Luke 6:32-36 (New Living Translation)
“If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return. Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”
In my family, we have people on just about every side of every possible argument — political, ideological, societal, theological. I have family members who have deeply-held beliefs that are directly against other equally passionate family members. You name an issue to me, I bet I can come up with at least two names of people in my family who hold completely opposing views.
All this makes for very interesting family gatherings. 😉
For example… in the days leading up to my Grandmother’s funeral in late August, several family members were texting back and forth, making plans to get together while we were all up in New York. It started out innocently enough, who was coming, when they were arriving, where they were staying.
But then one politically charged comment was made. Then another. Followed by a cutting counterargument. It didn’t take long until it was a full-fledged battle via text messages, complete with misunderstandings and with hurt feelings.
Reading these messages between people I love broke my heart. The amazing people in my family are not enemies. They love each other. Deeply! But the divisions in our world, the bitterness and pain and chaos, they have an insidious way of seeping into even the closest connections.
Before I knew it, I felt compelled to join in the argument. This is what I wrote:
“I love you all. And one of the reasons that I love you is knowing how passionate you all are, how committed and strong. And I know you love each other, even when you don’t agree. In just a few days we will all be together to honor the memory of someone important to us all. With this in mind, I would suggest that we step away from this text chain, and, in the intervening hours, remember the love we all have for each other. Because that love is there and it is real. I pray that we never forget that, even when… especially when… we disagree.”
Now, I have to admit that I was not so sure what their reaction would be to that text. Again, my family members are passionate, strong, opinionated people. And I’m a pastor, but they often still see in me the small child they knew with crazy hair. It’s hard for people to take you seriously when they’ve known you since you were a baby, people who have blown your nose or changed your diaper or have seen you as an awkward teenager with braces on your teeth.
But, thanks be to God, that text worked. It diffused the situation. The next text was this: “Amen.” Other family members typed their responses, telling each other how much they loved each other.
This kind of thing is not, unfortunately, something that is unique to my family. Not at all. It’s happening all around us. We see it on the television, with people saying horrible things about people who believe differently than they do. We see it on social media, with cruel words, damaging jokes, bitter arguments. We witness and experience bullying and intolerance and plain old viciousness.
Lines are being drawn, sides chosen. You name the issue, and there are enemies and allies very clearly defined.
It is tragic.
And I don’t believe for a moment
that it is God’s desire for our world,
for our community, for our church,
our families, our lives.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus says in our scripture for today.
In the verses directly before, Jesus had spent the night on a mountain, praying. As the sun rose that morning, he gathered together his friends. They walked together down the mountain to join the crowds below, who were waiting to hear words of wisdom from Jesus, and to be healed by his miraculous powers.
In speaking to those crowds, Jesus began with these words: “God blesses you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. God blesses you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied. God blesses you who weep now, for in due time you will laugh.”
What a great start to Jesus’ speech! Those who had walked all the way from Jerusalem, from towns across Judea, even from the northern seacoast towns of Tyre and Sidon, they had come to hear something just like this. Promises of blessing and favor. To those among them who were poor, Jesus promises God’s own Kingdom. To those who were hungry, satisfaction. Those who were grieving, a future with joy.
But then, then Jesus does something that must have really confused them. After that great beginning, he continues on a breath later: “What blessings await you when people hate you and exclude you and mock you and curse you because you follow me. When that happens, be happy!”
“Eh… what?” I can picture the people gathered there turning to those around them, saying, “Did he just say what I think he just said?”
Then he continues to double-down, leading into our scripture for today. “Love your enemies!” Jesus proclaims.
“How?” the people may have thought, “How is that a good idea?”
One of my spiritual heroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on this “Love Your Enemies” text once each year. It was a foundational scripture passage for his ministry and his theology. In a 1957 sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he said this:
The words of this text glitter in our eyes with a new urgency. Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this command is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes, it is love that will save our world and our civilization, love even for enemies.
I believe that. I believe that the best chance for our society, our country, our world is to rediscover the power of love. Even… perhaps especially… love for our enemies.
This is, quite possibly, the single most challenging command Jesus gives to his followers. And it is, quite possibly, at the same time, the most potentially world-transforming.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus said.
The word for “enemies” in Greek, it’s worse than a person who dislikes you or who is a competitor. It means someone who is actively seeking to harm you. It is someone who is openly hostile toward you. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says.
That word for “love” in Greek makes this even more challenging! It is one of my all-time favorite words, in any language: agapē. There are other words for “love” in Greek, such as eros, romantic love, or philos, the love we have for our close friends.
But agapē love, it’s something quite special. It’s the love that God has for us. It’s a love that is not blind to the imperfections of the one who is loved. It is a fully aware love, a realistic love. It is a love of choice, of knowing the real person, and still loving, no matter what.
Jesus is asking us to make the conscious, deliberate, intentional, purposeful, incredibly difficult choice to love those who are actively hostile to us and to what we believe in.
Where would we even begin to do such an outrageous thing?
To begin to love our enemies we must begin in a counter-intuitive place. First, we must seek to understand ourselves better.
Jesus tells his friends and the crowd assembled that only loving those who love them back isn’t enough. Even the sinners in the world do that, he says.
Sinner. Harmartia in Greek. It means, literally, to pick up a bow and arrow, to send the arrow shooting through the air, but entirely missing the intended target.
sinner = a person who misses the mark
Harmatia. I don’t know about you, but that strikes home for me. Because I know I miss the mark, in big ways and in small ways, every day.
(Is it just me? How about you?)
Just a few verses past our scripture for today, Jesus says this: “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying, ‘Friend, let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.”
The first step to loving our enemies is simply this: understanding that we are not perfect.
Second, in order to begin to loving our enemies… we seek to understand them better.
It is easy to look at people who are hostile to us, who say painful things, who believe something so different than we do, and to see in them the sinner who misses the mark.
But that person — that group — that makes you so angry, they are sinners just like us who miss the mark… and they also, just like us, bear the image of the God who created them.
That person — that group — whose words and actions make your blood boil, they are people for whom Jesus came to earth. They are people for whom Jesus died and rose again. They are people for whom God yearns. They are, in spite of their differences, our brothers and sisters in this world.
That knowledge can give us the courage we need to begin to reach out.
We have become such a divided nation that it seems almost impossible to reach across the divide. But when we begin to reach out, to build relationships, to build bridges across the chasm, we can begin to understand each other: our motivations, our troubles, our desires, our stories, our hopes and fears and dreams.
When we get to know each other, we can finally begin to see beyond the surface and find common ground for discussion. That does not mean that we will agree! But all our bitter arguing right now is only causing that divide to further deepen and broaden. We need to be bold enough — to be brave enough — to take the first step.
62 years ago, Dr. King said this:
Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.
“Love your enemies,” Jesus said.
Please understand, this was not an academic exercise for Jesus. Jesus was not asking us to do something he was not willing to do himself. In fact, at the very core of his ministry was loving those who could — and who would — do him harm. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said.
Seven months ago, on a cold February afternoon in Israel, I had the opportunity to stand alone for a moment in the jail cell where Jesus was held in Jerusalem as he awaited the verdict of the court. The people in the tour group I was leading were walking up the steep stairs, and I was left alone in the room.
As I stood there, I remembered how in those hours of Thursday night into Friday morning, he was alone in that cold, dark, damp room carved out of the bedrock stone. The only light by which he could see would have been through a small opening in the ceiling, far above.
Two millennia ago, there were no stairs giving easy access to that room. Earlier in the night, Jesus would have been lowered by rope through that same hole, down into the jail cell below.
As I stood there, I thought about how Jesus would have been able to hear the raised voices of the angry people in the room above him. His enemies, those who were actively seeking to do him harm. Those who would do him harm.
I thought about how he would have known how they would accuse him, the false testimonies that would be hurled against him. I thought about how as he stood alone in that dark jail, Jesus knew — he knew — that that night would end with his death on the cross.
I found myself kneeling down, placing my hands against the rough stone of the floor. Now, I’m a stoic New Englander by birth and by nature, and I don’t express emotion easily. But that day, kneeling on the cold floor of Jesus’ prison, I began to cry.
Because Jesus, the Son of God, through whom our beautiful universe was made, all powerful and magnificent, was willing to put himself completely under the power of those who he knew would do him harm.
Because Jesus loved them. In spite of the enormous, gigantic, monumental mistake they were about to make, in spite of how far they were veering from the mark, Jesus loved them.
When, at the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus told the people gathered on that plain on the morning when he and his disciples came down from the mountain after a night of prayer… when Jesus told the crowd “love your enemies,” he knew that his life would end on the cross.
And he was willing to go to the cross
to show us the depth of his commitment.
But when it comes down to it, this is still one of the most difficult challenges that Jesus gives us: “love your enemies.” So… ultimately, the biggest question is: why? Why in the world would we be willing to do this?
Because Jesus has already done it for us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[Thank you, Lynn Henschel, for taking the picture and sharing it with me!]