprocity is in fact basic to the ethic that Luke 6:27-35 seeks to inculcate,” Kirk argues. But it will take some unpacking to get to that basic fact. Kirk reviews several recent attempts to sort things out in this regard, leading up to the work of Hans Dieter Betz. “Betz’s work on this passage suggests,” Kirk proposes, “that resolution of its problems lie precisely in attention to reciprocity dynamics.”
Kirk notes that reciprocal exchange is a feature of all social relations, including and especially friendship. “Accepting and reciprocating benefits maintains a state of mutual obligation,” he notes, “essential to the social bond between partners in the exchange” (page 674). This obligation, in a friendship, is not some sort of self-interested transaction, but it is experienced as an obligation all the same. Kirk notes that “overt rejection or failure to reciprocate…signals…breach of relationship or protraction of alienation” (page 675).
When we think about reciprocity, we can add some nuance to a general sense of self-interested tit for tat. Kirk notes the work of scholars, especially Marshall Sahlins, who point to three “genres” of reciprocity: general, balanced, and negative. General reciprocity is marked by “open-ended, generous sharing, typically construed in the language of unconditional giving” (page 675). This is the kind of reciprocity that is central to friendship. The appropriate response is not a gift in return but rather gratitude.
General reciprocity is also the kind of giving which elite patrons offer to their (would-be) clients. This reciprocity comes out of an abundance of resources on the part of the patron. “The patron-client relationship, though unequal,” Kirk writes, “is universally articulated in personalized terms as a bond of friendship or fictive kinship, the two domains in which general reciprocity operates” (page 677). General reciprocity is the domain of grace and gratitude.
Balanced reciprocity “features overt concerns for equivalence of exchange, with obligations spelled out and fulfilled within set time frames” (page 677). This sort of reciprocity is the typical quid pro quo which marks transactional relationships – the “you scrub my back…” school of ethics. Negative reciprocity is basically stealing. In its “most extreme mode,” Kirk suggests, negative reciprocity is “retaliation: reciprocating injury with injury” (page 677).
Central to Greek reciprocity ethics, Kirk continues, is the notion of “charis,” a word we would often translate as “grace.” This term “designates both the concrete favors that friends do reciprocally for one another and the gratitude shown in return” (page 678). These favors are voluntary, not coerced. “Thus charis is the vital principle of friendship itself,” he continues. The benefits are conferred by friends for the sake of friends and not for the sake of a return on investment.
“Enemies,” Kirk suggests, “by definition unlikely to return favors, and with whom the relationship is already defined by a history of episodes of negative exchange, are beyond the pale of benefaction” (page 679). In Greek ethics, only stupid and incompetent people would give benefits to enemies. “The operative moral axiom in Greek reciprocity ethics,” Kirk writes, “was that one helps friends and harms enemies, and that it is just…to do so” (page 680). Of course, accidents and misjudgments can happen, but these are not laudable exceptions to the rule.
Kirk moves on to assess Luke 6:27-35 in light of Greek reciprocity ethics as described so far. “Verses 27-29 depict instances of negative reciprocity,” he writes, “the form of exchange characteristic of relationships with one’s enemy” (page 681). Coercion, seizure and violence are marks and tools of negative reciprocity. “The programmatic command ‘love your enemies’ is immediately clarified by the exhortation to ‘do good’…to those who have inflicted injuries,” Kirk continues, “and this is followed by concrete examples of benefaction” (page 681).
The radical command comes in verse 30 – give to everyone, not just your friends. “In effect,” Kirk argues, “this alters the meaning of the exchange from confiscation to gift – in terms of our model, from negative to general reciprocity.” The blessings, prayers, offer of the other cheek, surrender of the shirt as well as the cloak, etc.: “these are stunningly liberal acts of general reciprocity, not abandonment of reciprocity in principle (page 682).
Kirk argues that the Sermon on the Plain remains within the framework of Greek reciprocity ethics while turning the whole system on its head. Verses 32-34 provide a list of “balanced reciprocity” behaviors and exchanges. These are not commended but rather are described as the bare minimum that any self-interested person might do. In contrast to that bare minimum, the teaching returns to love for enemies as the standard to which disciples are commanded to adhere.
Exercising general reciprocity even for enemies is precisely how God operates. Behaving in that way is the mark of those who are children of the Most High God. “Verse 35c depicts the divine benefactor displaying the stunning generosity possible only for elites with vast resources at their disposal,” Kirk writes. “The language of noble magnanimity that accompanies a benefactor’s distribution of benefits does not mean that such giving is disinterested,” he continues. “Rather, benefactors seek by this means to awaken gratitude, create social bonds, and thereby a devoted clientele” (page 683).
Therefore verse 35b “expresses general reciprocity in its benefactor-client dimension,” Kirk summarizes. “God’s benefits are freely bestowed. Though response is desired, the divine giving will not be contingent upon it” (page 684). God’s love is not conditioned on either the merit or the response of the recipient. Thus, the divine gift is “grace.” If it is grace, then “this principle, along with the divine paradigm supporting it, is extended to the benefitting of active enemies and the morally unworthy…” (page 684).
We don’t get to tell God who to love and benefit based on our behavior or our preferences. Nor does anyone else get to determine the gracious generosity of disciples toward those whom God loves indiscriminately.
With all that in mind, Kirk argues, we are now in a position to figure out how the “golden rule” fits into the larger context of the Sermon on the Plain. “While far from ruling out calculated hope for favorable response,” Kirk writes, “the rule limits permissible actions to those one would wish visited upon oneself, with one’s actions not necessarily predicated upon the previous behavior or prospective reaction of others” (page 685). We are as free as God to bestow grace on others, regardless of their behavior toward us. And this grace can only be beneficial to others by definition.
The golden rule, then, is rooted in the alternative social vision that undergirds and is expressed in the Sermon on the Plain. It expresses “the foundational, all-pervasive social norm of reciprocity” and functions as the mechanism that “stimulates the kind of interaction necessary to bring into existence the envisioned social relations” (page 686).
You might want to consider Miroslav Volf’s great book, Free of Charge, as you reflect on our text. Volf argues that our giving imitates God’s giving or it ceases to be giving. “When do we rightly give?” Volf asks. He suggests three primary situations.
We give rightly when we delight in someone. We are just coming off the Valentine’s Day holiday, which, at its best is rooted in this sort of giving. We give rightly when others are in need, as we will see in the Lukan Parable of the Good Samaritan. And we give rightly when we help others give. “In all three types of situations,” Volf concludes, “we give because we seek the good of another. In all three, we imitate God.”
The conclusion of this section of the Sermon is, therefore, almost logically necessary. Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful. That’s the truest definition of Christian freedom there is.
References and Resources
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Butler, Octavia. https://legacy.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010830.octaviabutleressay.html. A Scott Simon interview with Butler related to this essay can be found at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1128335.
Carter, Warren. “Love your enemies.” Word and World 28.1 (2008): 13.
Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-luke-627-38-2.
Kirk, Alan. “‘Love Your Enemies,’ the Golden Rule, and Ancient Reciprocity (Luke 6:27-35).” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 122, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2003, pp. 667–86, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268071.
Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Zondervan, 2005.
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