Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 46:4-15
There’s an old story about the author and theologian C.S. Lewis, on his way out for drinks with a friend. Approached by a beggar asking for money, Lewis emptied his wallet and gave the stranger everything. His friend then said to Lewis, disapprovingly, “He’ll only spend it on drink,” to which Lewis responded, “If I kept it, so would I.”
Today’s Gospel reading is about love. More specifically than that, though, it’s about the risk inherent to genuine love. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. …love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” This is not just about doing good and being loving; Jesus is talking here about showing others love even when it is obviously risky, even when it obviously might result in our own pain or loss.
This is not the law and order Jesus many of us may have grown up with, the Jesus who commands us to do what is socially acceptable for the sake of a well-ordered society. Equally, though, this isn’t the Jesus we’re often likely to encounter in progressive, well-educated circles either. I grew up being told not to give money to beggars, because they should get a job. Once grown, and having rejected that teaching, and having moved from a red state to a blue state, I still get told not to give money to beggars, because I should really be giving that money to a shelter, and voting for the right people to enact official homelessness policies, because I don’t want to encourage someone not to use services that may better their situation, and I don’t want to fuel a person’s addiction or irresponsible use of money.
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
Sharp like a scalpel, scripture cuts through our pride, confusion, and the made-up stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. Scripture convicts us, reveals what we lack, what we’re grasping and need to let go. Scripture points to our deep need and to God’s great love.
Jesus, the very Word of God, sees us as we are. Jesus looks with love. Jesus’ words may be surprising, confusing, or confounding; they “reveal the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Revealing, for we find ourselves “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
I honestly have a lot of trouble hearing today’s passage from Luke’s gospel with anything like fresh ears or an open heart. To be more precise, it is verse five that makes me want to stop listening, cross my arms, and scowl: “Wherever they do not welcome you, leave that town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
That temptation to scowl has a backstory. Plenty of Christians rely on this verse and its companion texts in Mark and Matthew as a way of dismissing non-believers or anathematizing fellow Christians with differing views or practices. When aggressive efforts to evangelize yield no fruit or when believers fail to see how they have strayed from the straight and narrow path, these Christians are licensed to deploy a common, ancient Near Eastern practice – shaking the dust from their feet – as they see fit, in their own contemporary, interpretive warfare. It is a clean and tidy way of making a conversation partner into an opponent. It says, “I’m right, and God is my witness. You’re wrong, and I hope you reconsider.” End of story.
If you have been on the receiving end of such foot-shaking (whether literal or figurative) you will know how it feels to be the object of a unique and pungent blend of condescension, self-righteousness, and false pity. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I can say with confidence that this technique is excellent at one thing: producing atheists.
So to hear these words spoken by Jesus, my Savior, my beloved, my Lord and my God, I must get out the steel wool. I must strip and scrub all the interpretive detritus from my memory and listen. I must listen long, listen deeply, and with the utmost humility.
Here are some things I think I hear:
Not every command of Jesus to his followers in every instance recorded in the Gospels applies to you and to me. The Resurrection, the Ascension, and the birth of the Church at Pentecost have radically altered our relationship with the kingdom and its requirements of Love. It is indeed beautiful and awesome to hear about the radical trust of the apostles, as they set out with only the clothing on their backs and the power and authority of their Master gleaming in their eyes. But Luke was well aware even by his own time that slavish duplication of the earliest methods of spreading the gospel would be reductionist and simplistic. Scholar François Bovon identifies some core aspects of Christian missionary practice at the center of Luke’s vision: receiving power and authority from the Lord; preaching and healing; the inevitable experiences of both acceptance and rejection; a hospitable house as the center of mission; and the meeting of resistance with perseverance by shaking off the dust. For Luke, these are practices enjoined upon all Christians, before or after Easter.[i] But it is up to us to discover the precise contours of those practices in our lives and our communities.
So if shaking off the dust can be said to apply to us, what might that look and feel like?
Bovon notes that, in its ancient Near Eastern context, the symbolic, non-verbal gesture of shaking dust from one’s feet did not express anger or a desire for revenge, nor was it a curse on an opponent or a claim of triumph over an enemy. It did soberly express the experience of a rupture or divide in a relationship. In Luke’s gospel, it constitutes a “testimony about the other,” rather than a “testimony against the other.”[ii] It could be seen as a non-verbal story intended primarily for God, a narrative enactment of the reality that Love cannot force itself on others. It could be seen as a way of entrusting another to God when he or she, for whatever reason, is unable to accept God’s offer of Love from us personally.
So, shaking off my interpretive baggage, I hear several humbling reminders in Jesus’s injunction to the apostles to shake the dust from their feet. I hear the crucified and risen Christ, covered with the dust of the world for our sake, saying:
Shake off the illusion that you are responsible for meeting the needs of every living creature. Only God knows what each creature truly needs, and will use your help when and as God sees fit. Shake off the need for universal acceptance. Shake off the pain when the Gospel you have to offer is rejected. Shake off the presumption that you have arrived at the correct interpretation of my vast and life-giving Word. Shake off the dust as you rise from the tomb with me. And whatever you do or don’t do with your dusty feet, keep reaching out your hands in Love.
[i]Francois Bovon. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermeneia Series. c. 2002, Fortress Press. Pgs.342-344.
[ii]Ibid, p. 346.