Loving Your Enemies

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Lesson: Matthew 5:38-48

   When I preached on this passage from the Sermon on the Mount a few years ago, I addressed retaliation, the “turn the other cheek” part of the passage.  A mom in the congregation had told me one of her kids didn’t swallow all this baloney about not hitting back, so I preached about the spiral of violence.  Jesus was not teaching people not to resist evil because, after all, he resisted evil with every fiber of his being.  He was teaching that we should not become the evil we resist by using violence.[1] 

   This morning we look at another part of this lesson, a part that is probably one of the best known but most ignored teachings of Jesus: “Love your enemies.”  If a 21st century American kid thinks turning the other cheek is for wimps, then how might he react to “Love your enemies”?  David Lose suggests that a lot of us probably have one of two reactions.  The first is simple, and a little sad: we’ve heard Jesus’ commands so often that they hardly register. … ‘Love your enemies.’ Sounds nice – why not?”[2]  And maybe we stifle a yawn, but we don’t spend much time thinking about actually trying to do it.

  The second response takes Jesus’ words more seriously, but also assumes they’re out of reach.  “Love your enemies”?  You can’t be serious!  That’s just idealistic nonsense.  It doesn’t apply to the real world.  Critics from every part of the political spectrum, from Ayn Rand to Karl Marx to Frederick Nietzsche, completely dismiss Christianity because of this radical commandment.[3]

   But here’s the thing: Jesus isn’t kidding; he’s dead serious.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is outlining his vision of God’s kingdom and issuing a summons to those who desire to be a part of it.  Which is why we need to take this seriously.[4]

   We can take it seriously, first, by understanding that it really is very hard to make yourself love someone.  In his book on forgiveness, Greg Jones mentions a conversation with Elias Chacour, the retired Archbishop of Nazareth and all Galilee of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.  Chacour described the struggles he’d had to convince young Palestinian children in the occupied territories not to be consumed by hate.  He added, “In your book, please don’t make forgiveness seem too easy.”  Forgiveness and loving your enemies are not exactly the same thing but they are related and Chacour’s point is that where reconciliation is a dim prospect on a distant horizon, the very notion of “loving enemies,” tossed off lightly as though it’s something easy, something to check off on your to-do list, ignores or trivializes the experience of people who have been badly hurt.[5]  I wonder if those who find loving enemies less of a challenge might be those who have never experienced oppression or abuse or betrayal, whose life or safety or loved ones or sense of worth have not been violated or seriously threatened by the actions of another human being.   

   So in order to take the command to love our enemies seriously, we have to recognize that there are enemies out there.  Greg Jones defines “enemies” as those who are unwilling to live as forgiven and forgiving people, those who do not try to live in the light of God’s reconciliation.  They are people and political entities who seek vengeance rather than forgiveness and who seek to dominate and abuse rather than to repent and reconcile; who seek to repay violence with violence, rather than with love.[6]  Violence is not only physical, but also violent words that crush the spirit.  I like Jones’ definition because it includes those who really do threaten to do harm; it does not include those we fear simply because they are different or out of ignorance.

   Who might you define as your “enemy”?  In her book, Plan B, Anne Lamott says she felt real resentment toward the man who was president at the time she wrote the book.  Now, maybe you love the current president; maybe you don’t.  If you do, how do you feel about the people who voted against him?  Who is it that you believe is seeking to dominate and abuse rather than repent and reconcile?  The Tea Party?  Congress as a whole?  The folks pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline?  A family member?  Someone who has disappointed you terribly?  Someone who has treated you poorly – maybe even cruelly?  Maybe you tell yourself it isn’t really hatred, because hatred is such a strong word.  So then, who is it that you resent?  Who is it that you cannot make yourself love?

   To take Jesus seriously does not mean telling people who can’t make themselves love and most especially those who have been hurt or victimized that they need to deny or suppress their anger, and love their enemies right now.  Think about what that says to a person.  It says, “It doesn’t make any difference how much you’ve been hurt.  If you can’t just stuff it all and move on, then you aren’t a good Christian.”  Wouldn’t saying that discourage people from addressing the cause of the hurt, from stopping the injustice? 

   Unfortunately, these words of Jesus have been used to do just that.  People have been told not to try to change things.  Just take the abuse.  This is so, so not what Jesus had in mind.  There are times when anger is an appropriate signal that something bad, something wrong, something evil has happened and should not happen again.  Righteous anger is a gift from God not to be ignored.  Jesus himself was angry when he was confronted with injustice.  We take Jesus seriously when we understand that loving our enemies does not mean acquiescing to situations of injustice.  Jesus is not telling us to be passive and tolerate injustice.  He certainly never did.

     Christian love should engage the causes of injustice.[7]  Christian love is not a refusal of strength, but rather an alternative power.  Jesus is calling the powers of the world, the powers of domination and violence, into question.  Love alone is the power that transforms, redeems, and creates new life.  Jesus doesn’t promise that we can love all of our enemies into being our friends, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”[8]   

   What does this love look like, this love for our enemies that Jesus requires?  Well, you don’t have to like someone to love him or her.  You certainly don’t have to approve of their behavior.  You may decide that for your own wellbeing or even survival, you can’t be around the person.  The love Jesus describes means struggling against the feelings of hatred or vengeance when they arise, but Jesus is not referring primarily to feelings.  He doesn’t exclude feelings, but what’s more important is actions.  Love is something you do.  And Jesus leaves that to our imaginations. 

   I asked my twelve-year-old son what he thought of Jesus’ instruction that we love our enemies.  He reminded me that just a few weeks ago, Marge Simpson quoted these very words of Jesus to her son, Bart.  I know that plenty of folks think the TV show “The Simpsons” is irreverent and sometimes raunchy, but I’m not alone in maintaining it’s probably the most consistent, relevant and intelligent treatment of religion on TV.[9]  The episode my son recalled dealt with the standard school rule that a child must bring a Valentine for every child in her class.  Springfield Elementary School even sent a video to all the parents warning that many of history’s monsters, including Attila the Hun and Mao Tse-tung, never received a Valentine.  But Bart Simpson doesn’t want to give a Valentine to Nelson, the class bully, in spite of his mother’s reminder of Jesus’ words about loving our enemies.  

   At school on Valentine’s Day, a line of cowering kids waits to give Nelson a Valentine’s card.  When it’s time for Bart to give Nelson his card, Bart stands up to him.  Even though Bart has an intentionally inferior Valentine ready to give to Nelson, he rips it up right in front of him.  The other kids gasp.  Gripping Bart by the front of his shirt, Nelson demands that Bart have a Valentine ready to give to him in a week.

   A week passes, and out on the playground, Bart hands Nelson the Valentine.  On the cover of the handmade card are the words, “I fear you.”  “’I fear you’?” asks Nelson.  “This is what Valentine’s Day means to you?!”  Bart replies, “This is what it means to everyone.  How can you be forced to say ‘I love you’?  People only give [you] Valentines because they’re scared of what would happen if they didn’t.”  Nelson opens the card and inside is a poem composed by Bart that begins, “Nelson, you frighten me so, the psycho-est bully I know.”[10]

   Now, in the TV show, this touches Nelson’s heart, and while that’s funny, it’s TV.  The truth in this episode is the way that Bart figured out that pretending to love our enemies, the people who hurt or threaten to hurt us, by being nice to them, accommodating them, going along with the injustice they perpetrate, isn’t what Jesus meant by “love your enemies.”  Real love might mean confronting them, nonviolently but honestly, with the truth of their abuse of power.  

   I believe Jesus would have heartily approved of Bart Simpson’s approach to loving Nelson the bully.  But Jesus also offers us another way: prayer.  “Pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”[11]  Praying for our enemies is not just to change their hearts and minds.  Jesus intends it to be a serious attempt to see them from God’s point of view.[12]  Prayer softens us.  Prayer opens us.  We can’t earnestly pray for someone without acknowledging our common humanity; they too have been created in God’s image, and no behavior can erase that image.  That’s what Jesus means when he says, “for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[13]  When we pray with that understanding, it helps us to make the distinction every parent has to make, all the time, between the child and his or her behavior.  “I love you,” we say, “but I don’t like what you’re doing.”

   That brings us to the “why” of loving our enemies.  Jesus says we should love our enemies because God does.  As Anne Lamott writes, “If the God you believe in hates all the same people you do, then you know you’ve created God in your own image.”  The God we believe in, the God Jesus reveals to us, loves everyone, everybody; God’s love is poured out universally for everyone.  Lamott complains, “This drives me crazy, that God seems to have no taste, and no standards.  Yet on most days, this is what gives some of us hope.”[14] 

   It gives us hope because none of us, not one of us, our enemies or us, is loved because of what we do or don’t do.  It is not because we have value that God loves us; it’s because God loves us that we have value.[15]  Jesus concludes this section by saying we should be perfect which would be better translated as “mature,” or “complete,”[16] but either way, Jesus has just made it clear that God’s love for us, or for our enemies, doesn’t depend on our behavior or our perfection or our maturity or anything else.

   Love our enemies, not because it will make the world a better place or us better people, although it will, but because God loves our enemies.  Love the way God loves, because we are children of God and as chips off the divine block, God’s image should show in us. 

   Loving the way God loves might sound unrealistic, but there is no shortage of real life stories of people who have been able to love their enemies in creative and constructive ways, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King to Nelson Mandela to combatants in armed conflict to the victims of racism and oppression to Anne Lamott to ordinary folks, like you and me.  It’s important to tell these stories, to share these stories.  It is important for the community of Jesus to share these stories, not in order to make people who struggle with loving their enemies feel guilty, but to challenge the cultural myth that loving our enemies is unrealistic.  And it is important to support and encourage each other that yes, we really can participate in the God-like love, too.

   John Buchanan writes, “That finally is the issue: a love that is expressed in the moral … rules by which we live, but also a love that is greater than [that], a love that comes to us even when we fail morally, even when we do not live up to God’s hopes and expectations, even when we act sinfully, hatefully, irresponsibly; a love that will never let us go; a love that changes everything and for a moment, when human beings act out of love, when human beings make … decisions out of love, we find ourselves in the very presence of God, and in God’s kingdom on earth.”[17]

   May it be so, for you and for me.  Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2014 all rights reserved.


[1]  You may read that sermon, entitled, “Mom, Why Shouldn’t I Hit Back?” on the First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo website at http://www.togetherweserve.org/%E2%80%9Cmom-why-shouldn%E2%80%99t-i-hit-back%E2%80%9D/.

[2]  David Lose, “The Revolution Starts Here,” February 18, 2014, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3076.

[3]  Lose, ibid.; John M. Buchanan, “A Whole New Morality,” February 20, 2011, http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2011/022011.html.

[4]  Lose, ibid.

[5]  L. Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Be. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), pp. 241-242.

[6]  Jones, p. 262.

[7]  Jones, p. 246.

[8]  Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2010; text copyright © 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr.), p. 47.

[9]  See for example, Mark Pinsky, The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

[10]  “The Simpsons,” Season 25, Episode 11: “Specs and the City” (January 26, 2014).

[11]  Matthew 5:44-45.

[12]  Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: Matthew (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), p. 59.

[13]  Matthew 5:45.

[14]  Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (New York: Riverhead Books, 2005), pp. 220-226.

[15]  William Sloane Coffin, Credo (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 6.

[16]  Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), pp. 56-57.

[17]  Buchanan, ibid.

1 Comment

  1. Stacy Soderborg

    Tue 25th Feb 2014 at 9:37 am

    Truly inspirational. I especially liked the time with the children. In this day of un-relentless bullying and mean spiritedness, whether it be on the playground or on the walk to school, I feel it is so important to instill in children to be kind and tolerant of one another. In adults we must remember to treat people as we would want to be treated. We are all creatures of God and we must always remember this. Thank you Joanne.

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