Children of the Most High
Luke 6 : 27 — 38
In the earlier part of chapter 6 of this Gospel account (verse 12), Jesus spent a night in prayer on a mountain. As day dawned he called his disciples around him and appointed twelve of them "whom he also named apostles". After this they took a walk down part of the slopes till they came to a suitable place to gather round the Lord. There he spoke to the twelve plus the wider circle of disciples, although the general public were able to hear if they wanted to.
In our setting for this week's reading, Jesus is in fact speaking to all who wish to hear.
Our notes will offer a few snippets only to help interpret correctly what Jesus is saying. This is because most commentaries dwell on explaining our Lord's demands. We will focus more on the high point of his sermon and meditate on the implications of this amazing account.
Notes on Our Text
Verse 27 (a)
Jesus has been drilling his close followers with four warnings (or "woes" as they are referred to). Suddenly he casts his net wider to include any person listening to him. Not just to those who can hear, but those (and only those) who are listening, giving him their full attention. We could well meditate on the significance of this opening phrase, especially after we have pondered the high point of his discourse.
On one hand he seems so inclusive "all you who are listening" yet rather demanding, "not just present before me but intently focused on what I am saying!" But why?
Verses 27 (b) and 28
Jesus launches straight into four commands, which, taken in the culture of his times, would have presented a horrific nightmare:
To many, his four "woes" further back in the text were bad enough. Could he have gone too far? How can you turn love on and off? As Sadler over a century ago wrote, "Love is a feeling or affection of the heart, and we cannot command our affections". But, he is drawing us into a dialogue at great depths; heart to heart. We can object and ask the obvious questions now but must wait for the answer!
"If anyone strikes you on the cheek", says Jesus, "offer the other also". Why should we? When he was struck by an officer of the High Priest he didn't "turn the other cheek" but said, "What did you do that for?"
Then he adds "Give to everyone who begs from you. If anyone takes your property, let them". Does Jesus in verses 29 and 30 mean what he says? If not, why doesn't he say what he means?
In a modern setting our Lord's standards may seem excessive. We need to remember that this is a sermon in rabbinic style, which is meant to give special emphasis to essential standards, bearing in mind the harshness of living under occupation by a foreign power. Contrary to what some claim, Jesus does not expect his followers to let others walk all over them or be doormats for others. But he does expect us to be very patient.
In the last few verses Jesus has given directions on how to treat our enemies. Adam Clarke (A.D.1830) lists these as:
" The retaliation of those who hearken not to their own passion, but to Christ, consists in doing more good then they receive evil. Ever since our blessed Saviour suffered the authorities to take away his life, it is by his patience that we must regulate our own."
This takes us nearer to an answer to a puzzling question: How on earth are we going to achieve this?
Jesus then gives the Golden Rule: "Do to others as you would have them do to you". It doesn't seem so hard after the other requirements. But it is in fact just as demanding. It also requires us to intervene on someone else's behalf when they are suffering from some injustice or abuse. True love of an enemy (the offender) demands it! (Perhaps we welcome that aspect as a balance to the other commands.)
Verses 32 - 34
Jesus then backs up his standards with his usual piercing logic.
Verse 35 (a)
He then repeats his opening demand "Love your enemies". He is getting ready to share his unique and special teaching. We pause a moment to listen to Adam Clarke again.
"This is the most sublime precept ever delivered to man .. In these words of our blessed Lord we see the tenderness, sincerity, extent, disinterestedness, pattern and issue of the love of God dwelling in man: a religion which has for its foundation the union of God and man in the same person, and the death of his angust being for his enemies; which consist on earth in a reconciliation of the Creator with his creatures, and which is to subsist in heaven only in the union of the members with the head could such a religion as this ever tolerate hatred in the soul of man, even to his most inveterate foe?"
Verse 35 (b)
Jesus now comes to the point. "If you do all these things," he implies, "you will be children of the Most High". This is his invitation to those who (verse 27) are genuinely listening to what he us saying and who want to understand him and to put it into practice. He has been building up to this: the invitation to enter into, to be a member of, the household of the Most High. But this requires that, as he points out, we are kind to the ungrateful and wicked as is God! "Impossible" we say. By now most of us would have already thought, "This is way beyond me!" That is exactly what our Lord has been gently bringing out in his listeners (and now his readers): a realisation that it is humanly impossible.
And now he has his listeners ready for the climax of his whole sermon. "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful".
When the Lord's listeners want to respond lovingly, endorse his teaching, and do what he asks, they are then open to receive the help he knows they must have. As Lord and creator of the universe that power and grace is his to dispense. In Genesis 12, God spoke, and it was! When he says, "Be merciful," then his followers can be, indeed are empowered to act as he commands. So, here, he is not just adding a further unattainable standard. He is breathing power into those who know they are hopeless and helpless but who are prepared to be God's channel of his mercy to humanity.
Mercy is love stretched to the limit of our endurance and beyond beyond because it is God's power, which enables it to be sustained. Mercy is the main characteristic of God's dealings with humanity, and throughout the Bible, God's representatives are commanded to display it. It takes effort, but the Holy Spirit makes up the difference!
For us there is the honour of being the instruments whereby God moulds the world in his image. The temptation of course, is to let the world mould God in its own image. Sadly this trend seems to be gaining momentum. In our reading, Jesus places the responsibility in the hands of his body of followers, to persevere as best we can in hope of final victory.
Verses 37 and 38 In rabbinic tradition Jesus reassures his listeners that those who truly seek to be children of the Most High will not lack anything they need for true life.
In the two millennia of the Church's existence there have been countless examples of the saints who have been great agents of God's mercy. We close with some interesting thoughts from a great spiritual teacher of the 7th century.
"And what is a merciful heart? It is the heart's burning for all of creation, for men, for birds, for animals and even for demons. At the remembrance and at the sight of them, the merciful man's eyes fill with tears, which arise from the great compassion that urges his heart. It grows tender and cannot endure hearing or seeing any injury or slight sorrow to anything in creation. Because of this, such a man continually offers tearful prayer even for irrational animals and for the enemies of truth and for all who harm it, that they may be guarded and forgiven".
St Isaac of Nineveh.
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