A New Moral Compass

This coming Sunday is the 7th Sunday of Ordinary Time in which we are reading the second part of the “Sermon on the Plains” that began in Luke 6:17.  In yesterday’s post we laid out the construct of Hellenistic ethics and Jewish Wisdom traditions. Neither seem to describe Jesus’ instructions. If the Hellenistic “golden rule” and the Jewish wisdom of Sirach do not seem to describe Jesus’ message, it only points out how radical the message was in its day.

Be the  people Jew or Gentile, both peoples lived in a world of patronage. In the ethics of the larger Lucan world, a patron solidifies his or her position in the community by “giving,” by placing others in his or her debt, and receiving from them obligatory acts of service and reverence. Is this patronage system being overturned? Verses 36-38 will make clear that patronage is not part of the moral compass being asked of believers. The focus is not on those with the circle of associates and knowns, but rather on the ones called enemies (echthrous). And there is not a lot of room for interpretation here since the word used stems from the root word for hostility.

In v.29 ff we arrive at a section which stands apart from lex talionis or “law of retaliation” that God had commanded in the OT: eye for an eye, etc. (see Exodus 21:23-25; Lev 24:19-20). If Jesus were reiterating the law of retaliation, then the verse should read:

If we reconstructed these commands according to the law of retaliation, they might be stated:

  • To the one who strikes you on the cheek, strike him/her on the cheek.
  • From the one who takes your coat, demand a coat back from him/her.
  • To the one who asks or takes something from you, demand a similar item in return.

Treating others as they have treated us seems to be a natural and fair way of administering justice. And yet Jesus’ teaching calls for a different response: loving actions such as offering the other cheek, not withholding a shirt, giving what is asked for, not demanding back what has been taken.

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