Thursday, October 11, 2007
Thursdays with Luke #20
[Note: On Thursdays I am posting a Bible study series that I recently completed at The Hill Baptist Church. This is the twentieth entry.]
The Best and Hardest Way to Live
What shapes you? What makes you who you are? What determines your ethical standards and your behavioral choices? Genetics, you might say. Environment, you might say. Reflex, you might say. Nothing in particular, I just wing it, you might say. Upbringing, you might say. My political stances, you might say. You might say a lot of things in response to those questions and there may be some truth in all of them. Human beings are influenced by all kinds of factors.
Let me state the questions again with this preliminary comment: we’re Christians, and so the real issue is what forms and shapes our identity as Christians. “We’re still human,” you might respond, and I can hardly argue with that. But a Christian is a person who, in Christ, is having his true human nature restored. His true human nature is to be in the image of God. Christians are in Christ becoming what God intends a human being to be. Therefore, as a Christian who is in Christ reclaiming the image of God in your lives, what shapes you? What makes you who you are? What determines your ethical standards and your behavioral choices?
Our passage offers a couple of verses that will guide us well. The first is the famous “Golden Rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (v. 31). That is an idea that has practically always been accepted as a good standard by which to go. Variations of it are found in Jewish teaching and in Greek philosophy. It’s just a good rule for life. “Hillel, one of the great Jewish Rabbis, was asked by a man to teach him the whole law while he stood on one leg. He answered, ‘What is hateful to thee, do not to another. That is the whole law and all else is explanation’” [William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 79].
The Golden Rule is not the whole story, though, and it is not the pinnacle of Jesus’ teaching here.
That is found in v. 35: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” As Luke Johnson said, “The ‘golden rule’ of ‘do as you would want done’ is not the ultimate norm here, but rather, ‘do as God would do’” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1991), p. 112].
And so we are to be imitators of God. As Paul put it in Ephesians, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (5:1-2). Christ gives us the power to become the children of God and that means that we can be growing in our relationship with our Father so that his characteristics become more and more our characteristics. We said last time that the main truth that Jesus shows us about God, and it is the main truth about God, is that God is love. In his love Christ gave himself up for us. In his love Christ, as he was being nailed to the cross, cried out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Given that he had that kind of love, we should not be surprised that he would make these kinds of statements. As a failed and flawed human being who has not yet arrived at the point of truly being an imitator of God I have to confess to you that a part of me wished Jesus had not said these things. It is terribly hard to try to live life in these ways; it may be the hardest of all ways to live. And we do want to explain these sayings away. I will never forget the Bible study teacher at a church reading Jesus’ statement that his followers were to turn the other cheek and then saying, “Of course, he didn’t mean that literally.” I remember thinking then, “But what if he did?” I think now that, when you look at the way he lived and the way he died, he did mean it literally. We are his disciples and we are to, with the Spirit’s help, follow his lead in being God’s children.
And that’s the whole thing: all this business about loving the enemy and giving to those who don’t care about you and even misuse you and doing good even to those who are ungrateful and wicked—that’s exactly the way God is. He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He blesses the good and the bad. It’s a scandal, but it’s the way it is. And our calling is to be imitators of God and children of God.
I know that here we can insert all kinds of “buts” and “what abouts” and other qualifiers and questions. But right now I just want us to accept the fact that this is the way that Jesus said his disciples are supposed to live and we are supposed to live that way because to do so is to be the children of the God who lives that way.
Like I said, there’s a weak and sinful part of me that wishes Jesus hadn’t said these things. But there’s another part of me, the better part, that is so glad he did. Why? Because it took someone who could say these kinds of things and mean them who could live the life he lived and die the death he died. The same one who told us “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you” is the one who showed us how, who showed us that it can be done.
So maybe it is the hardest way to live, but it’s the way he lived. Doesn’t that make it the best way to live?