Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 6:27-38
Jesus said that His followers are to love all people by treating them with respect, mercy, and generosity -- including the people who are our enemies. It's a difficult and unprecedented teaching, but when we model it we show the world the nature of the One True God.
Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, January 17 2021
I think it's very poignant that this day happens now. We think of this day (rightly) as a day to mourn and stand against abortion. But it's also a day when we remember that God loves every human being. This week, we have been reminded that people oppose our beliefs, some with great hostility. Guess what? We are to love those people -- be generous, merciful, and forgiving with them.
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Getting Started: Things to Think About
"That's Not Fair!"
If you work with children, have children, or were ever a child, you are very familiar with the phrase "that's not fair". Can you remember situations from your childhood where you questioned the fairness of things?
I remember one time that my elementary class was really good and our reward was getting to watch a movie. We voted on which movie, and the movie I wanted didn't win. So -- "that's not fair! they get to watch what they want, why can't I?" And one day we got free dessert at lunch. Of course, I didn't like the dessert they had, so "that's not fair!" (Today, kids see someone else with a "special" allergy-related snack and think "not fair".) In other words, "I deserve to get what I want just as much as they do."
That worked in my household, too (and everybody else's). I was the oldest child, so I didn't always think it was fair the amount of attention being given to my younger sisters. And they complained about the fairness of things I got to do because I was older.
As I got older, I noticed preferential treatment for certain athletes and cheerleaders and sometimes thought "that's not fair". But with more hindsight, I've realized that because I was a good student and a teacher's pet, I got preferential treatment with certain extracurricular things -- including things that others may have been more deserving of!
So, because it made me think long and hard about a lot of things in my life this week, I think that "fairness" could be a great opening discussion topic.
Fairness: An Exercise
First, let's demonstrate that everyone has an innate concept of fairness. Here are two ideas, but you can come up with something best suited to your group:
Bring a "prize", like a candy bar or a $5 bill. Put it somewhere high in your room. Pick a tall person and a short person. Tell them "That's yours! You just have to be able to reach it without any help or equipment."
Pick a passage in the Bible. Say "Let's have a contest to read who can read this the fastest out loud. But you can't wear your glasses or contacts." Use that same fun prize as a carrot.
(By the way -- any time you do contests like these, make sure you actually bring enough prizes to give away to the participants for being a good sport!)
My gut reaction -- even just thinking about this exercise -- is "whoa, that's not fair!" Why? Because they aren't getting equitable opportunity. It's not their "fault" they're tall or short, right? But I can't put my finger on exactly what that has to do with "fair".
So, how would we explain fairness? (And if we have trouble doing this with adults, how much harder to explain fairness to children!)
This Week's Big Idea: What Is "Fair"?
What does "fair" really mean? You might be tempted to Google this for answers. If you do, you're to find some very human perspectives. (Some of those perspectives are so agenda-driven as to be unusable.) Here are the two most common defensible perspectives:
"Fair" has to do with equitable advantages (I think you could call this "equal opportunity"). In other words, for a situation to be fair for two people, neither should have an unjust advantage or benefit from bias. There's a lot to be said for this, and it would not be wrong to say that a lot of the unrest in our country stems from this understanding of fairness.
"Fair" has to do with merit or worthiness. It is not fair not to get what you deserve. If you worked harder than the other person, it would not be fair for them to get the promotion. (This also works in reverse -- it's not fair for the crook to "get away with it".) Obviously, this is really just another way of looking at the first option, but this is closer in wording to the "eye for an eye" perspective in Old Testament law.
Note: "fair" cannot mean equal. "Equality" is about "sameness" and none of us are the same. The exercise above about eyesight and height demonstrates that "fair" cannot mean "equal". (That's why I used the word "equitable".)
Now let's get to the real nitty-gritty. What does the Bible have to say about "fair"? Is God "fair"? I hope you were able to realize right away where the above understandings of "fair" break down.
Does a bigger person breathe more air? Does a farmer take advantage of more sunlight than a night shift worker? Does someone with acreage benefit more from rain than someone in an apartment? Well, I guess. Is it then fair for God to allow those people to benefit unequally from His benefits? Is that really what fair is supposed to mean?
Are jobs and resources distributed evenly throughout the world (or even the United States)? Does the gospel have equal promotion in every country? Well, no. So is it fair that God allowed us to be born where we were and live where we are when others cannot?
I hope your head hurts a little thinking about this. (And I hope your heart hurts, too.) Because "fair" means something else to God than to us. In our passage this week, Jesus tells us to do good to all people, especially those who mean us ill. Is that fair? Is it fair to tell us to do those things and not everybody else?
Look up the word "fair" in the Bible and write down what it says. (I found 20 applicable uses in the HCSB.) Here are three key passages:
Proverbs 29:14 -- A king who judges the poor with fairness— his throne will be established forever.
Ezekiel 18:25 -- But you say, ‘The Lord’s way isn’t fair.’ Now listen, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair? Instead, isn’t it your ways that are unfair?
Zechariah 7:9 -- The Lord of Armies says this: ‘Make fair decisions. Show faithful love and compassion to one another.'
In twelve passages, the root of the Hebrew word is related to "regulate" or "measure", which is related the idea of "fair weights" -- the idea that things are adjusted to the agreed-upon standard (see below). (In some translations, you'll see "right"; in others "equal".) In the rest, the Hebrew word is related to "accurate judgment". In other words, it's about treating everybody the same way (even when that doesn't mean treating them the same).
In the Bible, "fairness" is about behaving righteously toward everyone, regardless of your advantage or disadvantage for doing so.
So, by that definition, it is absolutely fair to command us to do things not commanded of everyone else because that the very definition of proper, biblical fairness. Basically, we are asking the question if it is fair for God to tell us that we have to be fair. The answer must always be yes.
If God treated us "fairly" by the standard of equitable advantages, He would have to supersede all human sin and turn us into puppets -- because human sin is the cause of much inequity on earth. As it is, He has given us all "equal opportunity and responsibility" for responding to His offer of salvation.
If God treated us "fairly" by giving us what we deserve, we would all be in hell already. So, I'm quite grateful that God does not operate according to a human understanding of fair.
From God's perspective, "fair" means treating everybody righteously. (Jesus gave us the "Golden Rule" to understand this, which we will discuss below.) And there's a simple driving force behind this: the way we treat others demonstrates to them how God would treat them. Does our behavior show them God's love for them, or does it drive them away from God?
Our Context in Luke
This is a little odd -- to line up with Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, our Bible study skipped ahead to this important (and, again, well-timed!) passage. In the weeks ahead, we will go back to cover the passages we skipped. Here's an outline:
God affirms Jesus in His baptism (Luke 3:21-38)
Jesus demonstrates that He is worthy of God's affirmation (4:1-44)
Tested in the wilderness (4:1-13)
Rejected at Nazareth (4:14-30)
Drives out an unclean spirit (4:31-37)
Heals many (4:38-44)
Jesus begins to build a new community (5:1-6:16)
Calls the first disciples (5:1-11)
Heals and forgives (5:12-26)
Calls Matthew and eats with sinners (5:27-32)
Overrules the old rules (5:33-6:11)
The Twelve Apostles (6:12-16)
Jesus sets the values for this new community (6:17-49)
What "blessing" means (6:17-26)
Love your enemies (6:27-36)
Do not judge (6:37-42)
Bear fruit (6:46-49)
Build on the right foundation (6:46-49)
As I've said before, it's incredibly well-constructed. Hopefully this simple outline explains how these next few lessons fit into the larger Gospel of Luke.
Part 1: Love All (Luke 6:27-31)
27 “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and from someone who takes your things, don’t ask for them back. 31 Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.
Obviously, you'll recognize this from "The Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7). Some scholars have called Luke 6:17-49 "The Sermon on the Plain". There are many similarities between the two sermons, but they are not identical. Skeptics have said that the differences prove that Matthew and/or Luke modified Jesus' teachings to fit their agenda. A much better way to look at this is to remember that Jesus was an itinerant preacher. If you listen to a traveling evangelist enough times, you'll notice that he uses the same stories (and sometimes the same sermons). Why? Because those hit the high points, and those people probably haven't heard it before. (Note: that's why it is harder to be a preacher in a single church for many years.) Jesus absolutely would have used the same lessons in different settings. After all, we teach repeatedly out of the Gospels, right? Well, so did Jesus, so to speak! In other words, The Sermon on the Mount and The Sermon on the Plain are two different sermons in which Jesus made similar points.
Studying in depth why Matthew included the one but Luke the other helps you understand the differences between Matthew and Luke. Matthew presented five antitheses (5:21-48) covering Jewish life as compared with their misapplication of the Old Testament. Luke focused on one which connects with all people -- love. (Note: Luke specifies that it is a "level ground" -- I wonder if there is theological significance to that.)
Jesus is building a new community, so it is vital for those people to realize that Jesus is giving them a new way to live that might be at odds with what they have been taught. The word for "love" here is indeed agape. And just in case His followers try to weasel out of these teachings (see Luke 10 and the Parable of the Good Samaritan), He gives clear definition of what "love your enemies" means.
But first, let's make sure we understand the "why". Your enemy is someone who is separated from God (fellow believers in Jesus should not be enemies!) -- you love them because you desire them to be reconciled with God. Your actions then must be about removing the obstacles between them and God. This can include the gospel witness and it can also include living in such a way as to destroy stereotypes and be an embodiment of grace.
An "enemy" is someone who has hostility towards you. That might refer to physical violence, but there are lots of ways hostility can be expressed. You might ask your class what kinds of hostility they have experienced in life. (Note: this includes hostility that you deserve! Sometimes we make enemies through our sin and failure.) What is our normal reaction to people who are hostile towards us? (For me, if I know I caused the problem, I try to apologize and reconcile; otherwise, my reaction sadly tends to be avoidance.)
Jesus turns those reactions on their heads. He expects His followers to respond to hostility in ways that are completely unprecedented in human history.
Do what is good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you.
Pray for those who mistreat you.
Do not retaliate against the one who strikes you.
Do not seek retribution from the one who has taken from you.
Do not withhold what someone needs.
These things mean exactly what you think they mean no matter how much you don't like them. But we can clarify what they don't mean.
Importantly, Jesus is not talking about giving evil free reign. He is talking about our personal encounters with those who are enemies of Christianity. (In Matthew, Jesus specifically mentioned persecution.) The way we respond to their hostility toward us will inform their next step toward/away from God.
The phrase "hits you on the cheek" refers to an insulting backhanded slap (in Matthew, it's the right cheek), not a punch in the face. The image is that of a public insult, like being thrown out of synagogue. Thus, offering the other cheek means continuing to love that person, even after this public offense. In other words, there is a risk taken when you love your enemies. The "coat" (warm, outer garment) and "shirt" (undergarment) are reversed from Matthew, indicating that here Jesus is talking about theft. In other words, material possessions are not a valid reason for retaliation. With respect to giving, Matthew's setting indicates almsgiving, but Luke's setting indicates loaning something out. If they fail to give it back to you, don't escalate it. (See the next section for more.)
Why? Why would Jesus say these things? There are two critical reasons:
To break the cycle of escalation. If we don't stop it, certainly the other person won't, and escalated retaliation never ends well.
To demonstrate the generosity of God. Our behavior reflects God to that person. If we are stingy and vindictive, how can that person understand God's grace?
Look up the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in Matthew 18:21-35 for Jesus' explanation of this. If we truly understand God's grace towards us, we will be gracious towards one another. This goes back to what we said last week: if the gospel is to seem real to the people you share it with, it must make a visible and tangible difference in your life. This -- loving your enemies -- is an undeniable evidence of the truth of the good news of Jesus.
Jesus' shorthand instruction for all of this is The Golden Rule. I used to think that this should be easy and straightforward, but humans continually impress me with their ability to ruin it, so let's dive in.
What do you think the Golden Rule means? What do you think it doesn't mean? What are examples of times it has directly helped you decide how to act in a situation?
The Golden Rule: What It Is and Isn't
If you Google the Golden Rule, you'll find a lot of sites that try to say that it's not unique to Christianity. This is from one philosophy site:
Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5:18)
Confucianism: ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” (Analects 15:23)
Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” (Mahabharata 5:1517)
Humanism: “Don’t do things you wouldn’t want to have done to you.” (The British Humanist Society)
Islam: “None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (#13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths)
Judaism: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
Zoroastrianism: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.” (Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5)
Note: everybody recognizes that Jesus' version is different. His is positive, while the others are negative (the Leviticus version was supposed to be positive, but the Jews found a way to interpret it as negative). But they don't really appreciate the difference. In the negative version of the rule, you can theoretically fulfill it by completely ignoring everyone else.
Or can you?
Here's the key to Christianity. We believe that there is only one way to heaven -- through Jesus Christ. If I do not share the gospel with someone, I cause them the ultimate pain of separation from God in hell. Do you see how this isn't so simple as non-Christians would want? Not "doing bad" to someone necessarily involves the "felt-as-bad" confrontation with the reality of sin and judgment. Conversely, "doing good" to someone also involves that "felt-as-bad" confrontation.
In other words, Christianity is the only religion which truly understands the nuance that sometimes "doing good" requires doing something that might be felt as hurtful. And "not doing bad" cannot mean ignoring a person forever -- we must share the good news of Jesus or we will do them the ultimate bad.
Does that make sense?
That's why liberal Christians are wrong who think that we are violating the Golden Rule when we confront people with their sins. The Golden Rule is not about validating people and making them feel good because we want to be validated and feel good. If we are truly a follower of Christ, we want to be disciplined by God, confronted with our sin, and pushed down the path of righteousness. That's the only way we can walk more closely with Jesus. And so, when we confront other Christians in their sin (for example, alternative lifestyles) it is precisely because we are living by the Golden Rule.
(Where liberal Christians have a point is when we impose a pattern of behavior on someone that has nothing to do with salvation, or when we impose that pattern without accompanying it with a clear presentation of the gospel. Otherwise, they're simply wrong. Encouraging legislation that restricts behavior that is destructive and dangerous is the very definition of the Golden Rule. But, again, if we encourage that legislation but fail to share the gospel, then we are selfish hypocrites who care more about our comfort than others' salvation.)
Part 2: With a Pure Heart (Luke 6:32-36)
32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High. For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
Oh yes, Jesus can always take it to the next level. You see, observing the Golden Rule as a Christian is an expectation, and Jesus is very aware of our efforts to look like we're living by the Golden Rule.
Do you know what a quid pro quo is? The old Latin phrase literally means "something for something", but it's been a part of American business and society for so long that it has its own legal meaning. Other phrases we use are things like "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" and "favor for a favor" and "give and take". It's how some business agreements seem so one-sided; there's an unwritten expectation that in the future, the favor will be returned. It becomes a big problem when companies or individuals use the quid pro quo to avoid a tangible exchange of goods or services that could constitute, say, bribery or require taxes. But it can also be a part of a town's fabric in a positive way -- businesses and individuals in a town (like Thomson) being generous and gracious with one another because they expect that if they were ever in need, other businesses and individuals would help them. Basically, it can be a societal application of the Golden Rule.
I am confident that just about everyone reading this page has experienced that in some way or another, whether in your business, as a customer, or with a neighbor. Do you have any stories you'd like to share? Was there a time that someone went out of their way to help you, and you had a chance to help them later?
Here's where the quid pro quo goes off the rails: you only offer the benefit or help to those you think can do something of value for you in the future. That's what becomes known as the "good ol' boys club". That's what Jesus tells Christians to avoid.
We cannot weigh our good deeds by presumed potential future benefit. That's no longer a good deed; it's work-for-pay.
That's why Jesus uses the word "credit" here. It's actually the Greek word charis, which we often translate as "gift" or "grace". In other words, it's not a gift if you expect something in return. Think of it this way: if a person bragged about how generous they were, when in fact all they did was pay an agreed-upon price, would that seem disingenuous to you? I worked with someone in a church who talked about all the nice things she did for people, only to find out that she was talking about things the church was paying her to do. She thought she was racking up the heavenly credit. Jesus addresses that attitude later in Luke:
“Which one of you having a servant tending sheep or plowing will say to him when he comes in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? Instead, will he not tell him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, get ready, and serve me while I eat and drink; later you can eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did what was commanded? In the same way, when you have done all that you were commanded, you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we’ve only done our duty.’” Luke 17:7-10
The standard we have for grace is God. Does God gain anything from us by giving us salvation? Of course not! And yet it cost Him more than we could ever know. We will never understand the infinite pain of separation of Father and Son, even though They are now reunited. If God has been infinitely gracious with us, who cannot "repay" Him in any way, we must be gracious with one another, regardless of ability to "repay".
A couple of things to note here:
Jesus is not saying that we should not do good things for people who can repay us. He is saying that we should do good things for all people. Along those lines, Paul makes it clear that our generosity should begin with the house of God, having in mind the divide between wealthy and poor members of churches, but then extended to all people (Gal 6:10).
Jesus is not saying that we must be reckless. We have responsibilities to our families and businesses and churches. He is saying that we must be generous and we must be willing to take risks for the sake of the gospel.
And here's the final "nail in the coffin" of those who think Jesus is crazy. God is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. Guess what: that was us! We have no excuses or rebuttals. And what is more, we have the "great reward" of heaven waiting for us.
[Aside: are we doing this for a reward? It might seem like Jesus is "bribing" His followers with good behavior. Well, just remember that He is speaking before the cross. The rest of the New Testament (which makes it crystal clear that our good behavior is out of gratitude for salvation and not in order to obtain it) was written after the ascension and the coming of the Spirit, making God's gift of salvation understandable. But here, Jesus is setting His followers on a path that probably doesn't make sense yet. This is similar to a "Trust Me, this will all be worth it. You'll see."
Part 3: And With Mercy (Luke 6:37-38)
37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you; a good measure—pressed down, shaken together, and running over—will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”
I am so out of space. Ordinarily, this passage is grouped with what follows, but it effectively summarizes and explains what happened in the previous verses. Estimating "who can pay you back" is the kind of judgment Jesus is talking about here. Saying "they're not worthy to receive my generosity" leads to "they're too risky to share the gospel with" leads to "they're probably beyond the grace of God". Oh no!
Remember that we said above that "fairness" in the biblical understanding refers to behaving equally righteously toward all people. Our judgments cause us to begin to treat people differently.
I've said this before, but it bears repeating: Jesus is not saying that we cannot judge a sin a sin. If you keep reading through 6:42, you'll see that we indeed have a responsibility to point out sin! He is saying that we must not judge anyone else in a way that we have not judged ourselves. And we should have judged ourselves guilty about many things. That's why our default nature should be one of generosity and grace and forgiveness.
Is that true of you?
What are examples in your life where someone's generosity made a big impact on you? Or what about a time when someone choosing to stop the cycle of escalating hostility made a lasting difference?
Closing Thoughts: Generous Measures
You know how when you buy a bag of chips, it's actually rather empty? That's a tactic used by some companies to fool consumers into thinking they're getting more chips -- by putting the labeled weight into a larger bag. They go by weight, not volume.
In Jesus' day, the same misleading tactics were used but the opposite way -- volume not weight. Grain would be loosely poured into a "measuring cup" and then sold to the customer. But some vendors would fill the cup, shake it and tap it and press it to get rid of the empty space and the fill it to the brim. And they would do that for everybody -- good customers and bad customers. That's what Jesus wants us to do.
Summary: Christians are not merely to be fair; we are to be generous.