In today’s text, Jesus says to love our enemies. Before reading it, let’s remember the biblical characterization of God’s attitude toward enemies that shaped the mindset of first-century Jewish thought and continues to shape the mindset of much contemporary Christian thought.
In Genesis, God says to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse…” (Genesis 12:3a)
Psalm 139 says, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” (Psalm 139:19a, 21-22)
Through Ezekiel, God says, “I will throw you on the ground…and will cause all the birds of the air to settle on you, and I will let the wild animals of the whole earth gorge themselves with you.I will strew your flesh on the mountains, and fill the valleys with your carcass.” (Ezekiel 32:3-5)
And from Nahum:“A jealous and avenging God is the Lord…the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies.” (Nahum 1:2)
According to such texts – and there are plenty more – God wills the hatred and annihilation of enemies. Worldly wisdom agrees. If we don’t subdue our enemies, they’ll subdue us. So, we have to overwhelm them with intimidation, fear, and deadly force. That sounds like international politics, but public rhetoric in a fragmented society has become all about insulting our neighbors, shaming them, discrediting them, hurting them in whatever way we can. If we’re to maintain supremacy, then right or wrong (and we must never admit to being wrong) we have to nurture a culture of enmity. We have to vilify and vanquish everyone who disagrees with us. And if we don’t dominate the relationship, if we don’t control the narrative, we lose.
Into that rancorous culture, Jesus says:
27But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
31Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.34If 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.
35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (NRSV)
Seriously? Love our enemies? Don’t hit back? Isn’t Jesus asking too much?
Jesus says these things immediately after distinguishing poor from rich, hungry from full, weeping from laughing, and those who are hated and excluded from those who seek public praise. He establishes sets of diametric opposites, and declares blessing on those who suffer and woes upon the privileged. Then, in the next breath, he says, “Love your enemies.” Love those against whom you strive, even at the deepest, most gut-wrenching levels of human experience.
What makes Jesus’ teaching so challenging is that he’s telling us to swallow our pride. He’s telling us to renounce our all-too-precious theologies of retribution. He’s calling us to put our immediate, day-to-day trust in the ways of agape love and the means of grace. Can we even do that?
The line at the heart of this passage, the line that makes love of enemy even remotely possible, is verse 31 – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Students of comparative religion note that this, the Golden Rule, is a fundamental tenet, if not the very ground of all major religions, and certainly of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s also the pivot point at which, for 2000 years, millions upon millions of Christians have quit following Jesus and turned his communal, non-violent faith into a personal, often-aggressive quest for heaven based on individual merit. And maybe we do this because the love Jesus teaches is just too hard to offer and to accept. Nonetheless, holy texts call humanity to selfless love.
Leviticus says,“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) The Talmud states, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”1
Islam teaches, “None of you has faith until he loves for his brother or his neighbor what he loves for himself.”2
“Do to others,” says Jesus, “as you would have them do to you.”
Now, all of that’s relatively easy if we direct our love toward those we already like. But in Luke 6, Jesus doesn’t give us the luxury of equivocation. “If you love those who love you…If you do good to those who do good to you…If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? [Even sinners do the same.]”
No, he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
Isn’t that too much to ask? Can I really love the angry journalist who calls for the KKK to start night rides again? Can I really love the home-grown terrorist who dreams of killing everyone on earth? If my first concern is myself, then yes. It’s too much to ask. I simply cannot live selfishly and follow Jesus. If I nurture enmity and still want to call myself a disciple of Jesus, I have to create ways around this teaching. I have to tell myself, ‘Well, I can’t not retaliate! How is that loving to myself?’ Or, I have to say that Jesus may love his enemies all the way to the cross, but he does that so that I can personally accept Jesus into my heart so that, as my personal savior, he will forgive my sins, so that God will allow me into heaven after I die.
According to that logic, Good Friday is necessary because God is as angry with me as with a sworn enemy, and wills my destruction, because I’m nothing but a sinner who deserves nothing but punishment. And if that is the god I believe in, I will treat my human enemies, and even some friends, with the same violent retribution. So will we all.
Jesus’ disturbing teaching about loving enemies is a clarion call to live in a completely different reality here and now. He calls it the kingdom of God. We can’t prove the kingdom. It’s not a safe place. It may not be a place we wantto live. But we proclaim that it is the place in which the creation, and humanity within it, can begin to discover the kind of wholeness and harmony that’s possible through grace – God’s gift of unlimited, unmerited, and healing agape love.
The discipline of love begins right where we are. We confess that we’re committed to politics of resentment and fear. We confess that we benefit from systemic racism, sexism, and brutality. We name and renounce the idols we create and serve. And we love our enemies with the same love with which Jesus prays for those who crucify him.
Now, here’s the hard part: Jesus alsocalls us to love, with that same agape love, those fearful, embittered selves within us so that we may overcome our addictions to power, wealth, and violence. It’s hard to say which comes first, loving ourselves or loving our enemies, but I trust this much: Only by loving external and internal enemies can we even begin to understand the holiness and to desire the wholeness that Jesus offers.
It was that very love which empowered Desmond Tutu to paraphrase Jesus when he said to black South Africans, who had endured generations of cruelty at the hands of apartheid, “Be nice to whites, they need you to rediscover their humanity.”3
Another person who embodied the love of which Jesus spoke was a Hindu. Gandhi said, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by…fear,… and the other by…love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear…”4Gandhi’s and Jesus’ point is that, in the end, holy love will reveal the impotence of vengeance and violence.
Now, if we can’t always love as Jesus loves, God doesn’t write us off as enemies. God, says Jesus, “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Still, through Jesus, God continually calls us to courageous love of enemy, neighbor, self, and the earth.
My name is Allen Huff. I am a Presbyterian pastor (PCUSA) living in the delightful community of Jonesborough, TN. Jonesborough - home of the International Storytelling Center and the National Storytelling Festival - is nestled in the beautiful foothills of northeast Tennessee.
I find that preaching forces me to wrestle with God, my faith, and trying to live as a Jesus-follower in a broken and all-too-often violent world. I want to be known as someone who trusts and follows the Jesus' way of compassion, peace, and justice. I also know the road of discipleship is fraught with challenges from within and without. I tend to use my sermons as a way of struggling, like Jacob at the Jabbok River, with God and with how to make sense of life in this magnificent but incomplete creation. If something you read in these sermons, newsletter articles, and occasional, random musing speaks to you in a positive way, I will be grateful. I'd love to hear your thoughts, too. And feel free to take issue with anything I say. I certainly don't claim to have a lock on the truth.
When I'm not writing sermons, I may be writing songs on my guitar, taking photographs of the mountains, rivers, or streams in east TN and western NC, hiking the woods with my wife, or throwing a stick for our insatiable Border Collie, Todd.
*I have been posting my weekly sermons and monthly newsletters for several years on another site, Storied Faith at: pastorallentn.blogspot.com. While I will soon stop posting on that site, I will maintain it. So if you find anything on either of these sites interesting and helpful, please share with others!
Blessings and peace. Allen
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