Saturday, February 18, 2017

Love 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 way of the world and into the Way of the Kingdom. Leviticus said it best today, “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. How many of us are angry with someone because of the way they treated us, something they said to us, or something they said about us – a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, hw about years ago? As Christians, this is not what we are called to. We aren’t called to anger, judgment and resentment. We are called to love – always, everywhere, everyone, with no conditions or exceptions. 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. The flowers and chocolates that we may have received on Valentine’s Day are not the greatest sign of love. Jesus hanging on that cross – specifically for you, for me – is the greatest symbol of love that has ever existed. He didn’t do that merely for some unknown person eons ago. He did that for you because he loves you.

This 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 not just in theory; but in practice. Once we embrace this way of love, the world changes. If Christianity is to ever change our world it will only be accomplished by the noticeably different behavior of Christians. In our world today, a world that is so full of hate, anger, and division, do we stand out in contrast as recognizably different; as the hymn reminds us, “They will know that we are Christians by our love”?

Jesus calls us 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. The one who was struck on the cheek should rise above the attack or insult and not respond in kind. The one who lost the tunic relinquished even the cloak, not outdone in generosity. It is a way of saying: I will outdo your violence toward me with generosity, goodness, kindness, mercy and compassion. I will erase your evil with my constant acts of goodness. The insight and brilliance of Jesus is to recognize that the only real antidote to the violence and evil in our world is the love, forgiveness and mercy of God – as shown to the world by you and by me.

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 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.

Today, Jesus is urging you and me to join Him again 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 the Lord give you peace.

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