19th Sunday after Pentecost • Luke 6:31-36 [Matthew 5:1-48]
“And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But 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 those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
According to the Anglican Divine and poet—Archbishop Richard Trent—there are three measures of return, which men may make one to another. These are:
(1) the returning of ‘good for good’ and ‘evil for evil’
(2) the returning of ‘evil for good’, and
(3) the returning of ‘good for evil’
[cf. Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount]
The first measure of return is the law of reciprocity—
“For then the Lord said to Moses: you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, and stripe for stripe” [cf. Exodus 21:23-24].
This is the rule of natural man and has been enshrined in law since the time of the Code of Hammurabi in the 18th century BC.
The second measure is ‘the returning of evil for good’. Such action is contrary to nature and is devilish.
In Psalms [cf. 38:20], we read: “For those who repay evil for good, oppose me and are my enemies.” And, “a curse is upon the house of those who repay evil for good” [cf. Proverbs 17:13].
And again: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter” [cf. Isaiah 5:20].
The third measure is ‘the returning of good for evil’. Such action is above nature and is therefore Divine—and unto this does the Lord Jesus Christ summon the children of God. This is the Divine measure. This is the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” [cf. Luke 6:31].
The Golden Rule is powerful! It is the "fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets" [cf. Matthew 7:12]. It is a universal archetype manifested in religion everywhere! It captures the essence of love and justice in a single sentence.
Where our own advantage is concerned, there is not one of us, who cannot explain minutely and ingeniously what ought to be done. And since every man shows himself to be a skillful teacher of love and justice for his own advantage—why does that same knowledge not readily occur to him, when the profit or loss of another is at stake? Is it because we wish to be wise for ourselves only, and care not about our neighbors? How then do we implement this ‘Golden Rule’ in our lives? How do we lift ourselves up and rise to move above the natural law of reciprocity? How do we rise up above the letter of the law and fulfil the spirit of the law? For the letter kills but the spirit gives life [cf. II Corinthians 3:4-6].
The ‘Golden Rule’ is a point of reference
The Lord does not abandon us. He ‘directs our paths’ [Proverbs 3:6]. His “Word is a lamp unto our feet, and a light unto our path” [cf. Psalms 119:105]. Jesus immediately operationalizes this ‘Golden Rule’, saying: “But 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 those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back” [cf. Luke 6:32-35].
If you love for only a mere natural motive, what reward have you? For Augustine says: “Do you love your children and parents? Bandits also love those with whom they have kindred affection! Lions also love their cubs! Snakes also love their snakelets! Bears also love their bearcubs! And wolves also love their whelps... but if we love only those who love [us], we do not differ from those very beasts”.
This ‘Golden Rule’ is not for all—for it is natural to reciprocate—[that is, to help those who help us and hurt those who hurt us]. To do unto others as they do unto you is natural justice. It is the law of reciprocity.
For the true Orthodox Christians—the disciples of Christ—the ‘Golden Rule’ is a point of reference. It is a starting point. Jesus said: “But I tell you: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also” [cf. Luke 6:27-29]. Jesus demands this comportment from His disciples. Jesus demands that we love our enemies.
The children of this world are not ashamed to acknowledge their resentments—and look for the slightest reason to assign them. But the love that God requires looks not at what a man deserves, but extends itself to the unworthy, the wicked, and the ungrateful. Christ presents to us, in a summary view, the way and manner of fulfilling this precept in Matthew [cf. 22:39]: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. No man will ever come to obey this precept until he has denied himself and abandoned his inordinate self-love.
True Orthodox Christians are called to ‘press on to a higher plane’ “for wisdom takes its stand on higher ground” [cf. Proverbs 8:2]. Orthodox Christians are therefore commanded to banish and efface reciprocity from their minds so completely—as to bless their enemies. It is very difficult, indeed—and altogether contrary to the disposition of the flesh—to render good for evil. But our vices and weakness ought not to be pleaded as an apology. Notwithstanding, if we rely on the heavenly power of the Spirit, we shall encounter successfully all that is opposed to it in our base feelings, emotions, and passions.
The ‘Golden Rule’ is a powerful universal archetype manifested in religion everywhere
Marcus Aurelius—the last and the noblest of the Five Good Emperors of Rome—struggled with the issue of reciprocity as he prepared himself for his daily imperial duties, saying: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they cannot tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so, none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural” [cf. Marcus Aurelius in The Meditations]. Is it not to our great shame that a pagan can speak and act in such a manner while we still wallow in the mire of reciprocity!?
The Lord Jesus Christ demands that true Orthodox Christians surpass the righteousness of the noblest of the pagans and the ‘best of the best’ from the non-revealed religions of this world when He said: “For you are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” [cf. Matthew 5:14-16].
Moreover, true Orthodox Christians must demonstrate such dispassion even in the doing of such good works: “For when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” [cf. Matthew 6:3]. Jesus demands that we love—not only those with a ‘speck in their eye’—but also those with a ‘beam [or plank] in their eye’ [cf. Matthew 7:3]. Jesus says: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” [John 15:12].
The Lord consistently re-contextualizes and reconfigures the Mosaic Law in order to impart new, deeper, enhanced, and transcendent knowledge. He does this by selecting significant statements from the Old Testament Scripture—already known to its hearers. He then identifies the underlying theme and meaning of the text, and synthesizes the ultimate essence of meaning—which epitomizes the ultimate and transcendent message of the text. In Leviticus [cf. 19:18], we read: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: for I am the Lord”. In Tobit [cf. 4:15], we read: “And what you hate, do not do to anyone”. Jesus takes these texts and synthesizes them: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” [cf. Luke 6:31; Matthew 7:12].
Jesus says: “You have heard that it was said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” [cf. Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21 in Matthew 5:38]. He then adds: “But I say to you: Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” [cf. Matthew 5:39]. This first statement: “Do not resist an evildoer” is unequalled in the Torah. The second statement presents an example of the operationalization of the first statement.
The Lord then says: “You have heard that it was said: You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy” [cf. Leviticus 19:18 in Matthew 5:43]. This was common knowledge and the standard of the day. In Psalms [cf. 139:22] we read: “I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies”.
Jesus then reconfigures the law of dealing with enemies, saying: “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” [cf. Matthew 5:44]. In these words of Jesus, the prophecy of Isaiah begins to see its fulfillment: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned… For every trampling boot of battle and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government will be upon His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish and sustain it with justice and righteousness from that time and forevermore… But the Lord has sent a message against Jacob, and it has fallen upon Israel” [cf. Isaiah 9:2-8].
Jesus says: “Therefore, love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” [cf. Luke 6:32-36]. He calls us to act according to our created ‘image’ and to reclaim our ‘likeness’ in order “that we may be sons of our Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” [cf. Matthew 5:45].
This is echoed in the final verse of today’s lesson, when Jesus says: “Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” [cf. Luke 6:36] and reiterated in Matthew [cf. 5:48]: “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”. Mercy correlates to perfection, and the Lord’s true disciples are to emulate this cardinal and indispensable virtue—which completes the four [pagan] cardinal virtues of Plato—that is, prudence, fortitude, temperance, and justice. These hinge on mercy [cf. Plato in The Republic].
The practice of the virtues
The Lord promises: “You will be sons [or children] of the Most High” [cf. Luke 6:35]. The Lord employs a quote from the Old Testament Prophet Daniel [cf. 3:26]: “Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego—sons of the Most High God—come out, and come here. Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came out from the midst of the fire.” Ultimately, “these holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever—yes, for ever and ever” [cf. Daniel 7:18].
Jesus synthesizes the words of the Old Testament and gives us the ultimate essence of meaning: “Hope for nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful” [cf. Luke 6:35-36]. Therefore, we are to actively pursue participation in the Kingdom [Empire] of God by reflecting God’s image and growing in His likeness through the pursuit of virtue.
St. Peter of Damascus says: “What health and sickness are to the body, virtue and wickedness are to the soul, and knowledge and ignorance to the intellect. The greater our devotion to the practice of the virtues, the more our intellect is illumined by knowledge. It is in this way that we are accounted worthy of mercy, that is, through the fifth commandment: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” [Matthew 5:7]. For God says: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” [cf. Leviticus 19:2 in I Peter 1:16].
The Lord clearly tells us: “If you love Me, keep My commandments” [cf. John 14:15]. For it is not sufficient merely to commit the commandments and teaching of Christ to memory—but these must be put to the test by practice. For “Blessed is he that reads, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein, and practice them for the time is at hand” [cf. Revelations 1:3]. “And as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” [cf. John 1:12]. If we keep His commandments, we will be the ‘salt of the earth’ [cf. Matthew 5:13].
The Apostle Paul, clearly says: “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” [cf. I Corinthians 13: 4-7].
Epictetus [in Discourse 2.22] says to those who wish to love or be loved: “It is to the wise alone that the power to love belongs.” Why so!? Love moves beyond the natural law of reciprocity. Love is not a compartmentalized emotion! Love implicates our whole outlook on life, our whole way of seeing the world and relating to others.
In Discourse [cf. 2.22, 34-37] Epictetus says: “He who sincerely desires to be a friend to another, or to win the friendship of another, must eradicate [false] judgments—and despise them. He must banish them from his mind. And when he has done so, he will—in the first place—be free from self-reproach, inner conflict, instability of mind, and self-torment. He will always be frank and open with one who is of like-mind with himself, and will be tolerant, gentle, forbearing, and kind with regard to one who is unlike him. But if you are not like this, you may act in every regard as friends do— drinking together, living together under the same roof, and travelling on journeys together, and may even have the same parents, yes, but you can never be friends as long as you hold onto brutish and abominable judgements”.
What sort of ‘brutish and abominable judgements’ is he talking about? By this he means holding onto the belief that external things, matters, or circumstances are superior to the attainment of virtue and ultimately, more important and beneficial than virtue itself.
For example, if you become angry when your partner or child fails to meet your expectations—whatever that expectation may be—you are demonstrating that that external thing [matter or circumstance] is more important than virtue. No matter what others do—we must strive to always behave in a way that conforms to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot blame others for our own wicked behavior. Until we reach the point in which we can consistently make correct judgments regarding the prioritization of our primary existential goal—that is, enosis [or oneness with God in Jesus Christ our Lord]—we will never reach our full capacity to love others.
The secret to true love
True Orthodox Christianity—through the teaching of Jesus—deepens our capacity for philía [brotherly love and authentic friendship], ludus [playful love as among children], pragma [longstanding committed and companionate love as between spouses—‘standing in love’ vs. ‘falling in love’], storgí [unconditional familial love as between parents and children], xenía [love of hospitality and guests], agápi [spiritual and universal love], and ultimately Divine éros [in which a man is wounded by love for God].
The Holy Fathers teach us how to see each kind of love in its true light and thereby help us avoid mania [manic love], filaftía [that is, philautia—inordinate self-love], and manic éros [so prevalent today].
The Apostle Paul says: “But understand this: In the last days terrible times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, without love of good, traitorous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. Turn away from such as these! They are the kind who worm their way into households and captivate vulnerable women who are weighed down with sins and led astray by various passions, who are always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” [II Timothy 3:1-7].
Even Cicero considered those who were sui amantes sine paribus [lovers of themselves without rivals or equals] were doomed to end in failure. Such will be the end of those who claim to be primus sine paribus [or first without equals]!
No matter what others do—we must strive to always behave in a way that conforms to the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The wise person is not prey to such negativity because he has developed his faculty of spiritual perception [or nous]—which enables him to perceive that which is of transcendental importance—that which truly matters in life.
This is the secret to true love—holding the correct judgments about things and prioritizing accordingly.
If we look at the ways we enact love on a daily basis—how do we respond when our beloved does something we do not like? How do we support him/her through difficult times? It is clear how our faith impacts our ability to love others.
If we are able to regulate our own emotions and cope with the vicissitudes or ebb and flow of life—we can be a loving and supportive presence in the lives of those whom we say we love.
If, on the other hand, we are easily upset or annoyed, or we are prone to judging, imputing motives, ingratitude, despair, and resentment—such negativity will bleed over into our interactions with others. It is very easy to take out our frustrations on those that are closest to us—or to get upset when they do those things that we do not like. Just as the mere natural love of bandits and beasts comes naturally to everyone, so too come anger, frustration, spitefulness, and a host of negative manifestations of sin.
According to St. Diadochos of Photiki: “Only God is good by nature, but with God’s help man can become good through careful attention to his way of life.”
Love is its own reward—yes, love is its own true reward. Through love, we attain virtue. Through love, we purify our souls. Through love, we become one with the One.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.