Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Love Your Enemies” (Matthew 5:38-45)
February 19, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Today’s gospel lesson is from the greatest sermon ever preached in the history of the world, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus could not be clearer as he preaches:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:38-42).
If that makes you uncomfortable, buckle up, because Jesus takes it further:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (5:43-45).
Love your enemies? Really? Pray for those who persecute you? Turn the other cheek? Walk the extra mile? Someone sues you and you are supposed to just give them what they want, and then give them some more as well? All of this is so counterintuitive. And yet, Jesus gives no disclaimers; Jesus allows no exceptions. Love your enemies.
Last summer I was on a road trip in Alabama and visited several sites related to one of my heroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Montgomery I visited Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where a kind parishioner gave me a tour and even let me stand for a moment in the pulpit from which Dr. King preached—a very moving experience. It was from that pulpit on November 17, 1957 that Dr. King preached on today’s passage in which Jesus commanded, “Love your enemies”:
Let me hasten to say that Jesus was very serious when he gave this command: he wasn’t playing. He realized that it’s hard to love your enemies. He realized that it’s difficult to love those persons who say evil things about you. He realized that it was painfully hard, pressingly hard. But he wasn’t playing (A Knock at Midnight 42).
Love your enemies.
Who are your enemies? Who raises your blood pressure, gets you fired up, and gives you knots in your stomach? Who is nice to you in person but speaks ill of you behind your back, and you know it? Against whom are you holding grudges? Who owes you something and has refused to even acknowledge that, let alone pay you what you think they owe you? How could any of the things Jesus commands about loving your enemies actually be possible?
Several years ago on their Morning Edition show NPR aired a joint interview with a bereaved mother named Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel, the man who had murdered Mary’s only son in 1993 during a violent gang incident when Israel was sixteen years old, and Mary’s murdered son, Laramium, was twenty. Israel spent fourteen years in Stillwater Prison in Minnesota. Many years after the murder, after numerous requests, Israel finally agreed to a visit from Mary. What would you say if you were Mary…or if you were Oshea? Mary comes clean to Oshea:
“I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you,” Johnson tells Israel. “But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.” “And he became human to me,” Israel says.
As their first meeting at Stillwater Prison ended, Mary was overcome by emotion:
“The initial thing to do was just try and hold you up as best I can,” Israel says, “just hug you like I would my own mother.” Johnson says, “After you left the room, I began to say, ‘I just hugged the man that murdered my son.’ And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for twelve years for you—I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you….I treat you as I would treat my son, and our relationship is beyond belief.”
The interview concludes with Oshea saying to Mary, “I love you, lady” and Mary responding, “I love you too, son.” And by the way, they live right next door to each other in Minneapolis (NPR, Morning Edition May 20, 2011).
That is one example of what loving your enemy looks like.
Jesus commands us not only to love our enemies but also to pray for those who persecute us. Perhaps you may be tempted to pray something like this: “Almighty God, please smite them, please show them the error of their ways, please open their eyes to what horrible people they are, please change them and make them better—all for the sake of your love, amen.” By the way, if you think this is far-fetched, just read the Book of Psalms in your Bible.
But I suspect in light of today’s passage Jesus probably means a prayer more like this: “Almighty God, please bless them, please help them, please give them the same grace you have given me over and over, please open their eyes to your love for them and your presence with them, please be their Prince of Peace, amen.”
So who is your enemy? Your boss or former boss? Your spouse or ex-spouse? Your business competitor? Your next door neighbor? Perhaps a family member who has pushed you beyond your breaking point? Whoever your enemies are, here is something to consider: God loves your enemies with the same unconditional, self-sacrificial, all-knowing and all-forgiving love with which God loves you.
Let’s take this one step further…what if your worst enemy is…you? What if you are your own worst enemy? What if you have that sobering moment when it dawns on you that the only common denominator in every single problem in your life is…you? Maybe some of you can relate to these Bruce Springsteen lyrics:
You can’t sleep at night, you can’t dream your dream
Your fingerprints on file, left clumsily at the scene…
And your own worst enemy has come to town
Your own worst enemy has come
Your world keeps turning round and round
But everything is upside down
Your own worst enemy has come to town
(From the song “Your Own Worst Enemy” on his 2007 album, Magic).
The bad news is whether it is you or someone else, your own worst enemy has come to town…but the good news of the gospel is that Someone Else has also come to town, the same Person who commanded, “Love your enemies.”
In Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov Ivan, the middle son, tells his younger brother Alexei a story about The Grand Inquisitor, a bitter octogenarian cardinal in the Catholic Church during the Spanish Inquisition. In this story Jesus has come to town unexpectedly, specifically to Seville in southern Spain, as Dostoyevsky writes:
In His infinite mercy He came among men in human form, just as he had walked among them fifteen centuries before. He came down to that sun baked Southern city the day after nearly a hundred heretics had been burned all at once…by the order of the cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor…He came unobserved and moved about silently but, strangely enough, those who saw Him recognized Him at once…People are drawn to Him by an irresistible force, they gather around Him, follow him, and soon there is a crowd. He walks among them in silence, a gentle smile of infinite compassion on His lips (Bantam Classic edition 331).
The Grand Inquisitor does not understand and orders Jesus to be arrested and imprisoned for heresy. As Jesus sits in a solitary cell the Grand Inquisitor enters and rails at Jesus about the absurdities of the human condition, about the corruption of the church, about the evils of human heart. Decades and decades of repressed anger toward God come pouring out of the Grand Inquisitor, who ironically enough, actually sees God as his enemy (which is more common that you might think). Ivan then recounts how Jesus responded:
The Grand Inquisitor falls silent and waits for some time for the prisoner to answer. The prisoner’s silence has weighed on him. He has watched him; He listened to him intently, looking gently into his eyes, and apparently unwilling to speak. The old man longs for him to say something, however painful and terrifying. But instead, He suddenly goes over to the old man and kisses him gently on his old, bloodless lips. And that is his only answer (350).
You see, the same Jesus who commanded, “Love your enemies,” did exactly that, especially in his passion and death—as scripture tells us:
God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us…For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life (Romans 5:8, 10).
All of us sinners, without exception, were enemies of God, and yet, God loved us anyway. In fact, every single thing Jesus commanded in today’s gospel passage he did on our behalf. When evil doers falsely accused Jesus and sentenced him to death, Jesus did not resist. When the soldiers blindfolded him and struck him on the cheek, Jesus simply turned the other cheek, again and again and again. When they took his coat from him and then clothed him with a purple coat and then took that away too, Jesus did not ask for them back. Jesus walked the extra mile all the way to Calvary, where Jesus gave his all, everything.
Jesus even prayed for those who persecuted him, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). All this is captured in the words of the nineteenth century Welsh minister William Rees (1802-1883):
On the mount of crucifixion fountains opened deep and wide
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy flowed a vast and gracious tide
Grace and love like mighty rivers poured incessant from above
Heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love
Near the end of Dr. King’s sermon about Jesus’ command, “Love your enemies,” he proclaimed, “I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom” (A Knock at Midnight 59).
“Love your enemies”—Jesus said it in the Sermon on the Mount, and did it on Mount Calvary. And even now, just like Mary Johnson, God hugs the ones who murdered his Son—and the sun of his grace rises on the evil and on the good, and the rain of his mercy falls on the righteous and the unrighteous—including you.