“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 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, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36, read full text here)
Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (and Matthew’s corresponding Sermon on the Mount) contain what are, undoubtedly, some of Jesus’ most famous and controversial teachings—from the Beatitudes with their apparently topys-turvey view of the world (where else are the poor considered blessed?) to the exhortations to love and do good to one’s enemies or give without expecting a return. Taken at face value they go against nearly all of our expectations of they way things are/should be—so much so that scholars struggle to agree on precisely what some of the teachings mean and how they should be lived out.
But may I suggest to you that that could, in fact, be part of the point?
You see, none of these teachings was meant to be “swallowed” without some struggle—then or now; nor were they meant to be learned by rote as if they were some sort of checklist of basic requirements for discipleship. Rather, they are a holistic vision of the way the world is and ultimately will be under God’s reign, and were “designed to jolt [Jesus’] audience into a new perception of God’s redemptive aim” (Joel Green). It is only as we wrestle in our understanding of these teachings through prayer and study that we are able to participate in this redemptive aim and so reflect his heart to the world around us.
But what does it look like to actually do so?
The answer to this question is, by no means, simple or straightforward. In the words of one commentator regarding Jesus’ exhortation to give without expecting a return, “If Christians took this one absolutely literally there would soon be a class of saintly paupers, owning nothing, and another of prosperous idlers and thieves.” This is clearly not the ideal that Jesus has in mind. Nevertheless, we must be careful to not approach these teachings too loosely, lest we conform them to our own pre-existent understanding of how the world should work or how we should live, rather than allowing them to conform us to Christ’s image. At the end of the day, our application of these teachings to our lives must be no less radical than it would be if we were to take them absolutely literally, but it should also be rooted in wisdom and humility.
How can we do this? Three principles underlie all of these teachings which, when bound with love, help us to not only discern their application, but also live them out by God’s grace: detachment, trust and surrender.
Though perhaps the least understood of these, detachment is absolutely essential to discipleship—not only as the first step we take in turning away from our past life in order to follow Christ, but also as the one we have to take over and over again to constantly deepen that relationship. We see it in Peter, James and John as they walk away from the largest catch ever and Levi as he leaves his tollbooth in order to follow Jesus. But we also see it in all of the apostles as they are challenged and progressively formed in their understanding of God’s plan of salvation in Christ, which proved to be vastly different than their own preconceived notions of how God would work through his Messiah, and yet infinitely greater and more beautiful. At every step they were called to let go of something–often something quite precious to them–not in order that they might lose it, but rather in order that they might gain the greatest gift of all: Christ, his love and his redemption.
It is in this same light that we are to see Christ’s teachings and exhortations here—whether it is to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, or give without expecting a return, etc.—because doing so requires letting go of any sense of entitlement or personal justice in order to obey our Lord and reflect his love in the world around us. We are not called to this because these things don’t matter, and certainly not because we don’t matter. We matter infinitely to him and can never be separated from his love. Rather, we do so because our allegiance to Christ and to God’s Kingdom are primary in life, trusting that as we obey Him, He will supply all our needs according to the riches of his glory (Matt 6:33; Phil 4:19)
In this sense, true Christian detachment can never be separated from trust in our Lord. True Christian detachment is not a rejection of the world and its goods, but a resounding affirmation of our confidence in God’s goodness, his justice and his unfailing love. It is curious to note how many of Christ’s teachings and exhortations here are accompanied by promise: the poor receive the Kingdom of God, the hungry will be satisfied, those who show mercy will be Sons of the Most High, and those who give will receive abundantly, etc. These promises—indeed all the promises of God—are given so that we might have hope that even the most difficult and painful situations will not have the final say, for there will be glorious redemption of this world in which all that is wrong will one day be made right (and we are to work to that end even now). And they are given so that we might have confidence that nothing we give up for Our Lord’s sake will ultimately be lost, because they are entrusted to the one from whom all good things come, who came we might have life in abundance.
It is only as we cling to these promises, and more importantly to the one in whom they find their “yes”, our Lord Jesus Christ, that we are able, in faith, to let go of the things of this world—whether it is material possessions, personal justice, or our idea of how our lives should end up, not because they don’t matter, but because we trust that God is good and faithful, and because he is just.. Discipleship and obedience, particularly when it comes to teachings as challenging as these, are not ultimately about getting things right; they are about surrendering “to the Love that makes man fully alive” (Robert Barron).
Where are you being called to surrender to this love? What might he be calling you to let go of in trust of his goodness and faithfulness?
Cling to his promises, knowing that he will not fail you, for He who promised is faithful.
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.