This classic gospel message is addressed to those who listen. To hear and respond to the heart of the message that follows, namely to love your enemies and to do good to those who hate you, calls for an extraordinary expansiveness of spirit only possible for those who are totally open to the power of God’s Spirit working in their lives. It is not easy to love one’s enemy particularly when the enemy, the one subtly undermining or manipulating you, comes in the guise of friend. Yet, even in the face of subtle enmity, the message is clear: do not respond in kind, respond instead with love, compassion and unreserved forgiveness. It is also important to rise above the pettiness of the other and refuse to be a victim. To the one who takes away your coat, you offer your shirt as well. In this way, the real power remains with the one who is too expansive to retaliate.
The recipients of this gospel, the members of Luke’s late first century communities, were well acquainted with the Jewish traditions that informed their faith, even if many were not themselves Jewish. The Jewish Christians in the community as well as the “God-fearers” who accepted Jesus of Nazareth as Saviour and Christos or Messiah had been introduced to the God of steadfast love (ḥesed) and womb-compassion (raḥamîm). They believed that God was concerned about justice in the legal system (mishpat) and right relationship (sedeqah) between people and nations, ever ready to forgive those who turn away from injustice and wrongdoing. The songs and prayers of the Jewish heritage reminded them constantly of the compassionate ways of God in their history and in their personal lives. When the Lukan Jesus tells these people to be merciful or compassionate as God is compassionate, they know what he means. They also know the cost of compassion in situations where retaliation is the more spontaneous instinct. God-like compassion remains the stance required of Christian disciples in the face of opposition and hatred, even the opposition that comes in the guise of friendship.
Compassion, forgiveness and love of enemies are rare commodities in international politics and in the resolution of global conflicts as well as in personal relationships. Sadly, the major trouble spots on our globe witness to constant retaliation and face-saving measures that harden positions and exacerbate division. There is ample evidence that hatred, fuelled by injustice, is begetting violence in many parts of the world. And yet the only way to break the cycles of violence that perpetuate death and destruction is the way of compassion and love. God-like compassion requires that we, as nations and as individuals, let go of past hurts, examine our tenaciously held opinions, try to see the world from the perspective of those we mistrust and work for peace that is grounded in love.