The Law of Payback (Luke 6)



I saw a rather grim film some years back called Payback. The general premise was-as the title suggested- that “If you do something bad to me, I will do something worse to you.” Well, that’s how the world operates, isn’t it? Isn’t revenge built into our DNA?   Isn’t that the rationale for nations stockpiling nuclear weapons and maintaining military readiness?

In fact, we see the same principle in the oldest narratives of the Bible,  in the Song of Lamech:

“I have killed a man for wounding me,
    a young man for injuring me.
 If Cain is avenged seven times,
    then Lamech seventy-seven times.” (Genesis 4:23-24)

There it is! Payback.Retaliation on a sliding scale.

But did I say “Oldest narrative”? That’s not exactly true. The Bible’s first strand in our “DNA” is quite different. The very first picture that Genesis paints is one of harmonious relationship between God, humanity and creation. Retaliation and revenge are the product of the breakdown of that relationship.

And when Jesus stood to preach, He was alert to the principle of payback, but now the whole thing seemed to operate in reverse! It’s called grace. “You do something mean to me, I do something wonderful for you.” Lamech’s payback increase (seven to seventy-seven) sounds a little similar to Jesus’s call to Peter to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven!

So here’s the law of payback at the heart of the Gospel proclamation:

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you…”

This is how God lives towards us. This is what is evidenced in the Cross. And this is how we are called to live towards each other. In a nutshell, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” 

And because this is Grace talking, the old sliding scale of retaliation becomes a new kind of payback. Jesus explains:

“‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.’” (Luke 6:37-38)

It’s simple really. You get back from God what you dish out to people. If you stop dishing out judgement and condemnation – stop badmouthing or criticising- then you have moved yourself into God’s original plan of living, into that old harmonious relationship. If you let those old grudges go – the nasty little splinters of that old payback routine – then your whole life will get easier.

You are not supposed to carry all that extra baggage.

Ask any Ryannair hostess.

But there’s much more here. Once you move into the relationship of grace that Jesus offers, then you learn to give, really give, out of a heart made free. Once you learn not to be obsessed with yourself and how people treat you and how you feel about everything, then you can truly give.

You can give time in conversations to listen to the beat of someone else’s heart (rather than waiting for a pause so that you can leap in with an interesting anecdote about yourself). You can give without any agenda, without any muddied motive, because you are no longer living in squinty-eyed distrust waiting for perceived insults and backstabbing.

It’s such a relief to live without your guard up!

And you find that you get what you give, only more. “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

So the question that needs to be asked is: What is “the measure you use“?

I always smile at those inky-dinky little Communion glasses that we use – the tiniest little things you could imagine! – all squidged together on a wooden tray and filled with a micro-shot of fruit juice. Now I do understand the logistics of the thing, and the need for hygiene etc, so don’t get cross with me. But the thing that makes me smile is that Communion symbolises the giving of grace – the abundant pouring out of the love of God in Christ on the cross!- and we choose to demonstrate it in the most confined space possible!

Maybe we should fill a swimming pool with fruit juice and dive in?

What is “the measure you use“? A “communion cup” (so to speak) or a swimming pool? Do you restrict your trust of other people until they have proved worthy of it? How do you respond to Big Issue sellers? Do you smile easily?

The really good news is that God gives more – certainly more than we deserve, but also, certainly more than we expect. He expects us to learn to be generous and easy. He expects us to be “merciful” and kind, loving and giving. But you can never outgive God. He already gave everything. “For God so loved the world that He gave…” And He loves to give. 

And if I simply show myself gracious and giving, then  “A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.”

And this – if I can only receive it!- this is what makes life beautiful.

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