The ‘Golden Rule’ – “Do to others as you would have them do to you” – has been around in some form or other in different cultures over many centuries. It was around before Jesus used it, although before Jesus, it tended to be stated in a negative form: “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you”. In this form, it was about limiting the harm we do. Like the Old Testament injunction, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, which was about limiting revenge so that it did not escalate. But we still end up with a lot of eyeless, toothless people!
Or the lawyer who, being told by Jesus to love his neighbour, asks, ‘Well, who is my neighbour?’ He’s trying to limit his obligations by closely defining those to whom he owes his love. Jesus turns that upside down: not, Who is my neighbour? Buy, Who isn’t?! Is there anyone I can’t be a neighbour to, if I choose? And Jesus gives him the Parable of The Good Samaritan to illustrate that anyone can be a good neighbour to anyone if they choose, including the people they don’t naturally get on with or relate to.
And that’s the point. If we love those who love us, it makes the world go round smoothly, but only because we have a reciprocal arrangement with those around us: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. We’ve evolved to do favours for one another: I’ll let a car in front of me in the queue for Runcorn Bridge, because, I’d expect someone else to do the same for me. That’s how the world works. I will do something for you in the expectation that you’ll do something for me at some point down the line. According to the film, The Godfather, that’s how the Mafia works: I’ll do you a favour. And at some point in the future, I’ll call that favour in. You’ll have to do it, because you are indebted to me.
Jesus says, Imagine doing something for someone who can never repay you! Just doing it – being kind to someone who can never return the favour:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
Anyone can love their neighbour, if they are allowed to choose who their neighbour is – the nice people who are like us – even sinners do that. But Jesus says we can love our enemy.
How can we love our enemy? Because love isn’t a deal we make with one another: it’s the undeserved, unrewarded commitment to make someone else’s life better, to want the best for someone else, regardless of whether that can work for our benefit to. What does that look like? It looks like Jesus, forgiving his killers from the Cross. It is God being merciful to ungrateful wretches like you and me.
It’s called grace. Once we grasp that, or begin to grasp that, to know that we are loved, even though we don’t deserve it, we can start to love one another, including those who don’t deserve it.
There’s a lot more that needs to be said about the verses in this passage: it’s not an abuser’s charter; offering the other cheek to someone who slaps you is about defiant but non-violent resistance; as is giving your shirt to someone who has taken your coat, because it leaves you naked and shames them, not you. Perhaps giving money to a beggar on the street may not be the most loving thing to do. But the kingdom principle is clear:
God loves sinners. He loves you! And he expects us to love one another, including, and especially, those who can never love us back.