THE GOLDEN RULE – Luke 6:27-38
My introduction to preaching took place in my late teens when I joined an organisation known as the Open Air Campaigners. Every Sunday evening, I would join them for an open-air evangelistic service held on the corner of Goulburn and Pitt Streets in Sydney.
The services would run for two or more hours and scores of people would pack into that corner, where we used to park our van with its platform, lights, PA system and electronic organ, and provide a non-stop program of singing, testimonies and preaching.
There were some marvellous things that happened in those meetings too; the most memorable being the conversion of one of Sydney’s most notorious criminals, who then himself became an evangelist.
But it was not a ministry for the faint-hearted. There were always interjectors trying to distract the preachers; some of them were amusing and would raise a laugh, some were cynical, some were abusive, and occasionally there would be people who were intoxicated or mentally-ill, who could be downright dangerous.
Amongst the stories the old-timers used to tell me was that of an Irish evangelist named W.P. Nicholson who visited Sydney in the 1930s to conduct evangelistic meetings. He was best known for his ability to communicate with men – especially non-religious men. He himself had once been a hard-drinking, hard-swearing seaman, whose God-fearing mother prayed for years, until her prayers were answered when he himself was converted and became a Presbyterian minister.
One Sunday night he preached at the Goulburn Street meeting and attracted the attention of one particular heckler who kept asking him if he really believed everything that Jesus said. Nicholson finally stopped preaching and said ‘Yes, I do believe everything he said.’
So, the heckler asked him if that included the bit about when someone hits you on one cheek, you should turn the other cheek to get another one. Nicholson said: ‘Yes, I believe that too.’
So, the man stepped up to the platform and hit him hard with a right hook. Nicholson staggered back, shook his head, then stepped forward again and presented the other side of his face. The man then hauled off with a left hook, knocking him to the back of the platform.
He then turned to the cheers of his mates, raising his hands above his head. But then he felt a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back and turning him around. ‘Brother,’Nicholson said, ‘That’s as far as the Bible says I have to go.’And laid him out cold with one haymaker.
However, even though that go a mighty roar of approval from the crowd, and famous evangelist though W.P. Nicholson may have been, it was not really what Jesus meant when he said: ‘To him who strikes you on one cheek offer the other cheek also.’
These words come from the section of Luke’s Gospel that was read to us this morning. It’s a passage that has caused more difficulty and debate than probably anything Jesus ever said. It’s about how Christians should respond to people who abuse them. It all comes under the general heading of what we call the Golden Rule: ‘Love your enemies,’ Jesus said, ‘Do good to those who hate you…As you would like men to act towards you, so do you act towards them.’
Most civilized people would agree that this is a wonderful ideal, but would also say that it’s totally impractical, because it guarantees the bad guys would always get their way and the good guys get trampled on. And I imagine that’s exactly how most of us see it. Most of us would much prefer W.P Nicholson’s approach.
That’s why it’s important to dig a deeper into this text to see what it really means. Some of you will remember me saying previously that whereas in English we only have one word for love, the Greeks had four: philia, the love of friendship; storge, family love; eros,romantic love; and agape, which was the lovethat God has for people. This last one – agape- is the word Jesus used of loving our enemies.
The thing that’s so special about it is that whereas the other three words all describe a love that originates in our emotions, agape describes a love that starts in the mind as an act of the will - something we choose to do, rather than something that springs from natural affection. Clearly, we cannot love our enemies as we love our nearest and dearest; that would be unnatural, impossible and even wrong. But we can see to it that, no matter what they do to us, we will never allow ourselves to desire anything but their highest good.
I can’t think of any greater example of this than the story of the Australian missionary, Gladys Staines who, withher husband Graham, had spent more than 30 years working with leprosy patients in the state of Orissa in India. But in January 1999 Graham and his two young sons Philip and Timothy were burnt to death by a mob of Hindu fanatics while they were asleep in their jeep. They tried to escape the flames but the mob - armed with axes - prevented them.
Despite the horror of it all, Gladys Staines stayed on in India with her daughter, to oversee the completion of a hospital for leprosy patients, which she and her husband had been working towards for years.
The perpetrators of that horrific crime were eventually caught and put on trial. In her affidavit Gladys stated: ‘The Lord God is always with me to guide me and help me … but I sometimes wonder why Graham was killed and also what made his assassins behave in such a brutal manner. It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband and children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed.’
At the trial she said: ‘I have forgiven the killers and have no bitterness because forgiveness brings healing and our land needs healing from hatred and violence.’ But she also said: ‘Forgiveness and the consequences of the crime should not be mixed up…no individual is above the law of the land…I have no comments regarding the law taking its own course in crime and punishment…We are called to be under subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except God and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. We need to honour both God and man respectively.’
In this I see a powerful expression of what Jesus was teaching in his command that we should love our enemies and do good to those who mistreat us. Though she fully forgave the fanatics who murdered her husband and sons so horribly, and prayed for their forgiveness before God, she did not seek to protect them from the consequences of their crime, realising that to have done so would have encouraged more of the same. Agapelove seeks the highest good of one’s enemy, but that also requires that they face up to the consequences of their actions.
This passage has in it two great facts about the Christian ethic.
Firstly, the Christian ethic is positive. It’s not so much about not doing things but in doing them. What we call the Golden Rulewhich tells us do to others as we would have them do to us, didn’t actually start with Jesus. Other great moral teachers had already expressed it – but they all expressed it in its negative form. Like, Hillel, one of the great Jewish Rabbis, who was asked by a man to teach him the whole law while he stood on one leg. He answered: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to another.’Philo, the great Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, said: ‘What you hate to suffer, do not do to anyone else.’ Isocrates, the Greek orator, said: ‘What things make you angry when you suffer them at the hands of others, you must not do to other people.’Even Confucius, five centuries earlier in far off China said: ‘What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.’
The point is, each of these forms is negative. It may take some effort, but it’s not unduly difficult to keep yourself from doing bad things to someone; but it is a very different thing to go out of your way to do to others the good that you’d like them to do to you. The very essence of Christian conduct is that it consists, not in refraining from bad things, but in actively doing good things.
Secondly, the Christian ethic is based not so much on doing what everyone else does on their better days, but on doing things the way God does them. Just about everyone loves those who love them. Just about everyone gives gifts to those who give them gifts, or makes a loan to those they know will repay it. Jesus here dismisses all that by,‘what’s so special about that?’
The question Jesus asks is not whether we are as merciful as everyone else, but if we are as merciful as God, who is ‘kind to the ungrateful and wicked.’‘Be merciful as your father is merciful,’ he said. It’s not our neighbour we must compare ourselves with; it’s God.
The most difficult thing in all this, though, is that we do not have it within ourselves to live up to such an ideal. And that’s the whole point of the Gospel message. When we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to follow Jesus, not only are our sins forgiven, but we become indwelt by the Holy Spirit - the spirit of Jesus. Our lives become part of the very life of God, and a process of spiritual renewal begins to take place within us, transforming us more and more into the likeness of Christ himself.
And when Jesus said: ‘Pray for those who ill-treat you’ he was not just offering a pious platitude but was giving us a powerful and life-transforming tool for daily living. Time and again I have discovered that there is a power in such prayers that does not so much change the situation as it changes me and my ability to deal victoriously with it.
That’s what Gladys Staines discovered, and so will we, if we do it.