A Family Likeness

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 6:35-36

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 selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:35-36 RSV

There can be no doubt about it. Jesus expected His followers to be different from those around them. They were to have a distinctive lifestyle. It would never be enough for them to live “as the nations did.” There always needed to be something extra. Listen to these words from Luke, chapter 6, beginning at verse 32:

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, 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 of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Did you notice that over-and-above emphasis? Jesus points to what “sinners” do. By that word He doesn’t mean people who are especially evil. He means ordinary, everyday folks who have not yet become His followers. Jesus took it for granted that all of these were flawed people. All had disobeyed God. All were inclined to go their own way. They were so characteristically wayward and willful that the term sinner accurately describes all of them, all of us, before the Lord has touched us by His grace.

WHAT MOST PEOPLE DO

So what do average people do? How does your typical citizen behave? Jesus says they love those who love them. “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” It’s a perfectly natural thing to like the people that like us, to respond positively to those who think well of us. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But there’s not anything especially remarkable about it, either. It’s simply the way things work. Those who love us, we find easy to love.

It’s the same with doing good, showing practical helpfulness. If you have a neighbor, as I do, who’s always doing you a good turn, you’ll find yourself wanting to help him in some way. It seems only decent to reciprocate, to return the favor. Again, that is certainly appropriate behavior, when we return good for good. But no one especially celebrates it or publicizes it, do they? It’s more or less expected. If you do good for those who do good for you, you can consider yourself about average in benevolence. You’re up to the norm in most communities. But it surely doesn’t give you any bragging rights. Jesus says even sinners do the same. I suppose that even mafia members and terrorists at times exchange favors, look out for each other.

Then there’s the matter of lending another person money. If you’re making a loan in order to be paid back, to get some interest in the process, you’re doing the generally accepted thing. Anybody will do that. Almost anyone is willing to make an occasional loan if he has money to lend, and feels sure he’s going to be repaid. Some people make a profitable business out of that, as you know. So if we do lend that way, we may call ourselves prudent business people or cooperative friends, but let’s not expect universal admiration for what we do. Jesus says even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to get paid back. This, according to Jesus, is pretty ordinary stuff.

THE NEW LIFESTYLE

Now listen to the way of living He recommends. “Love your enemies.” We’re not talking now about the people who think you’re great, who sing your praises, surely not those committed to your welfare. No, you’re to love those who not only don’t care about you but are even out to get you. They hate you. They would destroy you if they could. They’re on the search for opportunities to make your life miserable. Love them, says Jesus, and then you’ll be doing something!

And when you’re going to do a good turn for someone, don’t look for the people who’ve done you favors before and might be expected to do them again. No, look for those who’ve never done anything for you. Or if they have, it’s been all bad! Find a way to brighten their lives. Go out of your way to do something for their benefit. That will be worth talking about.

And if you want to consider yourself an unusually virtuous lender, try lending out your money to those who will never pay you back. In other words, make loans that turn out to be gifts. Lend in a way that relinquishes all claim on the money. Then, says Jesus, your reward will be great.

He had a way of putting this that English translations can’t bring out fully. When He asks about these ordinary behaviors, “What credit is that to you?” we could also translate, “What grace is that to you?” Or “what thanks is that to you?” The picture is that if you follow that common sense morality, no one will especially appreciate it, including God. But if you live in the astonishing way Jesus recommends, that will be worth the highest commendation. Now get this – even God will say, “Thank you!”

Try to put yourself in the place of the people who first heard these words. How do you think they reacted? This new way of living sounds great, but we wonder, who would really want to try it? Start loving the thugs that have robbed your house, the slanderer who destroyed your reputation, the scoundrel who raped your daughter? Who wants to make a practice of helping out the most hate-filled people in the community? And who wants to make loans that are not only interest-free but in which debtors don’t have to pay back the principal, either. What are You really talking about, Jesus? What do You expect of us?

That’s fair to ask. Why are we, Lord, as Your followers, supposed to live in this radically different way? Must we be moral heroes, the religious elite, a spiritual kind of super race? Why should we? And even if we should, how can we?

COPYING GOD

On the question, “Why should we?” Jesus points to the character of God. The Most High, He says, is “kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.” Underline that in your mind and heart. It’s the distinctive note in Christian ethics. It’s the basis for the behavior of anyone who truly believes. Everything roots in your theology. What do you believe about God? His character and His way of dealing with people become the pattern for yours, and mine.

What is God like? He’s the Most High, says Jesus. He’s the creator and ruler of this universe. He’s the holy One, infinitely exalted above us. He’s the Lord of everything that is. He is God. And how does He treat people, this majestic Lord who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? He’s kind. He’s generous. He’s merciful. His great inclination, friends, is to treat human beings well.

Kind to what sort of people, we wonder? We can understand His taking pleasure in the saints, His approving of the righteous, His being good to those of sterling character. But that’s not the message here. He’s kind, says Jesus, to the ungrateful and the selfish. Jesus talks about lending money to people who will never pay it back. God has been in the business of doing something like that since the first human being appeared on this planet. The Almighty is always lavishing gifts which human beings forget to acknowledge, for which they never say thanks, for which they offer no returns of worship and obedience. But God keeps on lending, doesn’t He?

He does good, good things without number to all kinds of people who never give a thought to helping anyone else, much less to serving God. He continues to do it: sunshine on a daily basis, rain when a thirsty earth needs it, seed time, harvest and an earth full of unutterable beauty. All for people who spend much of their lives in selfishness and hostility.

And when it comes to loving your enemies, God is a real pioneer, a way-shower. Think of what He did for the very people who had disobeyed and defied Him, who had spurned His fellowship and squandered His gifts. He came to them in the person of Jesus. He identified Himself with our humanity. He endured at our hand hatred, scorn, and rejection. In Jesus’ death, He let Himself be crucified, and went through it all out of love for His tormentors.

In other words, this way of living was not a beautiful theory that God proposed for others to try. It was a way He had chosen. It was a manner of living that came from His heart, something He acted out before us once on the human scene and keeps demonstrating in creative ways every day. So the call of the gospel is, “Copy God.” Learn Christ. Follow His lead. Deal with other people now as He has dealt with you.

LIVING AS CHILDREN

Well, we say, I can see now that it makes sense. It’s the way we ought to live if we are followers of Jesus. But remember, we’re not God. We’re just struggling people. How in the world can we even begin to live that way? Here comes the best part of all. Jesus hints at how this becomes possible. It’s because of our new relationship to God.

Listen again: “Your reward will be great and you will be sons of the Most High. Be merciful even as your father is merciful.” When we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, committing ourselves to be His followers, a miracle happens in us. John’s gospel describes it in this way: “To all who received him [that is, Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1:12). Through faith in Jesus, we become the sons and daughters of the living God. We receive a new nature as His children. We are born again by His creative power. In Christ we have become part of a new creation.

That’s what Pentecost is all about, isn’t it? After Jesus had died for our sins and been raised from the dead, He ascended into heaven. He shares the reign of the Almighty. Now from His glorious throne, He has sent His own Spirit to live in the hearts of His followers. The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus, the living Redeemer. He brings the life and power of the risen Christ into our experience and we become more and more changed people. God is at work in us from then on to make us like Himself, to conform us more and more to the image of Jesus Christ.

If we were told that we ought to live in this radically new way without being given resources for the task, it would be only a counsel of despair. It would be like the hopeless labor of the Israelites back in Egypt when they had to make bricks without straw, monuments without building materials.

But in the gospel of Jesus it’s different. What God commands, He also gives. We have in Jesus not only a clue as to how life ought to be lived but a new dynamic in the Holy Spirit to begin living that way.

Notice, I said, “begin living that way.” I’ve been a Christian for several decades, and I’m still a long way from this godly lifestyle. I feel like I’m still a beginner, but I’m making some progress. I know it’s the way we’re meant to live. Now and then, by the touch of the Lord’s grace, something of that begins to appear in me. And I can see a lot more of it in other Christians I know, enough to convince me again and again that it’s real.

And, you know, here’s the best thing about it. When you and I live that way, trusting in the Lord for strength, we show the family likeness. We show that we are children of the Most High.

You know what that is, this family likeness bit. People gather around a six-week-old baby and say, “He looks just like his father,” or “She’s the image of her mother.” She has “the eyes of a Smith,” or “the nose of a Malone.” People see – or think they see – a family likeness, even in that tiny baby. When we begin to love the unlovely and to help the unhelpful, when we spend our resources for those who can’t begin to pay, people get a glimpse of the Lord in action. Maybe they’ll realize how kind He is to the ungrateful and the selfish, and will have a heart to begin to seek Him. Oh, may that be so!

Prayer: Father, when we face this call to live in a radically new way, we acknowledge our total unworthiness and inability to live that way. But we thank You for Jesus Christ and His forgiving grace, and we thank You for the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our hearts whereby more and more we can begin to live in this new way. O grant it, grant that we may bear in Jesus Christ the family likeness. Amen.