Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 24, 2019
Luke 6:27-38 Commentary
If you are a preacher who likes to highlight the fact that Jesus was always friendliest toward the very same “sinners” that were shunned by the religious authorities of his day, then it can be a little disconcerting to hear Jesus in this passage use the word “sinners” in what sounds like a pejorative way. After all, when (as at the beginning of Luke 15) the Pharisees and others noted that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them,” you can hear the sneer and snarl in their voice as that word “sinners” rolled off their curled lips. For the Pharisees and others, “sinners” was a derogatory term, like today calling someone a “loser” or a “lowlife” or some other such epithet of derision.
So it’s difficult to imagine Jesus’ curling his own lips in some kind of a derisive sneer here when he again and again says to the disciples, “What credit is it to you if you do such-and-such? Shoot, even SINNERS do that much.” But perhaps there is another way to read this—a way of understanding these verses that will keep Jesus clear of doing what, all things being equal, we would all agree would constitute a rather un-Christ-like thing; namely, putting someone down in a mean-spirited fashion.
First, we need to let Scripture interpret Scripture and in the case of Luke’s wider gospel, it is clear that so-called “sinners” were indeed the people to whom Jesus wished to extend his love first and foremost. Jesus did keep company with such people and when (a la Luke 15) the religious authorities criticized Jesus for doing so, Jesus told parables and made analogies that made it clear that he came precisely to reach out in love to just those people and that when one of those lost souls gets found, there is great rejoicing in heaven. So whatever nuance Jesus gave to the oft-repeated word “sinners” here, it cannot mean that he is using that term derisively the way others in his day did. That would cut against the grain of the rest of Luke’s gospel and its presentation of Jesus.
Second, even within this immediate context, Jesus is telling the disciples to show love and deference and kindness to precisely the kind of people who would be deemed “sinners” by the religious authorities. So although Jesus is drawing a distinction between disciples and “sinners,” the fact is that this distinction is being drawn in the service of being kind to precisely those same so-called sinners. Again, this disposition militates against viewing “sinners” here as a category of people whom Jesus is dismissing out of hand or is being intentionally derogatory toward.
We in the Church sometimes talk too glibly and easily about those who are outside the Church. Not a few high profile pastors and columnists and radio personalities these days are good at bashing “secular humanists” or “the left wing” or “the liberal media” or “those whacky ACLU types.” But it’s difficult (at best) for us to follow Jesus’ advice here in terms of loving those who disagree with us (and even those who take advantage of us) if as a matter of fact we spend a fair amount of time within our church circles (much less within sermons or the context of worship) bashing those same people through the use of derisive labels.
Truly to follow Jesus’ advice here requires a fairly radical set of behaviors—so radical, in fact, that most of us would have to admit we don’t generally come anywhere close to carrying out the full extent of Jesus’ advice here. But we surely will never make even a beginning here if we use our rhetoric to pigeonhole and deride the very “sinners” we are called to love.
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
Why does Jesus recommend what he does? Wouldn’t this make us into chumps? Won’t we become the world’s doormat if we assume as passive a posture in the face of abuse as Jesus seems to suggest? Most churches I know are pretty careful about handing out money to folks who wander in off the streets looking for a handout. We even here and there have systems within a given city or county to keep track of people who “abuse the system” by going from one church to the next, telling the same sad story in each place. (“My car is out of gas and my father is in the hospital in Chicago. If I could have $20 to get down there, that’d be wonderful. I’ll be able to pay you back later when I come back through this area . . .”) We even send emails from one church to the next warning people about these “frequent fliers” who exploit unsuspecting churches.
We mostly don’t live the way Jesus recommends. We’re wary of being take advantage of. On those few occasions over the years when I did slip someone a $10 or a $20, I was later told by my deacons what a mistake I’d made. “Keep handing out money like that, pastor, and they’ll be lined up out the door before you know it!”
It seems like we’ve spent a good deal of church history trying to figure out ways to parse Jesus’ words here so as to avoid our becoming suckers and chumps. Just watch what happens in case someone suggests that these verses have implications for even politics and international affairs. Many people will spring to their feet and tell you in no uncertain terms that these are instructions for disciples in the context of their private lives of devotion to God. To suggest this could be in any way applied to military conflicts or the affairs of state is to make a big category mistake, some will say (and to an extent they have a point. Still . . .). Other times we make grim jokes. “Why did you hit that man back?” we will ask someone. “Well, I turned both cheeks, he slapped them both, and since I was fresh out of cheeks to turn, I slugged him!”
In my city there is a wonderful clothing and furniture ministry. The store is open for shopping at certain designated hours of the week. Customers usually stream in once the doors are open. The shoppers browse through neatly laid out racks of clothing, coats, and accessories as well as aisles of small furniture items. When they are finished “shopping,” however, they just leave with their stuff. There is no check-out counter, no cash register. It’s all free. I think it’s a great ministry. But some time ago a member of my church who is a landlord of many apartments in the city derided the ministry. “You should see the boxes of clothes and stuff these poor people leave behind when they move or in case they get evicted. And they all come from that ministry in the city there. What a waste.”
Jesus’ words here are hard, radical, and demand of us and of the Church generally a lifestyle and set of practices that we find difficult to imitate. So why would Jesus say this? Why would Jesus set us up to be chumps and suckers, wide open to abuse? Does anyone really operate this way?
Listen: “Then . . . you will be children of the Most High because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”
Ahhh. Now we get it. Jesus is recommending no more and no less than the same thing he’d seen all along in his Father. As the Son of God himself, Jesus is speaking from divine experience. When you are the Creator God of the entire cosmos, you sooner or later get used to seeing people snarfing up and consuming all the bounty of your creative imagination yet without even once giving a sidelong glance back to the Giver of all that good food, good wine, and good everything. Seeing ungrateful people is a commonplace for God. God has spent altogether too much time watching delicate creatures fashioned in his own image strutting around this world and fancying themselves to be “self-made people.” God has witnessed altogether too many people sighing over the glories of a crimson sunset only to see those same people marveling at how this whole big and beautiful world of ours just happened to evolve all on its own.
“Because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” That line reveals much as to what is behind Jesus’ rhetoric in Luke 6. It also tells us in an instant that if we think that following Jesus’ advice here is a quick path to becoming a sucker or a chump, we’d best wonder about that a little. Unless, that is, we want to so label God . . .
This entire passage is an example of Jesus’ oft-used rhetorical technique of “so much more.” In some places it is more clearly stated as the “ad miniore maius” principle, the “how much more so” idea. If some people manage to love those who love them back, how much more shouldn’t you go the extra mile to love the unlovable, to lend to the unreliable!” The principle here is summed up with the image of the measuring cup in verse 38. In baking the experts always tell you to be mindful of really getting that “1 Cup of Flour” that the recipe calls for. If you just casually dip a measuring cup into a flour jar, you might think you have a full cup of flour but there may well be air pockets. When recipes call for 1 Cup, they mean 1 packed cup in which the chef has made sure to tamp the flour down, tap the cup on the counter to release air, and just generally make sure you’ve got one full measure indeed. Jesus’ image here suggests making double-sure that you have the fullest measure possible. But then he engages in a little hyperbole by saying that once you have tamped it down to make sure you’ve packed in as much as you can, dip it in one more time and let it overflow! It’s a wildly generous and, just so, wonderful image!
In John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, readers get to know the Joad family pretty well. The Joads are dirt poor “Okies” who are forced by the Dust Bowl to travel cross-country to California where, they have been led to believe, a virtual paradise awaits them. There will be plenty of work, warm weather, a bounty of fresh fruit and vegetables to eat.
Along the way they encounter every imaginable hardship, including losing to death both the grandpa and grandma who had set out with them. They are in perpetual need. But as they travel, something comes up almost like a refrain and it is to the effect “Never go to rich folks to ask for help because they won’t give it. It’s the poor that always helps out folks. From what little they have, the poor share in a way the rich never will.”
It’s a quirky paradox of life: the more you have, the more you calculate before giving something away. You want to insure your investment. You don’t want to be snookered. Yet those who have very little give more freely. The very people who by all rights ought to be watching out for every penny they have are often the same ones who are generous to a fault.
It feels like the kind of thing Jesus was getting at in Luke 6.
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