Jesus, the Radical Counter-Culturalist

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Gospel of Luke the past couple months, most recently reading the “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6). In the “sermon” narrative, Jesus made a somewhat famous, unconventional, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and radical statement…

To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Luke 6:27-28)

I say somewhat famous because I suspect most people are familiar with the three words, “Love your enemies.” However, we must not miss that Jesus was saying far more to his followers. I fear that because these words are quite familiar, they can easily be heard or read without a second thought. Remember that familiarity breeds contempt. These three words and the rest of this short discourse were not familiar to Jesus’ first century followers and they likely didn’t go unnoticed. They were counter-cultural and radical.

Notice that Jesus started with the statement, “To you who are listening…” Jesus was well aware of the fact that his words might go into one’s ear canal, but no farther. Parents understand this concept. So do our kids. Jesus often said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (cf. Luke 8:8 and 14:35). Jesus was effectively saying. “Lean in and listen – this is the stuff of God’s kingdom, if you are willing and able to receive it.”

Love your enemies.

Jesus followed his introductory “lean in” comment with the charge that his followers love their enemies. There are three main Greek words used to describe love – eros (erotic love), plileo (‘brotherly’ love) and agapē (goodwill and benevolence). Agapē uniquely describes and expresses God‘s love for his creation. The word used in this passage is agapē. Jesus appealed to his first-century and subsequent followers to agapē their enemies. He implores us to love our enemies in the same manner in which we expect God to love us – with grace, mercy, goodwill and benevolence.

Jesus suggested practical ways that we, his followers, might demonstrate agapē love toward those who offend us…

Do good to those who hate you. We are off to a rough start! Oh, if only he had said to tolerate our enemies, we might have had a fighting chance. But do good? That’s a tall order. By definition, agapē is doing good – goodwill and benevolence. Goodwill implies an outwardly friendly, helpful, or cooperative attitude. Goodwill surpasses tolerance. Benevolence describes the quality of being well meaning, showing kindness. Benevolence is goodwill in action. It has the best interest of the other (our enemy/offender) in mind. This is radical, counter-cultural, and counter-intuitive.

Bless those who curse you. It doesn’t get any easier! What does it mean to bless someone? Blessing is a powerful Biblical concept, which I wrote about a few months ago. When we bless someone, we are really invoking God’s favor on that person. Invoke God’s divine favor on those who curse us? Radical, indeed. An unheard of suggestion.

Pray for those who mistreat you. A coup de grâce, of sorts. Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and now pray for those who mistreat us? This is a hard expectation. It’s no wonder so many of us gloss over these difficult mandates, moving on to something that is more soothing to our souls. It’s no wonder so many of us choose to set aside Jesus’ directives and instead allow cultural ideologies to mold and shape us. What Jesus is saying to us is unconventional, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, radical, and frankly hard, if not impossible.

It’s important to realize something about the Sermon on the Plain (as well the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew). Jesus is not suggesting a checklist that we should try get right. Rather, this is about a willingness to be a kingdom person. He is describing the basic life and character of a kingdom person, of a Christ-follower. He shows us who we can become when we follow him and heed his mandates. Following is always primary. Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (or justice)… (from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6). When we seek Jesus and his kingdom first, then we see a shift in our thinking and can begin and continue* to Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us.

“No power in the world is comparable to agapē love, both to keep Christians from becoming like their enemies and to release their enemies from the presence of their own hatred.” (Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke, p. 198)

* In Greek, each of the four imperatives – love, do, bless, pray – are present tense, connoting continual action!