Recently, I was reading and studying what has come to be called “the Sermon on the Plain” found in Luke 6. In this passage, we come to the very heart of Christ’s teaching, to the words that penetrate both the mind and heart, and which have drawn countless people to Christ from the time they were first uttered and throughout the centuries up to our own day.
Yet, are these words that we as Orthodox Christians neglect? I am referring to the “hard sayings” of our Lord that both elevate and perplex us; that simultaneously attract and frighten us; that reveal to us a “better way” of living, but which remain as a postponed ideal:
“But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.
“If you love those who love you, what credit 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 credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons the most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
“Judge not and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” [Luke 6:27-37].
I always feel challenged to make some sense out of this teaching that seems to be humanly impossible to put into practice. I thought I would share a few points that I tried to formulate in short accessible summaries.
- Christ is not offering a blueprint for some form of utopia or “social engineering.” He is addressing the human heart of each and every person, challenging each person to a new way of life worthy of the Kingdom of God. It is about making a choice to “risk” following His path.
- We fail to put this teaching of Christ into practice for fear of the consequences to our well-being and security. We fear our enemies and what they can do to us. We have thus developed defensive strategies to protect ourselves from our enemies, usually based upon our experience of human sin and common sense.
- To “love” our enemies is not to develop strong emotional attachments to them. “Love” in this context is an action verb about how we react to and treat others. By refusing to retaliate and do harm to others, we help to break the vicious circle of endless retribution and hatred.
- To have our cheek slapped is to be insulted, abused, of offended by our “enemy.” We also have a way of manufacturing “enemies” with our mind.
- There is nothing particularly “Christian” about loving those who love us. That is exactly how all human beings live, including atheists! It is part of our biological heritage. Christian living is transcending the biology, so to speak.
- There is not one word that Jesus taught that He did not put into practice. Christ harmed no one and loved His enemies by dying for them and forgiving them on the Cross. What Christ taught is humanly possible, and this is the great witness of the saints, who put aside their fears and anxieties by putting the teaching of Christ into practice after Him.
Therefore, this teaching of the Lord is the imitation of God Himself, Who is merciful even to great sinners. It is never going to be easy to be a disciple of Christ!