Excerpt from “Forgiveness: The Road Home”

It Depends on What ‘As’ Means

It is the text that haunts us in all these conversations—“And forgive us our debts,” Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).  Jesus then makes it clear that this practice is fundamental to all he is saying in this prayer.  He concludes with these words: “14For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).  What does “as” mean for we who follow Jesus into this life of forgiving and being forgiven?  “As” could mean “after” or “as a result of.”  Or it could mean “in like manner.”  That is the meaning we find in the New Testament.

Our call is to forgive in a manner that resembles God’s forgiving.  Why that is we will discuss presently.  First, however, let’s examine what that means.  We can read these words at the end of the first chapter of John’s first letter:

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8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Let’s examine this text in some detail.  “If we confess…[God]…will forgive,” the writer declares.  What about that “if”?  Is there any doubt that God will forgive if we confess?  Is this some sort of conditional relationship, a contract?  No, neither theology nor grammar will permit that understanding.  The “if” in this passage does not indicate doubt or uncertainty.  It does not refer to a condition that may not be fulfilled.  Rather, the grammar here indicates that God’s forgiveness is the purpose, result and/or description of the outcome when we confess.  “If” in this passage would be better translated as “When” in order to remove any of the doubt that comes with our English translation.  In fact, it is our trust that God forgives that opens the door to our confession, repentance and new life.

“Faithful [God] is, and just,” the Greek reads in this passage, “in order that (my italics) [God] might forgive us the sins and cleanse us…”  Therefore we need to see and understand God’s forgiving as the demonstration and outcome of God’s faithful promise to save and renew.  So God’s forgiving is not some grudging concession once we have fulfilled certain conditions.  Rather God’s forgiving is at the heart of who God is and what God does.  Therefore the result is sure, and we can have confidence that our confession, repentance and new life will not be rejected by God.  Thus confession and repentance cannot be the cause of God’s forgiving.  Rather our confession and repentance are offered on the basis of our trust in God’s forgiving even prior to our confession.  “Amazingly,” Volf writes in Free of Charge, “God does wait until we have confessed to offer and even enact forgiveness; God forgives before we confess.  We know from the start that whatever it might be that we confess it will not count against us.  We are loved notwithstanding our offense.  We are forgiven so we can be freed from the burden of our offense and return into the arms of the loving God” (page 154).

Verse ten makes the point clear.  “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”  This should be a puzzling statement on first reading.  If we say that we have not sinned even when we know we have, that makes us the liars, does it not?  How can our denial of our own sin make God the liar?  This can only be the case if we assume that God has already forgiven us.  Remember, to forgive is first of all to condemn.  To forgive is to name an offense in order to let go of being offended.  If God forgives us even though we are not sinners, then God is the one who is lying.  If God says by forgiving us that we are sinners, then either we are sinners or God has uttered a falsehood.  So verse ten can only make sense if we assume that God has declared sinners to be forgiven and now awaits the acknowledgement of that sin through confession.

So what does “as” mean?  It means that forgiving comes first if it is to happen at all.  God’s forgiving will not be conditioned or controlled or defined by our repentance or the lack thereof.  Rather, God forgives out of gracious love and then longs for our response.  Otherwise the Sovereign God becomes subject to our foolish whims and stubborn pride.  “Having defeated evil on the cross,” notes N. T. Wright in Evil and the Justice of God, “God has put evil in a position where it cannot forever blackmail [God]” (page 140).  When we can forgive first, we also are in a position where the offender can no longer control us through our own anger, pain and fear.  Jesus longs for us to know this freedom as often as possible.  In Mark 11:25-26, he urges his listeners this way, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.

This is then the standard for our life together in the Church as followers of Jesus Christ.  Forgiving comes first.  In Ephesians 4:31-32, for example, we read these instructions.  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  This passage begins with the plea to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called…making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).  Forgiving first is a substantial part of how we respond to our daily call to follow Jesus in the path of cross and resurrection.  We read the same encouragement in Colossians 3:13—“Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  This passage begins with the pregnant phrase, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…”  Forgiving one another in the same manner that God forgives us in Christ is a non-negotiable feature of our life together as the Church.

Those who have thought long and hard about forgiving can tell us why this matters.  Jesus “is telling us, in effect, that the faculty we have for receiving forgiveness and the faculty we have for granting forgiveness are one and the same thing.  If we open the one we shall open the other.  If we slam the door on the one, we slam the door on the other” (N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God, page158).  And again, “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us.  Having been embraced by God, we must make space for others in ourselves and invite them in—even our enemies.  This is what we enact as we celebrate the Eucharist.  In receiving Christ’s broken body and spilled blood, we, in a sense, receive all those whom Christ received by suffering.” (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, page 129).

To forgive as we have been forgiven is one of the chief signs that the Resurrected Life lives in us and re-shapes our stories now and for eternity.  “Jesus’ followers were constituted by the fact that he was bringing about the return from exile, the forgiveness of sins.  Not to forgive one another would be a way of denying that this great, long-awaited event was taking place; in other words, it would be to cut off the branch on which they were sitting” (N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, page 70).

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Text Study for Luke 6:27-38 (Part Five)

I have learned that I don’t lend money to family or friends. Nor do I typically do other kinds of business with family or friends. I will give money to family or friends in need when I have it and they need it. I will offer and gladly accept help on projects and tasks from family and friends. I will share living space and vehicles with family or friends when such sharing is needed or beneficial. But I find that economic factors change the relationship. Family can easily become estranged. Friends are no longer friends.

Loving and taking are hard to fit into the same relationship. I think that’s a significant part of the Lukan Sermon on the Plain. When ownership, rent, repayment, and other financial obligations have become part of my close relationships, I find that those relationships suffer. Other people may well do better at this. I may be deficient in this regard. But I can’t fit loving and taking into the same relationship.

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I wonder if the Lukan community was struggling with this reality as well. The economic dynamics of the community seem to be on full display, here in the Sermon on the Plain and elsewhere in the Lukan account. Matching love for love, good for good, and perhaps dollar for dollar does not reflect the character of God. And it likely results in tensions and fractures in the community. Lending to someone with the expectation of profit changes the debtor from a person into a profit center. The only credit in that transaction will be financial.

Loving and taking don’t fit into the same relationship. Loving regards others as an end in themselves, expecting nothing in return. Taking regards others as means to my ends, expecting something in return. Loving creates relationship rather than obligation. Taking creates obligation rather than relationship. We will see in Acts 4, for example, how a “taking” framework endangers the early Christian community. The offending members, Ananias and Sapphira, are rather forcibly removed (by God) from that community.

Recently, I watched once again the marvelous film, Sweetland. The film is set in Audubon, Minnesota, in the years immediately following World War I. It is a story of immigration and prejudice, of pride and love, of misunderstanding and deep connection. I’d recommend it for any and all.

The film matters here because of one of its subplots. Alvin Frandsen is the happy-go-lucky and hapless neighbor and friend of Olaf Torvik, one of the central characters. Frandsen has trouble keeping up with his mortgage payments, and the local banker threatens to foreclose. Torvik becomes part of the conversation and asserts that “banking and farming don’t mix.” Torvik means that the values upon which his understanding of farming are based are incommensurable with the values of a ruthless, for-profit system.

Frandsen’s situation does not improve, and the farm is put up for auction. Torvik happens upon the auction and is enraged by the callous inhumanity of a system that will put a husband, wife, and nine children out of their home for the sake of the mortgage. Again he tells Harmo, the moneylender in the community, that “banking and farming don’t mix.” Loving and taking are hard to fit into the same relationship.

Torvik outbids the wealthier residents in the county and ends up with a farm he cannot afford. The money is due in twenty-four hours. It appears that all hope is lost. However, at the auction, other members of the community were present and just as outraged at the proceedings. Many of these community members belonged to the same Lutheran church as Frandsen and Torvik.

Later that night, Torvik hears a knock at the door. He expects that this is the sheriff coming to evict him as well. Instead, it is the pastor of the congregation and the men from the auction. They have collected enough money to cover the cost of the farm and hand the pile of cash to Torvik. “We kept back enough for the winter and next year’s seed,” the leader of the group says. Both farms are saved.

The cash was not a loan or an investment. It was a gift that maintained the wholeness of the community. In that setting, banking and community didn’t mix. Loving and taking don’t fit into the same relationship. The members of the community chose Frandsen and his family over economic rules and necessities.

I wonder if something like the Sweetland narrative is at work in the Lukan community. I don’t think the Sermon on the Plain is a formula for running a western-style banking operation in the twenty-first century. But perhaps it is more of an economic model for healthy community than our modern, neoliberal, capitalist, self-interested assumptions are willing to allow. The sermon is an invitation to at least consider other ways of organizing our relationships with one another.

I participate quite happily in kiva.org. It’s a micro-lending program for small businesspeople in developing countries and economically marginalized communities in North America. Loan recipients repay the loans as they build their business. I’m always glad to receive notice that a loan has been repaid and the money can be circulated again. It takes so little in that system to continue to build capital resources for those who can make the best use of those resources.

It’s a system where it is possible to loan without expecting a return. While I’m not building relationships with the recipients personally, I can be confident that community is being built along with the small businesses. Microfinancing is an example of loving rather than taking. The result is that people’s lives (including mine) are improved.

The Habitat for Humanity system has a similar dynamic. Participants commit to hundreds of hours of sweat equity as they acquire their new homes. Volunteers provide additional human resources as well as donations of materials and other services. Donors help to increase the funding for such projects. The recipients often become volunteers themselves in other projects. The interest collected helps to sustain the system and fund more construction. And community grows.

I would commend Table Grace Café, one of the segments of Table Grace Ministries here in Omaha, Nebraska. It is one of a number of “pay as you can” cafes and restaurants around the country. Patrons pay what they can for excellent and nutritious food. Patrons can volunteer in the café in lieu of paying and/or as a way to gain valuable work experience and references for future employment. Other patrons may choose to volunteer and to pay more as another way to “pay it forward,” to love rather than take.

Loving and taking don’t mix. The economic dimension of Luke 6:32-38 is obvious. The language of lending for profit is contrasted to the command to love our enemies (verses 34-35). Instead of lending in order to receive as much again (which is what “sinners” do), love your enemies, do good, and lend with no expectation of making a profit. That’s what it looks like to be children of the Most High.

“And do not keep on judging, lest you also might be judged; and do not keep on condemning, lest you also might be condemned. Release [from an obligation] and you (all) shall also be released [from an obligation]” (Luke 6:27-28, my translation).

The NRSV translates “apoluo” as “forgive.” That’s not inaccurate, but it is not the primary lexical use of the word. That’s why I used the more generic translation of “release from an obligation.” The literal breakdown of the word is something like “to set loose from.” The word can be used to describe the release of a prisoner from captivity, such a Barabbas. It can be used to describe what happens when a husband divorces a wife – he “sends her away.”

The word can also be used to describe the cancellation of debts. The BAGD lexicon specifies this as the meaning to be assigned to the word in Luke 6:37 – “pardon (your debtors) and you will be pardoned” (page 96). It is interesting, perhaps, that when the Lukan author reports the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11, the author uses a different verb to pray for forgiveness of sins as we forgive those who sin against us. The cancellation of debts promised in the Jubilee Year reference in Luke 4 is here given concrete application in the community.

Loving and taking don’t mix. The purpose for which God created human love is to produce unity, not usefulness. When we love the way God loves, we don’t focus on what we can get. Nor do we focus on what we can give. When we love the way God loves, we focus on what we can become together. Martin Luther puts it this way: “Therefore sinners are beautiful because they are loved; they are not loved because they are beautiful.”

This is not a model that will make shareholders happy. I don’t expect that this way of life together will become a reality short of the Kin(g)dom of God. But disciples are called to model this way of life together in a world that needs a new imagination. Just to stir the pot a bit more…what would happen if we just stopped printing church financial reports altogether?

I’m retired. I can afford to be crazy. But what if our church annual reports were 70 percent about ministry and 30 percent about money rather than the other way around?

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.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Zondervan, 2005.

Text Study for Luke 6:27-38 (Part Four)

“But rather, I say to you who are still listening, ‘Keep on loving your enemies – keep on doing good to those who are hating you, keep on speaking well of those who are cursing you, keep on praying for those who are mistreating you” (Luke 6:27-28, my translation). The commands in these verses are all present imperatives addressed to “you all” rather than “you” singular.

In the Sermon on the Plain, the Lukan author portrays these actions as the ongoing elements of what it means to follow Jesus. Remember, after all, that our text comes after the calling of the “apostles” and is addressed to the whole crowd of disciples (including us). The beginning of this description is “Keep on loving your enemies.” Perhaps not the best marketing strategy, either in the first-century Mediterranean world or in the twenty-first century American world.

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Who are these “enemies” about which Jesus speaks? Malina and Rohrbaugh discuss the concept as they comment on Zechariah’s song in Luke 1. In his prophecy, Zechariah (filled with the Holy Spirit) declares that the coming Davidic messiah would “save us from our enemies” (verse 71). I will quote their whole paragraph in this regard.

“The term ‘enemies’ need not be understood in the narrowly political sense of Roman oppression. To a peasant, enemies are all those who try to get what is rightfully fully his. They are those who destroy his honor, take his land, undermine his family, and threaten his women. It would have made little difference to peasants whether the ones doing this were Romans, the Jerusalem establishment, or dangerous neighbors” (page 292).

Jesus’ ongoing command to love our enemies is not cast, therefore, on a national or global stage. It is intensely personal and local. We all have enemies, whether we wish to admit that or not.

I’m a fan of British procedural crime dramas. They illustrate the typical progression of an investigation into a murder. One of the early questions is always, “Did the victim have any enemies?” When other characters protest that, in fact, everyone loved the victim and that the victim had no enemies that anyone could imagine, then I know something particularly slimy and stinky is afoot. We all have enemies. We modern (and especially White) folks are just too “nice” to admit to this basic and harsh human reality.

I have enemies. I have done things to create that enmity on the part of some. I have suffered at the hands of others and now feel enmity toward them. I am a threat and obstacle to people I’ve never met and will never meet. But I am still part of a demographic or identity group that deserves the enmity of others. Whether I participate in politics or war-making or not, I am a citizen of a country that has enemies. I’m stuck with them.

I have enemies. And Jesus’ ongoing command is that I (and we) keep on loving those enemies. Great.

There’s no wiggling off the hook with some textual or exegetical sleight of hand. Warren Carter reviews the debate of the authenticity of the saying and notes that the consensus has found this command to come from the lips of Jesus himself. So, Carter asks, what does Jesus mean in giving this command?

Carter reviews the suggestions commentators have made regarding the target of the word “enemy,” the scope of this loving business, and the social context(s) in which this saying would be applicable. There is no consensus reply to these concerns. Instead, Carter writes, “The quest to find one applicable situation, however, seems futile. Part of the command’s aphoristic quality is not only its exaggerated and provocative quality in questioning everyday expectations concerning revenge or limited love,” Carter continues, “but also its open-endedness or indeterminacy” (page 15).

That vagueness of application is all well and good, but this means that making specific the application then falls to us as Jesus’ followers. Carter suggests that “the very open-endedness of the command invites or perhaps better, requires, discourse about how it engages particular human and societal situations. It is a command in search of elaboration, dialogue, discernment. It provides direction but leaves the itinerary to the travelers” (page 15).

So much for, “Well, my Bible says…”

The command to love, Carter observes is followed by three “elaborations” (page, 16): do good, bless, and pray. Then come three commands: turn the cheek, give the shirt, donate to beggars, and don’t ask for returns. This is all more than a little weird, Carter continues, “in that benefaction or doing good to an enemy differs considerably from the more conventional practices of revenge, injury, and hate.”

Thank you, Captain Obvious. But then, that’s why biblical scholars get the big money, right?

The three “elaborations” elaborate what it means to love and who the enemies are. To love is to do good to, bless, and pray for those who are the enemies. Enemies are those who hate, curse, and mistreat us. The elaborations are then illustrated by three examples of enemy-loving behavior. Carter suggests that these examples are marked by five characteristics (pages 17-18).

1.            “The dominant power dynamic involves one person seeking their own benefit at the expense of the other.”

2.            “The examples specify the enemies’ actions.”

3.            “Violence marks the enemies’ actions.”

4.            “Each statement asserts an appropriate but unconventional counter-action… These actions reverse the assertions of power, display another form of interaction, and invite the enemies to behave accordingly.”

5.            “These counter-actions introduce an element of the bizarre to the examples. They make explicit the surprising counterintuitive, countercultural way of responding inherent in the ‘love your enemies’ command.”

In assessing these four examples, Carter refers to the work of James Scott “on the covert yet self-protective ways that the powerless protest humiliating actions. Such acts of protest function not to change the system but to preserve and express dignity in the midst of systemic and personal degradation” (pages 17-18).  Offering the other cheek is an assertion of dignity when humiliation is intended. Giving the shirt shows the thieves for what they are. Giving to everyone means stepping away from selective and self-interested charity. Not asking for returns turns expropriation into a gift.

“Such responses refuse the intended humiliating effect, respond to the act of power or force with an act of gift, and invite similar interaction,” Carter argues. “They pose questions to and about self-benefiting and costly (elite?) behavior in terms of its impact on others. These four examples stimulate the imagination for disciples to create similar dignity-asserting and ‘loving,’ but not avenging, responses in other instances of humiliation” (page 18).

These examples then lead to the “Golden Rule.” The rule is followed by three rhetorical questions that make it clear (as we have noted in previous posts) that this rule is not about self-serving reciprocity. Instead, the interpretation comes in verse 35, where we find the same three verbs as in verses 32-34. These verbs “emphasize benefaction without the expectation of positive return” (page 19).  The result is that in doing such actions we imitate and embody the character of God.

As Alan Kirk noted, this benevolence is not conditioned on the nature of the response. It is offered regardless of the response. And that indifference to the nature of the response is the standard of behavior not only for God but for any and all who are children of God. This conclusion is then summarized in verse 36.

“The Gospel elaborations of Jesus’ command to ‘love your enemies’ prohibit some behaviors (responding in kind) and provide a general direction comprising responses marked not by reciprocity but by indiscriminate love and doing good,” Carter concludes. “Moreover, these canonical elaborations of the command suggest that contemporary disciples seeking to imitate and embody God’s ways always have the (communal) task of elaborating them in order to identify specific behaviors for specific circumstances” (page 21).

Justo Gonzalez puts it this way. “The divine perfection that the disciples are to imitate is the perfection of an all-embracing mercy. Furthermore, even though we often tend to think that the basis for the Christian ethics of love is the Golden Rule, in the final analysis the basis for Christian ethics is the very nature and action of God” (Kindle Location 1809). The Golden Rule in the Lukan account is not really “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is rather, “Do to others as God would do.”

This is, not coincidentally, the interpretation that Martin Luther brings to Christian ethics. To be clear, Luther honors the Golden Rule in his own behavior and writing as much in the breach as in the keeping of the rule. That being said, Luther argues that “the golden rule challenges us human beings to love our neighbors for their sake, not for the sake of any good or advantage we might gain from them” Mannermaa, Kindle Locations 927-928).

Love of enemies is the clearest application of doing to others as God does to me/us. I don’t like it. I don’t do it well. I would rather gouge my own eyes out most of the time than do it, but that doesn’t change a thing.

Sigh…

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.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Mannermaa, Tuomo. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World. Kindle Edition.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Zondervan, 2005.

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Text Study for Luke 6:27-38 (Part Three)

“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”?

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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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Text Study for Luke 6:27-38 (Part Two)

This week’s gospel reading continues the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. Our reading begins with a strong adversative, the Greek word, “alla,” meaning “but rather.” As always, it’s the smallest words that offer the biggest interpretative challenges. “But rather” what? The conversation would be quite different if the connecting word were, for example, “therefore.” It is not. Our text steers us in a different direction.

Does the Lukan author want to continue leading us in the direction of a common life (and common humanity) rather than the binary interpretation that the blessings and woes seem to invite on their own? I think that’s the case. By themselves, the blessings and woes in the previous verses could easily be read as “either/or” propositions – either poor or rich, hungry or full, weeping or laughing, persecuted or praised. I am tempted by that possibility far too often.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Instead – but rather – the Lukan author seems to say, let’s get beneath these superficial binaries to something deeper. I think, as I noted last week, that the Lukan author is committed to a parallelism in discussing the social locations of the less privileged and the more privileged in the Lukan community. But I think this parallelism leads to different strategies of personal and structural resistance. And I think that resistance is directed to the larger system rather than towards one another.

Therefore, as I noted previously, I think the strategy commanded in Luke 6:27-31 is for those who do not have the power to resist in other, more subtle and covert ways. And the strategy commanded in Luke 6:32-36 is for those who have more power and privilege in the larger socioeconomic system.

The goal is the formation and sustaining of Christian community. We see a summary of that community in Acts 2:43-47. The first believers have all things in common, sell their goods and give the proceeds to the poor, worship and fellowship together. They eat with glad and generous hearts, honor God and benefit from the esteem of the larger culture. This strategy rooted in the Good News of Jesus causes the community to grow numerically and to extend the wholeness of the Gospel to more and more people.

Jesus finishes the blessings and woes. Then he shifts the discourse. “But rather,” he announces, “I am saying to you who continue to listen…” Sarah Henrich, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes a grammatical detail that matters at this point. “In 6:27 Jesus begins, ‘I declare to you who are listening,’” she notes. “One could emphasize the present participle and translate it as: ‘I declare to you who are still listening.’” What could that mean?

Perhaps Jesus is aware (at least in the Lukan author’s reconstruction) that his blessings may have distracted the marginalized among his listeners. And the woes may have alienated the more privileged among his listeners.

I can tell, as a preacher, when I have said something that leads many in the congregation into daydreaming. And I can tell when I have said something that hurts or irritates some of my listeners. I’m usually pretty clear in advance that this may happen. I might build in a strategy to recover their attention before either the distracted or the disgruntled check out completely. I have been known to say in a sermon, “If you’re still listening at this point…”

That’s often enough of a challenge to get roving or resistant listeners to check back in to the message until the next time I derail or offend them. If this is part of the sense of sentence from the Lukan author, then perhaps the intent of the “but rather” is an acknowledgment in particular that the “woes” were anticipated to put some people off – particularly those powerful, privileged, positioned, and propertied people in the crowd on the plain and, by extension in the Lukan community. There was a danger that those folks would check out of the conversation permanently at that point unless they were wooed back in again.

This may seem to be a small point, but I think it’s worth pursuing. I am thinking about all the times when my own power, privilege, position, and property have been pointed out to me. I remember, in another lifetime, the first time my male privilege and misogyny were made clear to me. First, it was new information, so I simply didn’t understand. Of course, that defense last about three seconds, and then I knew what the issue was (at least a bit).

I know that I stopped listening at that point, and for quite a while after. I used the energy I should have devoted to listening and re-tasked that energy for self-defense and self-justification. My human brain has limited active processing capacity. If I’m spending it on making myself look good while under “attack,” then I won’t have anything left to hear what’s actually being said to me.

I know this is certainly the case for me when it comes to my white male privilege. But before I address that, there is for me the real matter that I hate to be told that I’m wrong. I intensely dislike being contradicted. I have a congenital lack of humility when it comes to my own views and opinions. Saying to someone, “You may be right,” does not come naturally to me. It only happens with practice, diligence, and calm.

The source of that resistance is not confidence or strength, at least not for me. It comes from the deep and clear sense that I have never been enough and will never be enough. Just because I know that’s not true doesn’t mean that sense has lost its power over me. In response to that constant threat to my ego, I build and maintain rigid realms of rightness that resist all contradictions. I’m often astounded that people put up with me.

Of course, then I remember many of us are like this and don’t even notice that it’s a flaw rather than a strength.

All that psychological confession aside, let’s get back to my lack of white listening. “The first duty of love,” wrote Paul Tillich, “is to listen.” We all know how quickly we can move in a conversation from deep listening to constructing our response to what we may or may not have heard. Often that response will be some form of self-defense rather than a request for further information. To love is first of all to listen.

The listening that matters is a deep and full and long listening, especially when we are asked to listen to testimonies that contradict our settled understanding and/or implicate us in a problem. Austin Channing Brown notes that such listening is not the same as “dialogue.” Dialogue, she argues, is the favored strategy of reasonable White churches to deal with racial tension.

But such dialogue is not helpful. “I am convinced,” she writes in I’m Still Here, that one of the reasons white churches favor dialogue is that the parameters of dialogue can be easily manipulated to benefit whiteness.” Such dialogues are often marked by tone policing which advises that people of color should nicer, kinder, more gracious, and less angry. “But we cannot negotiate our way to reconciliation,” Brown continues. “White people need to listen, to pause so that people of color can clearly articulate both the disappointment they’ve endured and what it would take for reparations to be made.”

“Too often,” Brown concludes, “dialogue functions as a stall tactic, allowing white people to believe they’ve done something heroic when the real work is yet to come” (pages 169-170).

Listening requires that people with power, privilege, position, and property sit and pay attention long enough and fully enough to begin to understand the hearts, minds, and lives of those who live without the four P’s. People with power will have no trouble getting a voice and a platform for their positions. There’s no need to make sure that the “dialogue” is “mutual.” Jesus starts with the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the persecuted. Let us do the same.

I find great reluctance in many American Christian congregations to do such listening, even at the most basic level. I know a congregation that was considering placing a large cellphone tower on their property in the midst of a working-class neighborhood. This was a congregation that wondered why the neighbors didn’t respond to their invitations to participate in the congregation’s life. Yet, in the process of deciding about the cellphone tower (an income-producing opportunity for the congregation), the congregation had no interest in consulting with the neighbors.

I say to you who are still listening, love cannot be selective in its listening. The congregation was, I suspect, fearful that the neighbors would oppose the project and thus interfere with the financial windfall available to the struggling congregation. Thus, they did not even take the risk of listening. I am not surprised that the neighbors express no interest in the life of the congregation.

Could it be that the Lukan author is urging the better-off folks in the congregation to listen to the lives of the marginalized in their midst? I think that is one of the subtexts of this gospel account and certainly built into the fabric of the Sermon on the Plain.

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.

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Text Study for Luke 6:27-38 (Part One)

What Do We Do with Difference?

7 Epiphany C 2022

How should disciples deal with human hierarchies? That question animates the Gospel according to Luke more than any of the other three canonical gospel accounts. The Markan composer seems to imagine a fairly “flat” community made up primarily of the economically and socially marginalized. The Matthean author is more concerned with the legitimacy of the Jesus movement within the Judaisms of his time. The Johannine author is dealing with the dynamics of community and anti-community. Thus, the hierarchies in both communities are of less consequence to the Johannine author.

The Lukan gospel is known for its concern for the poor. It is studied for its attention to women, whether that attention is regarded as positive or negative (or some of each). The Lukan account has more uses of the Greek words for “poor” and “rich” than any of the other gospels and perhaps more than the other three combined (I haven’t checked that). The Lukan gospel has more notices of the relative ranks of its characters than any of the other gospels. The Lukan gospel has more names of and stories about women than any of the other gospels.

Photo by Susanne Jutzeler on Pexels.com

Status, hierarchy, rank, caste – however you want to describe it, the Lukan author expends a great deal of papyrus and energy addressing these realities. Even the Lukan discussions of ethnicity are about hierarchy. After all, the real bite of the Good Samaritan parable is that the Samaritan is good, not bad. And it is Luke who uses the words and images of women to describe the character of God.

This focus on the ladders of power, privilege, position, and property begins in the Magnificat in Luke 1. Mary sings of the Great Reversal that is launched by the child she will bear. The lowly servant will be called “blessed” by all succeeding generations. Those who would be praised, the proud, will be left utterly confused. The enthroned powers will be dethroned, and the lowly will be elevated. The hungry will be satisfied, and the rich will be famished.

Status, hierarchy, rank, caste, privilege, power, position, property – these realities are addressed repeatedly in the Lukan account. Why?

I need to remind myself often that none of the New Testament writers thought they were writing “the New Testament.” The Lukan author is trying to set down an orderly account of the Gospel for his patron, “most excellent Theophilus,” so that his patron’s faith may be deepened and strengthened. Even in the superscription to the Lukan account we see the hallmarks of hierarchy. Gradations of human worth exist in the Lukan community, and our author needs to address them. If those differences weren’t there (and causing distress), the Lukan author would write about something else

We are now far enough along in the growth of the Christian movement that people of higher status are no longer oddities in that movement. It’s not that there were no relatively wealthy Christians earlier on. We have only to read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to see that class and gender distinctions were imported from the larger culture into the first Christian communities. And that importation was causing unhealthy divisions in those communities.

Forty years later, hierarchy was still a live issue for disciples. If the Lukan community didn’t have concerns about the relationships between poor and rich, hungry and full, weeping and laughing, reviled and honored disciples, then I suspect the Lukan author would have selected other materials and would have chosen other styles and emphases. I always need to remember that the Gospel authors made choices about their material. We know this from the confession at the end of the Johannine account that there were many things that didn’t make it into that book.

The Gospel writers made choices that were relevant to and pressing upon their communities. That doesn’t mean that the Gospel accounts are irrelevant to us. That is hardly the case. But it does mean that if we are to read these accounts faithfully, we must begin with the issues and concerns that faced the first communities. We must seek to read and understand those issues and concerns with empathy and accuracy. Only then can we make a faithful and respectful connection to our own issues and concerns.

Nothing in the New Testament (or in the whole Christian bible, for that matter) is a palimpsest upon which we get to write whatever we want in describing the reality and meaning of the text. When we do that overwriting, we then make the text subject to our authority rather than the other way round. When I am guilty of that activity, I hope to be challenged on it. And I intend to do it as little as possible.

With that confession, we can come back to the question. How should disciples deal with human hierarchies? That seems to have been a timely question for the Lukan author and for the community which received that document. It is certainly a timely question for us in the United States – especially we White Christians who are confronted with our ongoing complicity in the project of White Supremacy which undergirds so much of our national life.

Is the goal for Christian community to have no hierarchies at all? We might draw that from Paul’s description of the outcome of Christian baptism in Galatians 3. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV).

A generation later, however, the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians seem to assume those same hierarchies and to reinforce them in Christian communities. Wives are to be subject to husbands, and children are to obey parents. Enslaved persons are to obey their earthly slaveholders – not grudgingly, but with enthusiasm since the service is ultimately rendered to the Lord.

Are human hierarchies built into the fabric of Creation? Shall we regulate these differential dynamics of power rather than seeking to remove them? Are human beings innately hierarchical, prone to dominance/submission dyads, locked in the dance of honor and shame? This is a question that has energized anthropologists and sociologists from the first days of each of those disciplines.

Modern science has too often concluded that not only are human beings inveterately hierarchical, but the hierarchies in place at the time represented the “natural order of things.” The amount of time spent demonstrating that White Europeans were the pinnacle of human evolution is, in retrospect, astonishing and embarrassing. An equal amount of time was spent (and is sometimes still spent) demonstrating that Black Africans were (and are) at the base of that evolutionary pyramid, never to rise above a barely human status.

A similar quantity of scholarly energy has been devoted to demonstrating that the poor are impoverished because that is also in the natural order of things. Some perspectives are always searching for the few “worthy” poor who deserve help from the rich. When those have been identified, then the rest of the destitute can be disregarded and discarded as “unworthy.” The real goal is to make the “worthy” category vanishingly small. In the end, poverty itself becomes the crime and is regarded as its own punishment.

In the Greco-Roman worldview, human hierarchy was also the natural order of things. The honorable, male, head of the household, the paterfamilias, was the pinnacle of human being. Those male high points were also in a hierarchy which found its culmination in the Emperor, the father of the fatherland. Every person had a place in that honor/shame system. Social harmony was achieved when everyone knew their place and stayed in it.

The assertion of Judaism that all human beings are bearers of the Divine Image had the potential to disrupt that hierarchical thinking and at some points in history did precisely that. But the human drive to be more than another was central to the ancient monarchies of Israel and Judah as well. The classical prophets called for the economic re-normalization of the Jubilee year. But that may have been only aspiration and never reality.

Nonetheless, Jesus calls upon that prophetic tradition in the instruction and formation of disciples. He came and stood on a level place, and everyone stood on the level with him. In the blessings and woes, the hierarchies in the Lukan community receive critical analysis and prophetic warning. In the verses that follow, the Lukan Jesus gives instructions on how those hierarchies are to be managed and flattened within that community.

Status, hierarchy, rank, caste – they walk in the sanctuary doors with us every Sunday morning. Power, privilege, position, and property – these are issues that confront every Christian community, if only we are willing to look at ourselves with honesty and clarity. We don’t all live the same lives. We don’t all have the same stuff. We don’t all stand on a level place.

How do we deal with the differences and continue as faithful Jesus followers? That challenge drives and informs the Lukan sermon on the Plain.

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