Theology in 3D

The Hermeneutics of Self-Sacrificing Love

Ken Casillas | April 30, 2018
New Testament, Theology

In his Sermon on the Plain Jesus issues the convicting command, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). Then follow various specific applications of this radical ethic, including these:

To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. . . . And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. (vv. 29-30, 34-35a)

INTERPRETIVE CHALLENGES

The conscientious reader and the conscientious expository preacher naturally struggle over how literally to interpret such statements and how directly to apply them. Some of the issues don’t seem that difficult to resolve. Love for enemies does not imply, for example, that a Christian isn’t allowed to use violence in legitimate law enforcement or warfare. John the Baptist told Roman soldiers not to abuse their authority, but he didn’t tell them to find another job (Luke 3:14). And immediately after instructing Christians not to avenge themselves (Rom 12:19-21), Paul stated that civil governors hold the power of the sword as instruments of divine vengeance (13:4).

The context in Luke 6 is clearly dealing with the personal, not the governmental, level. Yet as soon as one starts thinking concretely on the personal level, puzzling questions flood the mind. How many times should I keep letting someone slap me? Should I pray that persecuted believers would be delivered from their suffering? Does Jesus expect me to walk around shirtless (tunic-less) a lot of the time? Should I give money to everyone who begs of me? If so, how much? And if I live in a society full of beggars, will I end up becoming a beggar myself? How can I survive if I continue to lend people money without expecting them to pay it back? How would I support my family?

As I ponder such questions, I start wondering if Christ’s words are a bit hyperbolic. But then I stumble across comments like this: “Many want more specifics in the interpretation of the verses that talk about poor and rich primarily to find loopholes to assuage their consciences and so to receive some assurance that Jesus’ warnings do not fully apply to them” (David Garland, Luke, 291). Yikes! I thought I was trying to figure out what exactly the Lord wants me to do. But am I actually looking for loopholes? Or maybe the commentator is violating Christ’s command a couple verses later, “Judge not, and you will not be judged” (v. 37)?

THE ANALOGY OF SCRIPTURE

In any case, an important interpretive step is comparing Scripture with Scripture. Several lines of biblical thought seem relevant to the analysis of the Sermon on the Plain. First, Jesus is surely using hyperbole in parts of the parallel or equivalent Sermon on the Mount. Few would argue that he was requiring self-mutilation as a strategy for resisting lust (Matt 5:29-30). Blind and maimed people can lust anyway. Christ is employing shocking language in order to arrest his hearer’s attention and emphasize their desperate need to eliminate sources of temptation.

In Luke 6:27 the enemies we are supposed to love are particularly those who oppose us because of our allegiance to Jesus (cf. vv. 22, 26). This leads us to consider the Bible’s overall teaching about persecution. Here are some salient points:

  • Though our Lord eventually yielded himself to his enemies and prayed for those who crucified him (Luke 23:34), earlier he had evaded the effort to stone him at Nazareth (4:29-30).
  • He also said this to seventy disciples whom he sent on a mission trip: “But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (10:10-12; cf. 9:5).
  • Stephen prayed for his executioners (Acts 7:60), and multiple times Paul graciously “turned the other cheek” and allowed himself to be beaten and imprisoned. Yet the Apostle also escaped his persecutors at Damascus via a basket lowered down the city wall (9:23-5). And at Jerusalem he avoided a beating by claiming his rights as a Roman citizen (22:25).
  • Paul also had stern things to say concerning the enemies of his gospel message. ” If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor 16:22). So also Galatians 1:8-9.

We find similar qualifications when it comes to the matter of giving to the poor:

  • In Acts 4:34-37 Barnabas and others sell real estate and use the proceeds to provide for the poor. But Peter’s words to Ananias suggest that this was voluntary, not viewed as a requirement (5:4).
  • In 2 Thessalonians 3 Paul rebukes believers who are not gainfully employed and goes so far as to say, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (v. 10). Shouldn’t that precept enter into a Christian approach to poverty?
  • James 1:27 identifies caring for orphans and widows as a key aspect of Christianity. On the other hand, in Timothy 5 Paul restricts the church’s material support of widows to those who meet highly specific criteria. Here he also emphasizes the necessity and priority of providing for the needs of one’s family: “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (v. 8).

Theologians have long wrestled over how to integrate and implement the Bible’s teaching on showing love to the poor. My intent here isn’t to resolve that debate (see this and thisfor helpful starting points). I’m simply pointing out that both biblically and practically this is a complicated matter and that the total revelation of Scripture needs to be kept in mind when interpreting and applying the Sermon on the Plain.

THE BOTTOM LINE

So where does all this leave us? Have we effectively emptied our Lord’s words of meaning? No, we have begun to arrive at his actual meaning. Given all the relevant factors (and I’ve listed only a few), it would seem that Jesus is using exaggerated rhetoric to arouse his hearers’ attention and to disturb their consciences and to lead them to repentance and divine transformation. He is not laying down rigid rules but giving extreme illustrations of the kinds of self-denying things his disciples will be called upon to do in order to show love.

In particular circumstances, what we do may be less extreme than, as extreme as, or more extreme than Jesus’ illustrations. But the fundamental issue is meeting the needs of other people—even our enemies—rather than living for our own temporal comfort. After all, Christ died for his enemies (Rom 5:10). Discipleship to him naturally entails a life devoted to the good of others even at great expense to ourselves.

How do we know what this looks like in specific situations? We are probably not on the right track if our ministry to others tends not to “hurt” us, if we extend love mostly when it is convenient, if our love doesn’t look much different from the world’s, if there is nothing that appears a bit extreme, if there is nothing that tastes of the fruit of the Spirit.

But questions remain about how to bring the Bible’s multi-faceted teaching to bear on complex situations. Here Philippians 1:9-10 gives us direction. “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” Exercising love is not a matter of following a formula. It requires discernment, the ability to read particular people and circumstances and make the best judgment call as to how to demonstrate love toward them. And this discernment comes through the kind of earnest prayer that Paul prays for the Philippians.

Our interpretation of Luke 6 has seen some hyperbole, but it has not taken the edge off of our Lord’s teaching. Indeed, if we seek to live out this passage prayerfully and consistently, we will agree with J. C. Ryle. Concerning verses 27-38, he wrote: “Few of [Jesus’] sayings are so deeply heart-searching as those we have now been considering. Few passages in the Bible are so truly humbling as these eleven verses” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels,2/1:186).

Photo credit: unclelkt at pixabay.com


One response to “The Hermeneutics of Self-Sacrificing Love”

  1. […] last post dealt with Jesus’ use of hyperbole in some of his sayings in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke […]

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