Saturday, February 19, 2011

Will you forgive your enemies?

A priest was preaching one Sunday on the theme of “Love your enemies.” After a long sermon, he asked how many parishioners were willing to forgive their enemies. About half held up their hands. Not satisfied he preached for another 20 minutes and repeated his question. This time he received a response of about 80%. Still unsatisfied, he went on for another 15 minutes and repeated his question. With all thoughts now on Sunday dinner, everyone raised their hand except one elderly lady in the front row. “Mrs. Jones, are you not willing to forgive your enemies?” the priest asked. “I don't have any,” she said. Surprised, the priest said, “Ma’am, that is very unusual. How old are you?” “Ninety three,” she responded. “Mrs. Jones, please tell me, how can you have lived to be 93 years old, and not have an enemy in the world.” The sweet little lady, smiled, and said simply. “Oh, Father, I’ve had plenty of enemies. It’s just that, at 93, I’ve outlived them all!”

Jesus said, “ Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Today’s Gospel message to love our enemies is perhaps one of the most difficult parts of the Gospel for us to accept. It offers us a message that is contrary to our human nature, contrary to what the world tells us. So, what do we make of this command today? We probably hear it with some doubts – are we really meant to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, give without expecting repayment, refuse to pass judgment on people, pray for those who are unkind to us? It would be difficult to find another passage in the Gospel that is more at odds with our normal way of behaving. If we turn the other check, after all, won’t we just get hit on that one too? It is certainly a risky proposition.

What is really going on here is that Jesus is trying to get us to move – in heart and mind and soul – away from the ethos of the world and into the Way of the Kingdom. It was well summarized in our first reading from Leviticus. What is the believer to do? “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart…Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus is calling us to see that we waste so much energy holding on to past hurts, trying to settle old scores, even handing down grudges from one generation to the next. Jesus wants us to embrace the fact that Christianity is a religion of love. And not a superficial kind of love; not a huggy-feely love, not an all-accepting generic love that fails to ask anything of us or the other. Jesus inaugurates a new kind of love – one that is so profound, so deep that it leads Him all the way to the Cross for us; a love so powerful that it is transformative of not only us as individuals, but even of the whole world.

This radical, all-embracing Christian love has its own rules, its own logic, its own way of dealing with people – and it is a way that is counter to what the world prescribes. The most important part is that everyone is to be within our circle of love – even our enemies. No one is excluded; no one is shut out. And that can’t be in theory alone; it must also be in practice. Once we become this radically loving people, we do things differently. If Christianity is to ever change our world; if we are ever to achieve the peace of the Kingdom that God promises us; it won’t be by spreading doctrine on paper, or changing laws, or preaching harshly – it must be and can only be accomplished by the noticeably different behavior of Christians. In our world today, do the believers of Jesus Christ stand out in stark contrast as recognizably different than the rest of the world; or as the hymn reminds us, “They will know that we are Christians by our love.” Or, rather are we indistinguishable from the rest of the world?

Jesus calls us, His followers, to rise above the pettiness of the world; to never be satisfied with the sad state of the world; to be constantly striving with all that we are, for all that God promises. And so, the one who was struck on the cheek should rise above the attack or insult and to show who really prevailed in the situation. The one who lost the tunic was directed to act in a like manner and to relinquish even the cloak. It is a matter of saying: I can outdo your violence toward me with my willingness to give freely much more than you sought to take from me. They overcome evil with a double dose of good. An evil response only creates even more evil. The insight and brilliance of Jesus is to recognize that the only real, lasting, long term antidote to the violence and evil in our world is the love and forgiveness of God – as expressed by those who believe in Him.

Is it possible to forgive our enemies in a world torn by war, discrimination, economic disparity and exploitation of the vulnerable? We are not expected to overlook these evils, but to always remember that we are called to “be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” We are called to forgive and not retaliate. We are called to be merciful, and not vengeful. I like to say that there are no asterisks in the Bible. After Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” There isn’t an asterisk that says, “See below: Unless your enemy is really, really mean; or really, really, deserves it.” Our Lord and Savior says simply, “Love, and bless and pray.” This is a type of Christian heroism that does not merely respond to evil in the world, but transforms it – through Christ – into goodness and holiness. But it takes real courage to practice it. This is the only way that the Kingdom of God will ever reach its fulfillment; if it begins in the converted hearts of believers.

There was a young man one time who was incredible in the way He loved people. “Love one another,” he urged, “as I have loved you.” He had a particular love for people on the margins – the sick, the sinners, the Samaritans, outsiders of all kinds. As a man, he was no weakling. He stood up forcefully to people especially those who tried to impose burdens too heavy to carry upon the so-called Little People. He urged a woman caught in adultery not to sin again, but refused to condemn her. He managed to turn the other cheek even when innocently nailed to a cross. Even in that moment, He said, “Father, forgive them.” He had an enormous impact on the world. In fact, He’s the sole reason that all of us are here today. Would we like Him to be any different? He’s not just the author of the Gospel, He’s also the product of it. He lived by the very rules that He urges us to follow. He is the outstanding example of Gospel-lived life. And today, He is urging you and me to join Him on a journey. We’ve all come a certain distance and now He wants us to move just a little more.  Can we give a little more to those in need, forgive a little more those who hurt us, love a little more? He says today, “You have followed me this far; and now join me for the extra mile.”

Love, give, pray, forgive – even just a little more; and you will transform the world. And so, I ask you today, how many of you will love your enemies?

May God give you peace.

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