Unnatural Love

Second in a Series on Jesus’ Other Sermon,
Delivered August 8, 1999 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper

Sermon Text:
Luke 6:27-36
27 “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
29 If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone
takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.
30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not
demand it back.
31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even `sinners’ love
those who love them.
33 And if you do 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 repayment, what credit is that to
you? Even `sinners’ lend to `sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full.
35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to
get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the
Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.
36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Did you have a favorite book growing up? Most people do. Not a short childhood book like ‘Hopsie the Rabbit’; but a regular novel that you loved as you got older. For me that book was actually a series of books called The Lord of The Rings. In fact, like many of you with your favorite books, I have read it more than once.

My mother also had a favorite book, but I didn’t read her favorite for a long, long time. The reason was that her favorite book was Les Miserables. This (holding up the book to show how thick it is) is why I did not read it growing up. Of course, this morning before church I went to see just how many pages were in Lord of the Rings; and to my surprise, I found that while this one only has about 1,500 pages, Lord of the Rings has 1,800. I guess being broken into four books made it a little easier for me to swallow as a teenager.

Well, a few years ago I finally ended up reading this book, somewhat out of respect for or homage to my mom. And as I was preparing for this sermon a passage from this book came back to me. When I opened to that passage I discovered something interesting. When I read this book, I had actually underlined some of the things in the passage that I want to read for you today. Now you have to understand that I never underline in fiction books. You can go to almost any book in my library here, and if I have read it, I probably have all sorts of underlines. But never in a story. But obviously this story impacted me. It is a story that most of you now know; probably not because you have read the book, but you have seen the play or seen the movie that became popular in recent years.

It is near the beginning of the story, only on page 103. Monseigneur Bienvenu, a Bishop in a small town in France, has been the main character up to this point. He is a very kindly man who wants to live simply. He lives with 2 women; his sister and another older woman. These women are a bit more high strung than he is. At this place in the story a man named Jean Valjean ends up spending the night at their house. He came in off of the street, and the Bishop invited him in, shared his meal with him, and allowed him to sleep for the night.

In the morning, Jean Valjean, the guest, got up and left before anybody else got up. He also left with a few particular items – including all of the silver cutlery. Well, the next morning one of the ladies discovers that something is missing:

‘Good heavens! It’s stolen! That man who came last night stole it! The wretch, he stole our silver!’ There is more complaining there, but I’ll just let you use your imagination.

The Bishop was silent for a moment and then raising his serious eyes he said mildly to Madame Magliore. “Now first, did this silver really belong to us?” Madame Magliore was speechless. After a moment the Bishop continued, “Madame Magliore, for a long time I have wrongfully been withholding this silver. It belonged to the poor. Who was this man? A poor man, quite clearly.”

For time’s sake, I will cut out more complaining, but as the woman raves about how terrible this whole situation is, there is a sudden knock at the door, and three policemen come in bringing with them Jean Valjean. As you can imagine, they caught him – looking suspicious and acting like a fugitive – and they brought him back when they found him carrying the Bishop’s silver. And as they are beginning to accuse him, we are told:

Monseigneur Bienvenu had approached as quickly as his great age permitted, “Ah, there you are,” he said, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks too, which are silver like the rest and would bring two hundred francs. Why didn’t you take them along with your cutlery?” Jean Valjean opened his eyes and looked at the Bishop with an expression that no human tongue could describe.

As the story ends, the policemen, dumbfounded, release Jean Valjean because obviously he has not done anything wrong – at least according to the Bishop. And as the policemen leave, the Bishop has one final word to say to Jean Valjean.

The Bishop continued solemnly, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

With that image in your mind, hear the words of our Lord Jesus Christ as they come to us in his sermon that we find in Luke chapter 6, starting at verse 27. Hear now the word of the Lord:

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be paid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting anything in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be the sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading of his holy word. Please join me as we pray: Lord, we thank you for these words from your scripture. And we pray now that by the power of your Holy Spirit at work within us, that you would give us true understanding, that we might know what it is that you are saying to us, and that you might also give us the courage to be changed and to live as your disciples. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

I imagine I don’t need to fill in the blanks and make the connection between the story in Les Miserables and the words of Jesus Christ. So I would like us to take a closer look at these words of Jesus as he teaches us more about what it means to be his disciple. If you will remember, last week we talked about how this is the first sermon of Jesus that he preaches after he calls his twelve disciples. It is also the first teaching of Jesus that we have that is outside the context of conflict. Which means that not only is it his first teaching to his disciples, but it is also the first time that we have teaching where Jesus has chosen the subject that he is talking about.

What we have here is Discipleship 101: What does it mean to be his disciples? As we go through this passage I would like us to pay close attention to the flow and the structure of this passage, because that will help us understand the meaning more clearly.

The first part of the structure is found in the first two verses where we have Jesus laying down the principle of what it means to be his disciple. And so we find this principle, which unfortunately for us today, we have heard so many times that it just rolls off our back like water off a duck. But hear it again:

‘Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.’ If we could hear these for the first time, they would be powerful, powerful words. Words that we would not normally expect to hear. Love your enemies. What is Jesus really saying here?

What does it mean to love an enemy? You see, in English we use the word love for all sorts of different things don’t we? It can be used for anything from desire or wanting something, to liking the taste, to a sentimentality. It has this gigantic broad range. In the bible, there is a much smaller range. In fact, there are a few different words for what we translate as the word “love.” But even the word used here, “agape,” still has a range of meaning.

Often in our culture, when we think of love in its best sense, we often think of it as an emotion that leads us to do good things. A warm sentimentality that makes us feel like doing good things for other people. And it is rightly said that the Christian meaning of the word “love” goes far beyond that meaning. Of course sometimes we find almost the opposite definition espoused in Christian circles, that real love has nothing at all to do with emotional sentimentality and warmth toward another person. Rather, it is a matter of choice – a decision of the will – where we choose to do something good for another person. Well, there is a strong element of truth to that.

But the biblical sense of love might include both of those, with both the element of attitude as well as choice. When God loves us, it is not simply a cold, calculated decision of his will. There is also an attitude. There is a depth of feeling and attachment. It includes an emotion and an attitude that comes from his heart, including a choice or decision that came from his mind, if we can speak of God having a heart and a mind. And so in the same way when Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbor,’ he is not talking about having a warm sentimentality. Nor is he talking about a cold calculation of doing something that we simply choose to do out of obligation. To love our neighbor is to desire and to choose to do what is in the best interest of that other person.

You see, too often an enemy becomes not a person in our minds, but an object. An object that most often becomes a target. A target for negative choices and negative attitudes. But to fulfill the principle that Jesus lays down here is to say, ‘An enemy is not an object. An enemy is a person.’ And more specifically, a person who is a target. But the target not of negative attitudes and actions, but a target of our best attitudes and actions. We are to do that which is the very best for our enemies. “Do good to those who hate you,’ is a simply a further explanation of that. ‘To bless those who curse us. To pray for those who mistreat us.’ All these are talking about what it really means to love our enemies. And it goes without saying that if we are to love our enemies, we are also to love those who are not our enemies.

So this is the principle that Jesus lays down: Love your enemies. Do what is best for them. Desire what is best for them.

Then he goes on in the second part of the passage before us, in verses 29 and 30, to give practical illustrations of how this principle might be lived out. And as with many things in life, we like the principles a lot more than we like the illustrations. Because the principles, they stay out there somewhere. But when Jesus begins to illustrate and say what it means, it becomes very uncomfortable.

Listen to the illustrations again: “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”

Now it is very easy to misunderstand what Jesus is saying here. Our natural inclination is to assume that Jesus is giving us a set of laws that we are to follow. But that is not really what Jesus is doing here at all. What he is doing is not giving us laws, but illustrations. The principle is ‘Love your enemy.’ And so he says, ‘if you are my disciple, and if you really do love your enemy, if your heart has been changed in such a way that you are able to love your enemy, this is what it will look like.’

The first thing it means, for example, is that if someone strikes you on one cheek, obviously that might be the beginning of the definition of enemy. If that is to happen, then you are to turn the other cheek also. Not because this is a law, but because that is what your heart will desire to do because you love your enemy. Because we should desire what is best for our enemy and retaliation is almost never going to be what is best. So this illustration of the principle is to turn the other cheek. Not out of obligation or a sense of law, but because we are Jesus’ disciples. Because we have been changed. Because that is our desire, to love our enemy.

Or going on to the next illustration, “If someone takes your cloak do not stop him from taking your tunic as well.” There could be a couple different circumstances going on here. It could be that Jesus has in mind a robbery where someone takes your cloak; and Jesus is saying ‘Give your tunic as well.’ Or the setting could be a court of law where someone sues you and takes your cloak. And Jesus says, ‘Give him your tunic as well.’

What is the sense in what Jesus is saying here? Once again, it is not a law where Jesus commands, ‘If somebody takes something, you must automatically give the second thing in your possession.’ What Jesus is saying here is that if someone takes your cloak, then there is a very good chance that they have taken it because they are in need. Whether they needed the cloak to stay warm, or they wanted it to sell in order to have money to eat, or some other possibility. They have a need, and for us – as disciples of Jesus Christ whose hearts have been changed, who desire to love and to help our enemy – our first response should not be, ‘How can I get back what is mine?’ but rather, ‘What need must this person have to cause them to do this? And how can I as God’s representative, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, how can I love this person? How can I meet their need?’ And if it means giving your tunic as well, then we ought to do that with joy. Because that is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

‘Give,’ it says, ‘to everyone who asks you.’ Oh my goodness. You see, our first thought is, ‘Boy, there have got to be a lot of exceptions to that one.’ But once again, Jesus is not setting down a law, but an illustration of a principle. If we are people who have been changed by Jesus Christ, then when someone asks us for something, our first response is not going to be, ‘How can I get out of this?’ It is going to be, ‘This person has a need. How can I help meet that need?’

Do you see what is going on here? Often we look at these words and say, ‘This is impossible to do.’ When in fact, Jesus is trying to give us examples of what it means when we have been changed. And you know, we are right. It is absolutely impossible to live this way if we are simply doing it our of a sense of obligation or legalism. But it becomes wonderfully realistic when we have allowed Jesus Christ to change us from the inside out. Because then we are not trying to screw up enough will-power to keep this law in opposition to our nature; but rather, since God has given us a new nature, we are simply living in the natural way God desires for us. Unnatural to us now, but natural when we have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

Next, in verse 31, Jesus gives what I call the first summation. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” We have heard that many times before haven’t we? In fact, it is even something you can hear around us in society at large. Whether people are Christians or not, whether they understand its original meaning or not, they will quote this. But Jesus is here, once again, teaching us that the heart of a disciple who has been changed by God and who follows Jesus Christ, is a person who, in fact, will do unto others as he desires that they do unto him or her.

A couple of things here. First of all, this is not legalism. It is not legalistic, but it is dynamic. It is a living command. It is also not passive, it is active. It is not saying don’t do something. It is saying do something. It is not negative. Don’t do something that you wouldn’t want them to do to you. It is positive. It requires us to step out, to be active in our love of other people. In other words, if we see someone in need we shouldn’t wait for them to ask us for help. Our hearts should be such that when we see a person in need, our initial desire is to want to help. How does our heart need to change if we are going to exemplify these words of our Lord?

Well, Jesus continues with a section of comparisons, saying basically, ‘If you love those who love you… if you do good to those who do good to you… if you lend to people who are going to pay you back in full, so what. There is no credit in that. We do these things as anybody would do these things – out of self-interest.’

All of us love the people who love us. Why wouldn’t we? All of us do good with those who have done good and we expect will do good to us in the future. Reciprocity, that is the name of the game. But Jesus is saying we have to go far beyond the goodness of the culture around us, because our reason for doing these things is going to be radically different.

In another place Jesus said that ‘our righteousness must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.’ The scribes and the Pharisees gained their righteousness from trying to obey the law. Jesus wants our rightness to come not from trying to obey an impersonal law, but because we have been changed on the inside, so that we naturally follow what that law might have dictated.

If Jesus spoke these words today, he might say, ‘Well, you know liberals do those things as well. Your righteousness needs to be greater than the liberals.’ Whether Christian liberals or social liberals, they are the ones who are “known” for their good deeds. If we have been transformed by the living God, shouldn’t our natural desire be to do good. Not just to those who have some prior claim on us because they are our friend or family, or they are “our kind” of people, or have done something good for us in the past, or have the potential of doing something good in the future. Shouldn’t we of all people have a desire to help all those who are in need, whether they are friend or foe or stranger.

Jesus once again takes down all the barriers of our love. Just as he does later in the parable of the Good Samaritan, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ It is not a matter of how we define our neighbor. It is not a matter of who the other person is, it is a matter of who I am – of who I am going to be a neighbor to. Who will I choose to love in the name of God? No one is excluded by definition.

Next, Jesus gives a second summation where he reiterates these verses, saying in verse 35, ‘But love your enemies. Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting anything back.’ Once again Jesus is hammering home the principle and its illustration.

From there we move to the final part of the structure of this teaching. Here Jesus gives us the motivation – the foundation of our actions. “For then your reward will be great. You will be sons of the Most High because he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

There are three things here as motivation. First of all, your reward will be great. Now it doesn’t tell us what that reward will be, but I am sure the Lord will think of something quite suitable for us. We just need to trust him on that. God delights in rewarding his children.

Secondly, it says that we will be sons of the Most High. This has nothing to do with our gender. But the image here is from life 2,000 years ago, and comparing the life of a son to his father. What occupation did the son have? Wasn’t it exactly what his father did? If your father was the emperor, good chance you might sit on a throne. If your father was a carpenter, good chance you are going to be a carpenter, too. As a son, you carry on your father’s occupation, and in a sense the mission of your father becomes your mission, his purpose becomes your purpose. The traditions of your father become your traditions that you carry on in his name, because you also inherit his name. And so to be sons of the Most High means that you and I have chosen that our occupation, our mission is the same as his occupation, his mission. It means that the traditions and the lifestyle that we embody are based on the lifestyle that he has handed down onto us. It means that our identity is based on the name of our Father. And as we live in accordance with the principles of Jesus, and in line with these illustrations he has given us, we are recognized as children of the Most High.

Finally, he tells us, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Once again, it is a matter of identity. We have a father and we are to be like him. In fact, more than just seeking to do things like he does, we are to be transformed so that we really are like him so our actions simply grow out of the new person we have become.

It is like when Jesus called the twelve disciples. In Mark’s gospel it says, “Jesus called the twelve to be with him. And then to be sent out to preach, to heal, and to cast out demons.” The first thing was to be with him. To be changed by him, because that is the prerequisite for really doing the things that God desires for us.

And so it is a matter of our heart. Not a matter of the specific things we do, but where is it coming from? In fact, if our hearts have been changed, then in one sense we don’t need any law at all, because we will naturally desire to do the right thing. Unfortunately, we are not yet fully transformed, and each of us have a good ways to go in this process.

Now that we are gaining an understanding of Jesus’ words, we need to look at three problems that we often encounter when dealing with this passage. The first is when we think of it as a law, and therefore naturally focus on the exceptions to that law. In other words, when we hear ‘Give to everyone who asks you.” our minds automatically go into overdrive thinking of all the circumstances that would be exceptions. When we would not have to give. When we are confronted by somebody asking for something, our mind begins to rationalize how we can find the exception and get out of giving.

Now are there exceptions to these things? Yes, because they are not meant to be laws, they are illustrations. Illustrations are not meant to cover all bases, but to point us in the right direction. Are we focusing on the exceptions in order to get out of doing good, or is our heart so focused on love and desiring to do good that we don’t even think of exceptions? And if we find in a specific case it is really not best for this person for me to give them what they ask, rather than going, ‘Whew, I got out of that one.” We ask, ‘But how can I creatively seek to meet their true need?’ That is the response of a heart changed by Jesus Christ.

The second problem that we sometimes encounter is the matter of self protection. As we meet various situations, our thought is not ‘How can I serve,’ but, ‘How can I protect myself as I serve?’ This protection takes many forms. It could be physical protection, ‘Well gee, if I turn the other cheek then he is going to hit me again. That would hurt. I better not do that.’ So we focus on ourselves rather than focusing in love on the other person and their needs. When we focus on our own protection, then we will be willing for the other person to be injured before we are. But a heart that has been changed by Jesus Christ, the heart of a disciple, says, ‘I would rather I be injured before I cause another to be injured.’

Protection also can be focused on our material riches. We say, ‘If I give like that and I do these things, I will end up poor.’ Well what did Jesus say last week about being poor? Didn’t he say, “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of God.” We are blessed when we have become poor for the sake of the son of man – Jesus Christ. So if as a disciple – as we love other people – it leads to decline in riches and growth in poverty, should we not all the more see ourselves as being blessed? If we have the heart of a disciple, that is exactly what our perspective will be. That we are blessed to be able to give to those in need, to be the instrument of God in their life – whether friend or foe or stranger.

The final type of self protection leads us into the third danger. We think, ‘My goodness, the last time I did this, they were totally ungrateful for what I had done for them.’ Or maybe they had even used your gifts and the goodness that you had shown them for evil purposes. And so you say to yourself, ‘I will never do that again.’ And you erect a barrier to your love.

But what does scripture say? “You will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Our Father is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked; and therefore, so are we to be. It should not matter whether someone is grateful to us or not. We are not doing it for their approval. We are doing it out of love for them. And if they end up using our gifts somehow for evil, that is their responsibility and not ours. Does God stop giving to us when we use his gifts for sinful purposes? This leads us to the third problem area. First was a focus on legalism and exceptions. Second was the whole area of self-protection.

The third problem is that often we focus on the potential consequences or results of our obedience, rather than simply the obedience itself. True, we must be discerning and have some idea of what our actions might bring, otherwise how can we seek to lovingly choose what is in another’s best interests. But ultimately, the actions of another person are their responsibility and not mine. I am called to love them. I am called to seek to meet their need. And if they despise that, if they use my gift for evil, isn’t that what you and I have done at many times in our own lives? We have taken the gifts that God has given us out of his love, and we have turned them toward our own selfish purposes. Even using his gifts to hurt others. Does God cease to give us those gifts? Does he stop loving us? No. He continues because of his love for us.

That is the challenge for you and me today. As we hear these words of Jesus Christ and struggle with them the question comes to us, ‘Are we really like our Father in heaven? Have we really become disciples of Jesus Christ? Jesus describes for us what a disciples looks like. Do we fit that description? None of us do perfectly. The only way we can is if we let the Holy Spirit of God into our lives; if we are willing to give up our own purposes and agendas and allow him to transform us. May God give us that grace. May we open ourselves to him so it can be truly said that our heart is like the heart of our Father.

Let’s pray together:
Lord, we do thank you for these words that you have given to us through Luke. Lord, as difficult as these words are in some senses, they are good news. They are the words of life, if we will simply let them change us, as we let your Holy Spirit change us. Lord, may our ability to love be unnatural. Even more, may this kind of love become natural to us as we follow you. And we also pray Lord, that you would free us of all of those things that keep us back from being the people you called us to be. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, and for his sake, Amen.