Epiphany 7 Matthew 5:38-48
There is a song that has been on my mind all week: “What the world needs now is love sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love sweet love. No, not just for some, but for everyone.”
Maybe it’s because of valentine’s day. Or maybe it’s because our world feels so broken and adversarial these days and it is hard to know what to do about it.
The set of Gospel texts for these past few weeks has been a bit difficult to work through. Jesus can be a really tough teacher! Two weeks ago, we heard him speak these words “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” Then last week Jesus talked about some of the laws that we might have thought it would be easy to keep, like the one saying we should not murder, and he pointed out the fact that this law, and pretty much all of them, are actually all about how we relate to one another and they might not really be as easy to keep as we thought. The law is pretty demanding and these are, as they say, hard teachings. They are difficult to swallow. Jesus never says that this faith business, the business of following him and being a Christian, is an easy thing to do.
Today’s text is right in line with the previous few. This section we just heard is a piece of that long sermon Jesus presents to his disciples about what it means to be his followers and what it means to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. It began with “blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are the peacemakers” and now, he is taking the laws from the Old Testament and expanding them. “You have heard it said,” he begins. In other words the Law, the Torah, the teachers tell you that…but I say to you this.
We might have an idea of what we would wish Jesus would say about the law. It would be really great if he would say something like this: you’ve heard it said that you must follow the Law but I say to you, you are freed from the Law and because you are forgiven and that is the end of the story. God loves you just as you are and is willing to let you stay that way. Because it is by God’s grace you are saved, it does not matter what you do or how you live.
Unfortunately, that is not what Jesus says. At least, what he says isn’t JUST that. In a manner of speaking he says here, and elsewhere, that God’s love does not leave us as we are but transforms us into something better; something more than we could ever be on our own. He also tries to shift our focus away from “how do I get it?”, that is, how do I get salvation, to “what do I do with it?” What do I do with this new life in Christ? What do I do now that I know I am loved and never ever have to earn the love of God?
Whenever I need to do something with this particular section that talks about loving not only neighbors but also enemies, I feel like it is a nearly impossible task. There are some people who have managed to live lives that, at least in part if not in whole, were able to accomplish this kind of enemy-love. We could look at them to see what this actually means. There is Martin Luther King Jr., a man who had every reason to hate and incite hate in others and chose to preach and teach love instead. We could examine the life of Nelson Mandela, who also had every reason to hate the enemies who imprisoned him and so many others and yet, even when he gained the power and position that would give him the ability to exact revenge upon those who did wrong, he chose mercy and love instead. Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, the list goes on and on of our saints and heroes whose lives fully embraced, against all odds, the word Love.
But I am no saint, not like any of them anyway, not in that sense of the word “saint”. My guess is more than likely none of us are those kinds of saints. Our larger than life heroes are great inspirations but at some point we feel that they could do this because they were Dr King, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandella. We are not. We do not live such epic lives. We can’t do what they did.
We could look at fables and folk tales that might teach about the virtue of being merciful and of showing love to one’s enemies. There are quite a few out there. Yet all of them, every last one I have ever found, shows the enemy being mightily changed by the love shown to them and having a change of heart altogether. But that’s not always the way it works in the real world. Yes, people do change. All the time. Every day. But not always. And not always in ways we would like to write stories about. People do not always respond to the mercy, grace and love shown to them with the same in return.
In trying to grasp something about what Jesus is trying to tell us we must do, we could look at that word Love and what that means. The Greek words for love: storge, eros, philios and agape; fondness, romantic love, brotherly sisterly love and God’s love, could provide hours and hours of discussion. But in so many ways, we already know this. Love is a word used so often in our world that it is almost hollow, ready to be filled up with whatever meaning we want to give it at the time.
Yet, even knowing all that about love, that phrase demands our attention and will not let us go: Love Your Enemies. The paradox of it and the weakness with which it leaves us is unpleasant at best. Love Your Enemies. Jesus will not let us ignore this: Love Your Enemies.
Something else that cannot be ignored about Jesus’ words here is the abuse they have endorsed, or at least the abuse they SEEM to endorse. The torture, murder and prejudice that Jesus’ words have tacitly approved and the twisted way they have been applied to enforce a victimizer’s hold over a victim or tyrant over the oppressed. You should love the spouse who abused you, the parent who neglected you, the rapist who attacked you, the master who enslaves you. You must stay there, endure it and love them any way. Jesus says so.
I do not believe this is what Jesus meant. But what did he mean? Are we supposed to just put up with mistreatment or injustice and love them through it all? Why are we to love our enemies?
Jesus says: for [God] makes his sun to rise on the evildoer and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. We are to love our enemies because God loves our enemies. And because God loves his enemies, too.
This was one of MLK’s favorite texts on which to preach and he did so at least once a year. Once he wrote: “within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him …”the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. ….There is an element of goodness that he can never slough off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.”
Dr King did not encourage his listeners to ignore what their enemies did or dismiss the wrongs as though they did not happen. He did not seek to have the enemy become a friend by permitting wrongdoing to continue unchecked. Quite the opposite, in fact. He sought to love through, in spite of the wrongs. To refuse to give in to hate.
Dr King isn’t advocating some sort of super human strength kind of love, the kind we imagine can only be enacted by saints and heroes, or an acquiescing and twisted fear masquerading as love. He is proposing something quite logical. When we hate, even our enemies, we hate the image of God in them. When we love, even our enemies, we love the image of God in them. Hate for hate, evil for evil only serves to double the amount of evil in the world. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. But love stops hate. In a sense, we could say that the very opposite of evil is love.
Loving our enemies is not the first of Jesus’ difficult teaching nor will it be the last. Several chapters from now, Jesus will again be teaching some of these difficult lessons. He will even go so far as to speak about the impossibility of camels going through the eyes of needles; so great is the difficulty of making ourselves, by our own discipline and choice, perfect enough for heaven. It is there we hear the disciples giving voice to our own questions: how can this be? This is too hard! And here we are given the reassurance of Jesus’ words: All Things Are Possible With God. Jesus says, implies, and demonstrates this throughout his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection in all four of the gospels. All Things Are Possible With God. God is active with us in our lives and in this world here and now so there is nothing we are called upon to do that we must do without the help of Jesus.
So, how do we love our enemy? Can we just tolerate them? Does that count? Well, it isn’t a bad place to start. Tolerate is better than hate. Tolerate means I grit my teeth to endure you while you are around and I don’t kill you. However, Jesus is pretty clear in this; he doesn’t say like your enemy, endure your enemy, tolerate your enemy, grin and bear it while your enemy is around. Jesus says love.
There are a lot of different ways to love our enemy. There are a lot of different ways to show love to anyone for that matter. In fact, these may be the most important questions we ask ourselves on a regular basis: What does it look like to love this person, these people, this group here and now? What does love look like here?
It’s kind of like that question: What would Jesus do? With one important difference. It is more of what IS Jesus doing here and now in us and with us and with this situation? Jesus isn’t sitting off somewhere on the sidelines cheering us on. Jesus is at large and active in this world and, therefore, we have help in this loving business.
Loving our enemy may look like simple, straightforward forgiveness of wrongdoing. Recognizing that we are all broken and make mistakes. It may look like starting with a step of tolerating a person or people we do not understand so that we can get close enough to see that image of God in them. It could look like letting go of hatred for someone who hurt us and will not or cannot make amends. And letting go of that hatred over and over again. It could be holding someone accountable for their actions and helping them to let go of their wrong actions—tough love.
Whatever love of our enemy looks like —whatever the answer to the question: what does love look like here?—we do know that Jesus has promised us that all things are possible with God. Surely, we will fail at knowing how or being able to love our enemy, turn the other cheek or follow any and all of Jesus’ words, but because we are loved by God just as we are, because God’s grace is given to us not based on our ability to obey but God’s ability to love and redeem us, we have been freed to keep trying. Not because we have to but because we can.
And because what the world needs now is love sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love sweet love. Not just for some, but for everyone.