“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." - Matthew 5:38-48
The love of Christ is an unjust love. It is an aggressive love given to those for whom we think don’t deserve it, even us. It is a love that tells us that even the unlovable are loved. The ones we hate or hate us are loved. The wicked, the abuser, the thief, the bully, the needed – loved. But this works against every form of love or affection we have ever heard of. Not some puppy love that causes us to think of Valentine’s Day, or snuggling by a fire. It is a dangerous, invasive love. A transformative love. Maybe even a conquering love, a love that bullies the bully out of sin into life. Pouring it out from the cross of forgiveness, like an overflowing stream to drown sin and self-righteousness, to cover over what we may think makes anyone lovable or not.
As a child I was raised not to fight. You don’t hit anyone, for any reason. This is a great lesson, until you are faced with that one guy. That guy who discovers he can get under your skin and you will do nothing about it. My guys name was Sean, and he was an absolute bastard. I say that with love. It started in junior high with a push here and there. Name calling. By the time 8th grade came I had a reprieve. He was a year ahead of me. Life was ok.
Then high school came. For Sean it was Christmas. I had been lulled into happiness only to have the bubble burst on the first day. It was compounded by the fact that I had to sit out most of the year from football because I had broken my back the season before. So add wuss to the list of insults, which escalated to hitting. I never did anything about it though. I don’t know why. I wanted to.
Eventually my injury season ended and a new football season began. I still remember the day. Football practice. There was Sean. He wanted to go up against me in tackling drills, and a lightbulb came on. It’s football. You fling your bodies at each other, so if I hurt him in practice, it is not like I hit him, right? I can remember the dialogue in my head. Just a little mild maiming. A snot bubble or two. So that’s what I did. After Sean got up and wiped the snot from his face, he left me alone the rest of the year.
I tell this story to keep me in check. I am not a hero, because I have never thought of that as love. That wasn’t being perfect or good. That may have been vengeance. That may have been justice, but it wasn’t love. It was survival, I guess.
Again, this week, we’re faced with that pesky phrase - you have heard it said… In other words, we have in our life the things we like. We listen to what it is we agree with, argue with what we don’t. You have heard it said.
We like what has been said. What is said is what we are told, and we live in a world that we are told things about people. We are told about the dichotomy of the world to split it in two - between friends and enemies. Good and bad. Loved and hated. Whether we think in those words or not, when we read – love your enemies, we would be lying if each of us did not have someone in mind.
When I asked the young people at release time what is an enemy, I heard this answer – Someone who hates us whom we are told to hate. Someone who hates us whom we are told to hate. You see hatred comes easy, believe it or not. Especially against an enemy. Marking one out as an enemy makes hating them easier. It makes dehumanizing them more palatable. Jesus places our enemies in these examples as the ones who are dehumanizing, which is what we expect. A slap to the face was a shame-based act. Not a punch. A slap. An attempt to lower you. To make you less than. Those who have been in abusive relationships know what I mean.
One comes demanding your shirt. To take what they can to force you to be creative in not being naked. Forcing you to hide a sense of shame. Causing you to carry it around.
A bully, back then a roman courier, could force you to carry anything up to a mile. Taking away your freedom, making you into a pack animal. Dehumanizing. Animalizing. Making you worth nothing more than a donkey.
And these people, we are told by Jesus to love, to pray for, to worry about. These people whom we can’t. Whom we just won’t. Those who have lost our love. Christ turns to us and says love them.
Love them by turning the other cheek. Because turning the other cheek brings back your humanity. Turning the other cheek causes them to have to think again of what it was they did.
Giving up your cloak to one who sues you for your shirt heaped upon your enemy the necessity to care for your burdens because the Levitical law says that you must return a man’s cloak before sundown so that he might stay warm. Forcing them into a place of caring. Repentance. Even redemption.
Going that extra mile, a phrase we often hear, causes that person who uses the law to get what they want to have to realize that not all laws are just, and people aren’t property. An animal wouldn’t know the difference, but a person would. Shoving your humanity back in their face to bring them to realize their pride and wickedness.
But these words aren’t for them. They are for you. So often we take these words and say, well if people would just… If people would just follow Leviticus 19, we would be better off. People would be cared for. There would be no lying, no cheating, no slander. There would be just judgements. You get the point.
If people would just…listen to Jesus and do what he says here then we would all just get along.
All of these statements are true, but what we do then is say – if only that guy would be more like this, I wouldn’t want to punch him in the face. If only that girl would be more like this I wouldn’t have to tell her off so much. The focus becomes them. The focus becomes justification for caveats. I will love my enemies Jesus, except for him, right? Not loving him is ok.
No. Because these words are not for him, but they are for you. Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect. Not a call for holiness as most of us think but to understand the completeness of God’s love. Think of a circle. Made up of everyone in our lives. But the circle has pieces missing because we make it for those whom we love, and those we hate leave gaps. That is the idea of this word we translate as perfect. It means complete. Something brought to an end or full circle.
But those gaps aren’t easily filled. It is not easy to try and love someone that doesn’t love us. The completeness of our love though is not found in us trying to love someone we can’t, and I don’t want you to take that away as the moral – Go be better lovers of enemies. No.
Remember I said God’s love. The love God has shown. Christ lays it out for us in such beautiful Gospel terms but we never see it because we are too busy looking at “Be perfect,” “Love your enemies,” or “Turn the other cheek.”
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you might be children of your Father in Heaven. Loving enemies runs in the family because it is the work of God. God’s work is loving those who hate him. Have you ever thought of yourself as an enemy of God? One who turns away, or slaps him in the face, expects him to carry our stuff, wanting him only for the gifts he provides. Never thanking him for the sun, the rain, the stars, our breath, our food. Each day becoming a gift taken for granted.
But Christ, O Christ – Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Sending out a forgiveness to the unforgivable. Giving of himself for the sake of the world, those enemies of him whom he dies to give life, and mercy, and grace to. The call here for loving our enemies is not a mandate to say if you don’t do it you are out of the Christian club. It is not a call for you to remain in an abusive relationship or to purposefully find a wicked person to smack you across the face. It is a call to focus our eyes on the work of Christ. A call for us to live a peculiar life, a counter-cultural life, a life upheld by the Spirit of God who lives in us and calls us to be different, set apart. Not because we have done anything. Not because we are really good at loving our enemies. But because that Spirit has been given to you, and it is what the Spirit does – loving those we hate.
Resting in the mercies of Christ’s love. The mercies of Christ’s forgiveness make that forgiveness all the more real when we discover that the one we hate or hates us is part of this body broken and blood shed. Where we come forward today to receive in our hands that bread and wine, we hear those words “Body broken for you” and “Blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sin,” and we have to realize that even with the Spirit alive in us, when we fail to love our enemies Christ stands to love them for us.
The most important truth for you still is this – If Christ loves his enemies. If you are called also to love our enemies. If you even exist as an enemy of someone – you are loved because Christ loves you. A conquering love speaking now to say to you to not be frightened of the implications of these words “Love your enemies” but to find them as sweet Gospel because Christ says his answer to that command – okay. I will love you. Amen