Georgios Patronos, Emeritus Professor of Theology, University of Athens
The Gospel reading for 2nd Luke comes from the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, in which almost all Jesus’ teaching during his public ministry is gathered together, emphasis is placed on the overall context of the Christian life. Here, in the Gospel according to Saint Luke, in which events are set out in their historical time-line, that is in the order in which they happened, we have another, interesting tradition. Luke splits up the Sermon and draws the attention of the faithful to the central point in each part. Today, the reference point is how to live love. Faith and the essence of Christian ethics find their recognition. The criterion for veracity is love.
In the previous verses of the Gospel reading, the emphasis was on love, particularly towards strangers, those of a different race and religion, those who we normally characterize as our enemies. The phrases ‘Love your enemies’, ‘Do good to those who hate you’, ‘Bless those who curse you’, ‘Pray for those who mistreat you’, and ‘If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other to them also’ are of great interest. If someone wishes to take your coat, give them your shirt, as well. If someone comes to you as a beggar, don’t refuse to give them something. And if you do give, don’t use the gift against them later.
This is a wonderful framework in which to live the Christian life. A continuous expression of love, without bounds or limitations. A new pattern of behavior and a new ethic for our life, which comes as the ripe fruit of the Christian faith. This attitude to living is shaped outside ethical strictures and social compromises. Nor is it a romantic view of life and social relationships. On the contrary, we have a transcendence of personal rights, a sacrifice of individual interests and a conscious disregard for the hostility and wickedness of others. We develop this attitude in full knowledge and awareness. We certainly aren’t naïve because we live in love.
This framework for behavior takes on a more concrete form in today’s Gospel reading, on the basis of the ‘golden rule’ for the Christian ethical code of practice. Emphasis and priority over all other principles is given to the unique premise of Christian behavior: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We certainly don’t have here some theoretical rule, moralistic axiom or general ethical concept. This is an attitude to life and an ethos of spiritual experience. This is why it’s prioritized in this reading. How do we analyze this axiom of the ‘golden rule’ in our everyday life?
The distinctiveness of the Christian experience.
One kind of ‘golden rule’ for ethical conduct is presented in texts by ancient writers, either from the Jewish religious tradition or from Ancient Greek culture. The aim of these is to restrict arbitrary behavior and to protect respect for the rights of others. So we have an interpretation of negative attitudes and conduct. In Judaism, as we know, the dominant element was the law of retribution: ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. The only exception to this rule was love for one’s neighbor, but ‘neighbor’ here meant someone of your own race and religion. Outsiders and foreigners were rejected as enemies and sinners, both as regards the historical meaning of social conduct and the eschatological hope of salvation. Their attitude was shaped by an intensely religious and racial outlook.
Something of the sort was also true in the pagan and Hellenistic world. The idea that ‘anyone not a Greek is a barbarian’ restricted the benefits of education and culture to their own friends and fellow-citizens and left slaves and foreigners on the outside. Christian love, however, broadens the horizons and does away with every barrier of ethical, racial or cultural distinction. Love is promoted as a rule of life for all and towards all: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Christian view of human behavior is not formed through the will, the intentions or inclinations, but by doing, by deeds and action.
Another characteristic feature is unselfishness. The usual code of conduct in social relationships depends on mutual self-interest, which, in the best of circumstances means ‘I love those who love me’, ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine’, and ‘I trust those who trust me’. From this attitude I expect personal benefit and this why I have an input. Christian love transcends this logic of mutual benefit in human relationships. It works on the basis of another ‘logic’, which is, for some people, the ‘absurd’ reasoning of simply giving and loving. If love is limited to ourselves and to our friends, then we’re in no way different from non-Christians, since ‘even sinners do this’. The command to love your enemies certainly isn’t self-explanatory. By nature we’re inclined towards self-defense and we systematically avoid having anything to do with opponents and enemies. Love for your enemies, to which we’re called by the Gospel message, is a dare, a real risk even for our life. So it’s not inspired by some naïve notion of life, but is the expression of a different attitude and can be achieved only within the context of the grace of God. This love ‘is not of this world’.
Here we have a real transcendence of the ego. And it should be said that only in this risking of the virtue of love do people become ‘perfect’ and are brought to glorification. If you want to become a ‘son of the Most High’*, the only path is that of love. And since people who love essentially become imitators of Christ, ‘Who loved us unto death’, they also, simultaneously, become ‘sons of God’. God is love and, at the same time, the ‘way’ of life and truth. Saint Paul says that ‘speaking the truth in love’, we tread the path of perfection. Love summarizes everything: religious ordinances and eschatological expectations. Love is greater than faith and hope. It’s the greatest of the virtues: ‘and the greatest of these is love’. Love is quality of life and defines our relationship with other people and with God.
*’Son’ here means someone who enjoys the full legacy of their birthright as a child of God, rather than male offspring [WJL].