EFAC Australia

Bible exposition

David Seccombe returns to Jesus’ great sermon as we read it in Luke 6:27-49.
David is currently locum tenens at St Alban’s, Highgate ,WA.BIBLE STUDY

But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you.’ Luke 6:27-28

In the first section of Luke’s Sermon on the Mount (6.20-26) we see Jesus preaching his gospel and dividing the people (laos) into a true and false Israel. Here, early in his ministry, he sees himself a rejected sufferer; to identify with him will bring opposition. It will also bring us enemies. In the next part of the Sermon Jesus instructs disciples (‘I say to you who hear’) how to deal with their opponents, and the message is clear: love them!

Let’s try to answer some questions about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Is Luke’s Sermon on the Mount the same as Matthew’s or from some other occasion?

It is a mistake to see it as a Sermon on a Plain. Jesus has been praying in a mountain about the selection of his twelve apostles. He has called them to himself and now descends to a level place (on the mountain) where he meets with the crowds.

Is Jesus addressing the disciples or the crowds?

The picture Luke paints of the occasion is interesting. There are the twelve newly appointed apostles, a great number of disciples, and a representative gathering of the laos (people) of Israel from all over the land and beyond. Jesus is invested with power – truly the Messiah amidst his people. The Beatitudes have special reference to disciples (“having raised his eyes on his disciples”), but are heard by all.

Who are those who are pronounced happy? Are they four different categories of person or one?

Jesus characterizes his disciples (more than the twelve) as “poor-hungry-weeping”. This is how Israel in exile understood itself; God was the protector of the helpless and now the nation had fallen into that state. Through Isaiah God had promised that be would save poor, hungry, mourning Zion. But that raised the question whether all Israel would be saved, or only some. In the fourth beatitude Jesus identifies true “poor-hungry-weeping Zion” as those who are hated, excluded and insulted because of their association with the suffering Son of Man.

How can these people be said to be happy?

True disciples will be happy - when Messiah establishes his kingdom and all forms of poverty and need are abolished. They are happy now because they know their sufferings are light and momentary and will give way to something glorious: they rejoice in what will be. Christians are consoled when they suffer rejection because of Jesus, because they know their reward is great in heaven. I don’t think this means when they go to heaven, but that good things are stored up for them now and later with God, who is in heaven.

Who does Jesus address as rich, well-fed and laughing?

These are those who can be characterized as opposite to disciples. Remember that Jesus is addressing the whole people with disciples mingled amongst them. Each person needed to decide for himself or herself whether he or she would believe Jesus’ gospel and stand by the Son of Man and suffer exclusion for his sake, or to seek acceptance from those with influence. Jesus implies that these latter are a non-Israel whose fate is to lose even the good things they now enjoy, and whose laughter will turn to bitter tears on the day the kingdom is revealed in all its fullness.

So what is going on here?

Jesus is announcing the coming of the kingdom for Israel but warning that it will only be enjoyed by those who stand with him in the time of his rejection and suffering. Those who prefer what this world has to offer above the promises of the kingdom will ultimately lose everything, but those who go on believing the gospel will inherit Israel’s restoration future where poverty, hunger and unhappiness will be things of the past. Jesus is dividing the people.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32.) Mary’s words to Jesus when he finally arrives in Bethany, three days later than requested and four days after Lazarus has been put in the tomb, carry all the pain and disappointment of one who feels that the Lord has completely let her down. Martha manages to retain some hope in Jesus’ ability to do something for her brother, though she doesn’t seem to know what, exactly (11:21-24); Mary, though, voices no such hope: We called you, you didn’t turn up, and now it’s too late.

What Mary and Martha don’t know, however, is why Jesus didn’t come earlier, as soon as they sent word to him of Lazarus’s illness. It wasn’t, as they might imagine, due to distraction, or procrastination, or laziness; it was in fact, paradoxically, due to love: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” (11:5-6.) Notice carefully what is being said there – it’s not despite the fact that Jesus loved them that he waited (though some translations, most notably the NRSV, render it this way); it’s specifically because he loved them that he waited. Out of his love for this family, Jesus didn’t come immediately, arriving in time to heal Lazarus’s sickness. Rather, he hung back longer where he was, on the other side of the Jordan, so as to allow Lazarus to die.

And this raises the obvious question of how that could possibly have been the more loving course to take. Surely the more compassionate response would have been to act immediately on Mary and Martha’s message, spare them from grief and spare Lazarus from death. What kind of love would stand back and allow this horrible thing to take place? The answer is given to us by Jesus himself: it is a love that intends to display a greater glory. When he is informed of Lazarus’s illness, right before John tells us that love motivated his delay, Jesus says “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (11:4). Jesus will love Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, not by keeping them from such a painful event, but by letting it come, because he deems that they will more clearly see who he is as he rescues them from the midst of the mess, than if he keeps the mess from overwhelming them in the first place. And giving them a clearer view of who he is – that is the most loving thing he can do for them, or for anyone.

Of course, as Jesus arrives in Bethany, all this is hidden from Mary. Jesus doesn’t explain his purposes to her. She doesn’t see someone acting out of love towards her and her family, she only sees a Lord who apparently shelved her request, neglected to show up when he was needed, and failed her brother. But in a few moments she will accompany him to the tomb, and as he calls the dead man out, she will see the fuller glory of the one whose word can not only heal the sick, but can give life to the dead – the word of the one who has life in himself (5:25-26).  

Now at this point, it would be tempting to draw a simplistic theodicy from all of this – to see tragedy as something purposed by God in a straightforward way for his glory, and therefore as something which, while we might not recognise it at the time, is essentially good. We ought to resist that temptation. The fact that Jesus weeps and feels rage in the face of death (11:33, 35) shows that death remains in itself an unqualified evil, even as Jesus uses it as the occasion of his glory. Rather, as Jesus allows Lazarus to die and then raises him, that death comes to magnify the Son’s glory, not as we might – as a willing and obedient servant with a positive place in the Father’s purposes – but rather as, in those purposes, it is entirely trampled down. It is only in its defeat and negation that death serves the glory of the Son. And indeed, the defeat which begins beside the tomb of Lazarus will be concluded in several chapter’s time, after the Father has glorified his Son in his death, and he himself emerges from the tomb – this time with the bands of death left behind (cp. 11:44; 20:6-7), and its power definitively broken.

Every generation has its “isms” which stand opposed to Christ’s message and threaten to relegate Christianity to the history books. “Islamism” and big S Secularism worry us most today. The media tries desperately to convince us that Islam is a religion of peace. Most Muslims are peaceful; the religion itself proclaims peace upon the house of Islam, but in the “house of war” – well the name says it all. By big S Secularism I mean not the separation of church and state, but the attempt to create a world culture with God removed. These two “isms” are happy to see Christianity in decline, and sometime they appear to prevail. There are other problems, of course. The biggest challenges are apathy and revisionist versions of Christianity within our churches.

How Christians respond will depend in part on how threatened we feel. The Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13 helps us see how Jesus felt about opposition.

The kingdom of heaven, he said, is like a man who sowed his field with good seed, but an enemy came at night and over-sowed the crop with weeds. You can imagine the dismay of the farmer and his servants when the plants appeared. The only thing for it was a mammoth weeding exercise. Anyone who has had any experience of gardening knows this is the best thing to do. So the farmer’s decision to do nothing is more than surprising: “Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” It sounds like a lot of work for what is bound to be a very meager return. I think any farmer listening may have scratched his head and remembered that after all Jesus was trained as a carpenter!

Mark Calder is Rector of the Anglican Church in Noosa, QLD

I invite you to read one of the very challenging statements of Jesus in Matthew 10:32-36. On first reading, this is so upsetting. It’s very provocative. The inference is that Jesus has come to divide the human family — the closest and most loving of relationships. But isn’t Jesus called the Prince of Peace? Surely he did come to bring peace! Didn’t the angels proclaim at his birth in Luke 2 – ‘Glory to God in the highest and peace to those on whom his favour rests’?
Of course, we understand from elsewhere in our Bibles, that Jesus came so that through his perfect life and sacrificial death we might have peace with God. We also take on board what else we know of God’s will for us and for families. He is responsible for what we could argue is the greatest of all divine inventions, and he commands us to honour our mother and father and to love and care for our children. So then, how do we understand Jesus’ teaching here? Let’s explore: