The Ethic of the Sons of God

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost / Second Sunday of Luke, October 3, 2021
II Corinthians 4:6-15; Luke 6:31-36

The Lord said: “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

(Luke 6:31-36)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today we hear from our Lord the very core of the Christian ethic, which is sometimes called the “Golden Rule.” Jesus said, “As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” And then He also says, “Love your enemies.”

Almost no one actually does this. It is overwhelming even to consider the possibility of treating every single person you meet with true love. Consider a moment of kindness you have received from a loved one or even a stranger. Think of how amazing that was. Now consider doing that with everyone, all the time.

Now consider doing that with people who hate you, who say evil and false things about you, who mock you and try to destroy you, who oppose you at every turn.

Yet this is what Christ says to do.

He actually counters the objection most people might have for this ethic: “I treat people like they treat me. Respect has to be earned. I always pay back whatever I am given.” That might sound fair, but this is not the Christian ethic. The Christian ethic is actually totally unfair. The Christian ethic is to love your enemies, do good, be kind, and expect nothing in return.

I know that this sounds impossible, and of course under our own power, it is definitely impossible. But as Christ Himself says in another place, “With God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). So I want to focus today on how this becomes possible, because that is part of what the Christian life is.

The key is a phrase that Christ uses at the end of this passage from St. Luke’s Gospel: “…and you will be sons of the Most High.” That is, if we live as He commands us to live, we will be sons of the Most High, “for He is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.”

So what does that mean? How does living in a way that imitates God make us sons of the Most High?

In the Scriptures, to be someone’s son was not only about being descended from him biologically. And it was also not even only about growing up in his household. Most importantly, to be someone’s son is to do his works. As we say—like father, like son.

We see Christ speak about this relationship of sonship with imitation in John 8, where the Pharisees claim that they are sons of Abraham, and Jesus counters that if they were really Abraham’s sons, they would do the works of Abraham (John 8:39). He says, “I know you are offspring of Abraham,” recognizing that they are descended from Abraham, but because they don’t imitate Abraham, they’re not really his sons. So that means you can lose your sonship if you don’t do what your father does.

In this same conversation, Jesus goes even further and tells the Pharisees that their works—in this case, hating Him and trying to kill Him—show who their real father is. They are liars and murderers, so that shows that their real father is the devil (8:44).

You can see this same dynamic play out in other places, that the true father-son relationship is based on the son doing the works of the father. Christ highlights this about Himself in several places, especially in John’s Gospel (5:20, 5:36, 10:25, 10:32-38, 14:10-12, 15:24), even saying that the works He does prove that He’s from the Father.

This, by the way, is a key piece of what it means to be made in the image of God. We tend to try to work out particular human attributes that we might share with God as the “image”—perhaps free will, especially—but it is better to think of us as “imagers” of God. We are made by Him to be His imagers, to do what He does and therefore to show Him to the world. This is why Christ Himself is called the “image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15). We show ourselves to be Christ’s adopted brothers by also imaging the same Father as He Himself does.

There is also one more thing to say here that will help us understand how it is possible to love one’s enemies and to treat everyone with real love.

This phrase, “sons of the Most High,” gets used in another place, in Psalm 82(81):6, where God, having listed off the charges against the rebellious fallen angels, calls them “sons of the Most High” after calling them “gods.” But then He says that they will die like men. Why? Because they didn’t do the works of God the Father but instead did the works of the devil.

“Sons of the Most High” is related to the phrase “sons of God,” which gets used throughout the Old Testament to refer to angelic beings, and then in the New Testament gets used to refer to people who are in Christ. Jesus connects the two together when He says that the sons of the resurrection—that is, Christians—are “sons of God and equal to the angels” (Luke 20:36).

So let’s connect all the dots.

To be the sons of God, we do the works of the Father in heaven. If we instead do the works of the devil—which are sin—then he is our father instead. And if we do the works of the Father, then we become equal to the angels, the original “sons of God” who do His works.

And the One Who is not only our exemplar in all this but actually enables us to be like Him is Jesus Christ, Who is the eternal Son of God in a unique way that the rest of us (including the angels) can only imitate.

So this brings us back to the ethical command that Jesus gives—love your enemies, treat others as you would be treated, give and expect nothing back, and so forth. Clearly, He is telling us to act like our Father in heaven, Who does these works. But how do we get there?

First, remember that I did not say that being a true son of your father means only doing His works. You can forfeit your sonship by not doing those works, but it’s not the only thing that makes someone a son. In philosophical terms, doing those works is a necessary but insufficient condition for sonship.

To become the sons of God, we focus not only on ethical behavior, by trying to do all these things. Yes, we do that. But we also become the sons of God through our life of worship and prayer, through our life of communion with our Father.

The life of children with their father is a life of intimate relationship, of community and communion. We live with our father, learn from our father, are corrected by our father, and receive all good things from our father. This experience teaches us how to be his imagers, and the more we pursue this intimacy with him, the more we naturally will imitate him and do his works.

We see this truth reflected in human families. Children absorb so much from their fathers (and of course their mothers) without even realizing it at times, but everyone else can see the resemblance, even sometimes by which hand gestures they make or how they use words. If this is true with our earthly families, how much more true is it with us and our relationship with the Father in heaven?

And this is His astonishing gift of love to us. As St. John said in his first epistle, “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God” (1 John 3:1).

To Christ, the unique Son of God, be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.