Relationships are reciprocal. There’s a give and take to any relationship. Between friends, between enemies, even one-sided relationships have give and take. And there’s an expectation, in any given relationship, that both sides ought to benefit, and usually both sides do, even when it doesn’t necessarily look like it. Even altruists benefit from the gratitude of those they serve, the respect they get from other people for the work they do. Every charity worth it’s salt knows that people give more when they receive some sense of value – a great story of how you are changing the world, an awards banquet, a 5K T-shirt or a tote bag.
That’s the expectation of relationships in the world. You give, you get. Imagine for a second it’s early December and you’ve gone out to visit some old friends. What’s this? A present? But you didn’t get them anything! How do you feel? A gift creates an obligation. We feel a need to repay it in some way, even if it’s just letting someone know how much it was appreciated. And we have laws against lawmakers, judges, doctors and others taking gifts from people who benefit from their decisions. Because we know that when someone receives gifts, it put them in a sort of debt, one that they’ll be bound to pay back somehow, or at least be sorely tempted. In some way or another, all relationships are reciprocal. They’ve got a give and take to them.
That’s worth holding in our mind as we look at our passage for today. Because Jesus is talking about our expectation in our relationships with our friends and our enemies. We bless the people who bless us, and curse the people who curse us. We only love the people who can love us back. But as we’ve said before, this part of Luke’s Gospel is where Jesus lays out his vision for the world. And for Jesus, this kind of love is too small. Because even the meanest, even the cruelest, even the most selfish people do the same thing.
Jesus has higher expectations for Christians. Jesus expects Christians to be different from other people. If Christianity is indistinguishable in its behavior from everyone else, what good is it? If salt has lost its saltiness, it’s of no use to anyone. The only Christianity that matters is the Christianity that acts differently from other people. If we expect anything less than that, we might as well skip it all and go to brunch. At least there’s French toast.
And so Jesus lays out how exactly Christians need to be different. Other people decide who to love and who to bless on what they get out of it, whether it’s conscious or not. But Christian love is not dependent on what we gain or lose by loving. Bless those who curse you. Love people that are never going to love you back. If someone hurts you, don’t repay the favor. If you’ve been generous with someone, do not expect to be repaid. Jesus tells us that love isn’t something you profit from. And hatred isn’t something anyone, even your enemies, deserves.
Instead our love is dependent on the love that God has given us. At the heart of this, acting like a Christian means recognizing that in everything we do, we are not just in a relationship with other people. We are in a relationship with God. When we think of our enemies, we should think of how often we have made ourselves enemies of God, setting ourselves opposite what is good and what is right. But as we remind ourselves every week when we confess our sins, God does not repay our evil with evil, but wipes our slates clean. When someone asks something of us, we should not think of whether or not they deserve it, or whether or not they’ll ever be able to pay us back. We should think of how much we ask of God, and how much God has given to us even though we don’t deserve it and will never be able to pay it back.
Jesus tells us not to perpetuate the cycle. Do not let your love become dependent on what someone can do for you. Instead, let your love be dependent on what God has done for you. This is how we set ourselves apart as a holy people. Instead of repaying people in kind for what people have done for us, we repay people in kind for what God has done for us.
The whole thing seems like a tall order. To let someone hurt us and not hurt them back. To reject all the benefits of charity, including other’s admiration and our own good feeling and self-satisfaction. To let wrongs go by because we refuse to sit in judgment on another. To give to everyone who asks of you. It’s so different from what people expect you to do that you’d think it’s impossible. You’d think it would be stupid to even try.
Except that he did it. He knew the world would not love him back, but he loved us anyway. He knew that he would bring blessings, and he would be cursed. He knew that they would beg for his healing, then strip the cloak from his back, and his shirt too. But he never allowed them to become his enemies. And when they had taken everything from him, and they hung him from the tree, his victory was complete. He defeated not earthly enemies, but the great enemy, the evil that drags us into selfishness, pride, and death.
Rising from the tomb he showed us that the path to salvation is not self-love, but humble obedience. The resurrection is an invitation into new life. He flung open the gates to the Kingdom of God, where we have no enemies, only those who can become friends. Not some day, but right now, the kingdom is here for us, should we choose it. Where we expect nothing for our love, but gain everything through God’s love for us. It is a gift we can never repay. In the face of that gift, the only thing we can do, the only way we can express our gratitude, is to take up our cross, and follow.