A priest preaching on this text surveys his congregation. “Raise your hands if you have a lot of enemies in your life,” he says, and about half the people raise their hands. “Raise your hands if you have only one or two enemies.” About a quarter of them raise their hands. “Now,” he says, “raise your hand if you have no enemies at all.”
Way at the back one very old man shakily raises his hand. “How wonderful!” the priest says. “What a fine Christian life you lead. How old are you, sir?”
“I’m 98,” the man answers.
“And how is it possible that you have no enemies?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” the man says. “All the so-and-sos have died!”
Most of us would have to classify at least a few people in our lives as enemies. It’s a sad part of human life. And it’s a hard part of life. And sometimes, when we hear Jesus telling us to love our enemies, it seems to make things even harder.
Jesus is trying to move the disciples beyond what they knew into a realm of practice that will help them follow Jesus, to live according to a new law, the law of love.
But it seems impossible. Are we really supposed to pray for people who hate us? For people who work against us? For people who want us to fail? It seems almost masochistic — a recipe for disaster.
“Love your enemies.” He repeats it a few verses later. “But love your enemies; do good and lend, expecting nothing in return.” New Testament scholar Walter Wink has helped us see Jesus’ words as a form of non-violent resistance to oppression. In the culture of first-century Palestine, a person’s left hand was used only for private cleaning-up functions. You would never strike a person with your left hand. You would use the back of your right hand, if they were your inferior, and with the palm of your right hand if they were your social equal. Jesus, speaking to the oppressed, knows that if someone strikes them, it will be with the back of the right hand. If you turn your face to the side, you force your oppressor to see you as an equal. The oppressor’s hand begins to swing but is caught in mid-air because he doesn’t want to treat you as an equal by hitting you with an open palm.
Jesus is not telling people to remain victims but to find new ways of resisting evil, ways that are grounded in compassion and righteousness rather than in returning violence for violence. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “do good to those who hate you.” This is the ethic that moved Martin Luther King, Jr., to kneel down with many brothers and sisters before water hoses and snarling police dogs. Many people thought he was crazy.
But the authorities and the oppressors didn’t know what to do with this kind of resistance. They knew the power of violence; they knew the powerlessness of victims who knew their place, but this was something they hadn’t seen before: victims who refused to be victims, victims who refused to fight back with violence, victims who claimed their place and reshaped the battle completely. They were loving their enemies. How do we do that? How can you and I resist the culture’s clarion call to violence, the seemingly inborn desire to get even?
What if, instead, we were intentional about seeing those on the other side of the wall or the fence or the riot shields or the voting booth as being far more like you and me than different? If we hold fast to the belief that everyone is our brother, everyone is our sister, then their behavior would arouse concern. What is causing them so much pain that they are driven to lash out?
And that moment is the beginning of what “love your enemy” looks like. If we see them as people like you and me, if we acknowledge that their behavior might be driven by fear and by pain, that is the beginning of caring, the foundation of forgiveness. Every one of us needs love and affirmation. Deep-seated conflict is much more complicated, but I believe that the core of peace is to be found in caring about the other person. And when we care, that opens the way toward the forgiveness in which Jesus is also calling us to live.
Our pain and our loss have the power to transform us. It does not always feel just, nor is it easy, but we have seen that righteous transformation can grow from great sorrow.
Jesus is inviting all of us into forgiveness, into a deep, radical, unlimited kind of forgiveness that we can fully appreciate only when we’ve been on the receiving end of it. What does that kind of forgiveness look like? And is it even possible that we, as imperfect as we are, can practice the sort of forgiveness that Jesus shows us by example?
Any of us, all of us, each of us, can experience the extraordinary peace and healing that comes from letting go of anger, letting go of resentment. Because when we let go, the peace of God that passes all understanding flows into our hearts and minds through Jesus the Christ, the son of the living God.
Seven years ago, I had been an associate pastor at a church in Hickory for just six months. It was my first call. The youth group and their parents and I had been planning a formal dinner to serve to the members.
We were less than an hour away from dinnertime. We were heating huge pots of water on the ancient stove in the kitchen … when we noticed the flames. The griddle stovetop had grease catches at the back and side. Many groups made use of the stove to hold dinners and breakfasts, and the church didn’t really have a policy that anyone who used the stove had to clean out the grease traps. So there was a lot of grease in the traps, and, well… we ended up standing in the parking lot flagging down folks to tell them that there would be no dinner.
Not one person requested a refund. And that was a marvelous show of grace and abundance. But that’s not really the point of the story.
This dinner was scheduled for a Saturday during Lent. The next evening, I was supposed to preach and to lead worship at another local Lutheran church as part of a seasonal pulpit rotation. I was completely shaken up by the fire and by the collapse of the dinner, which had represented a lot of time, talent, and treasure by the church members. Well, you can guess what happened. I completely forgot about leading worship at that other church.
The service had been scheduled for 6:30 in the evening. About 8:00 I bolted up from my chair and said, “Oh my God!” In tears, and shaking with guilt, I phoned my own church’s senior pastor. His calm demeanor and words of grace gave me the courage to phone the pastor of the church I had forgotten about.
I can only imagine what she might have been thinking. “What kind of idiot do you have to be to forget a church service? How did you manage to get ordained in the first place?” But there was not a hint of reproach in her voice as she said, warmly and kindly, that it was all right. As I stammered out my apologies, she forgave me on the spot, and said that we all make mistakes. She said that most pastors made similar goofs once in their ministries and then never again, and I had gotten mine over with. And then she never mentioned it again. For two more years, we would work together in confirmation classes, we would converse together at monthly pastoral association meetings, and she even trusted me enough to arrange another pulpit swap.
Let me repeat: The message that Jesus has for us is that any of us, all of us, each of us, can experience the extraordinary peace and healing that comes from letting go of anger, letting go of resentment. Because when we let go, the peace of God that passes all understanding flows into our hearts and minds through Jesus the Christ, the son of the living God.
The power of forgiveness is given to each of us … and it is meant to flow into our hearts and minds so that we may send it out to others.
This extraordinary power, this unlimited authority, is given freely to all of us, in Jesus’ name. In exchange, He asks only that we let go… of anger, of resentment, of hate. When we empty our hands and our hearts of those burdens, God fills them to overflowing.