(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on August 31, 2014)
“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.”
All through this series on the Sermon on the Mount, I’ve been wondering how in the world Jesus got a universal reputation as a great teacher. Even people who don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God, who don’t claim to follow Jesus with their lives, still say that Jesus was a great teacher.
How in the world do people say that? Have they read this stuff? It is crazy! If Jesus is universally acclaimed as such a great teacher, I wonder why it is that our world doesn’t look much like what he taught as truth.
For us who DO say we follow Jesus…have we wrestled with how radically against the grain Jesus’ teaching actually is?
“Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
It sounds like a beautifully noble statement. We may even think that has always been how the people of God at their best have believed. But that really isn’t true. Jesus reminds us the exact opposite was the standard way of looking things, the things the people had heard was said. Their world was filled with people like our world is filled with today: people who love those who are on our side and who see the world as we do, but who hate and reject those who are opposed to us and the way we live our lives.
There isn’t actually anywhere in the Old Testament that says verbatim, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But there are many places in the teaching of the Rabbis that come close, and there are examples from history that definitely show hating your enemies was the model and example for behavior.
One of those places is in what is known as the Apocrypha, specifically the book of 2 Maccabees. The Maccabees were Jewish leaders who lived about 200 years before Christ. It was a horrible time to be Jewish, with Greek Kings oppressing and torturing and killing Jews, doing anything they could to get them to renounce their faith.
2 Maccabees tells about several who were martyred. They were forced to break the Jewish kosher food laws by literally being force-fed pork. Heroic stories are told of Jews who spit out the food and refused to give in and suffered martyrdom for their faith.
In chapter 7 of 2 Maccabees, seven brothers are tortured and killed. Each, rather than praying for their enemy King Antiochus, calls down curses on him as they die. And the last brother is the strongest of them all. Listen to his dying words [2 Macc. 7:30-37]:
King Antiochus, what are you waiting for? I refuse to obey your orders. I only obey the commands in the Law which Moses gave to our ancestors. You have thought up all kinds of cruel things to do to our people, but you won’t escape the punishment that God has in store for you. It is true that our living Lord is angry with us and is making us suffer because of our sins, in order to correct and discipline us. But this will last only a short while, for we are still his servants, and he will forgive us. But you are the cruelest and most disgusting thing that ever lived. So don’t fool yourself with illusions of greatness while you punish God’s people. There is no way for you to escape punishment at the hands of the almighty and all-seeing God. My brothers suffered briefly because of our faithfulness to God’s covenant, but now they have entered eternal life. But you will fall under God’s judgment and be punished as you deserve for your arrogance. I now give up my body and my life for the laws of our ancestors, just as my brothers did. But I also beg God to show mercy to his people quickly and to torture you until you are forced to acknowledge that he alone is God.
This is what was praised as heroic in Jesus’ time.
To be a true follower of God was to stand up to evil. It was to resist to the point of death, and to call down God’s wrath on the ones who oppressed you, on your enemies. The Maccabeans were seen as true and faithful followers of God. This is what the people had grown up on. These were the stories that shaped their morals and their lives.
This is what still seems right and just today. God should punish our wrong-doing enemies. We should stand up against evil, name the evil and stand strong.
Our minds do this. Our movies do this. Our heroes do this. Can you imagine a movie today where that 2 Maccabees speech was the climax of resistance to evil? People would cheer! Even if the hero had to die, we would celebrate and cheer as the hero called the villain “the cruelest and most disgusting thing that ever lived.” Everything about 2 Maccabees feels and seems right.
But Jesus teaches the opposite.
Jesus again is asking people to go the extra mile, as Steve helpfully worked us through last week. It’s not enough to resist evil and be willing to die out of your obedience to God. We have to go another step further. We actually have to pray for the King Antiochuses and the Caesars and the Hitlers and the ISIS leaders of the world.
We don’t get to indulge in the dramatic and soul-satisfying speech that condemns our enemy to hell. With this teaching, Jesus comes against a fundamental human tendency, the tendency to polarize and place people in camps. “That one” is either good or evil. “That one” is either on my side or against me. “That one” is for truth and all that is right in the world, or destroying everything I hold dear, my whole way of life.
It feels so much better to love our neighbor and hate our enemy. Doing what Jesus teaches is painful and difficult: we must see the humanity and the value of the one who is against us. Not only are we to actively show love to our enemy, but Jesus teaches us to ask God to bring good into their lives.
One of the questions I’ve wrestled with this week is “Who is my enemy?”
This isn’t easy, because it includes the big things, the Hitlers and the Bin Ladens of the world. Jesus taught people who lived under the oppressive Roman Empire, led by immoral leaders who followed multiple gods and goddesses…the first enemies they would have thought of were the big ones.
It does include the big, worldwide enemies. But it also includes more day to day stuff. When I ask the question, “Who are some of the enemies we are called to love day in and day out?”…what comes to mind? [ASK]
I asked about this passage on my Facebook page and got a couple good responses too. Some mentioned personal relationships that have soured and feel like enemies. One talked about the many people she is in contact with every week who support things she sees as harmful. How does she love them without “propagating their broken agenda and way of life”? One talked about the rude driver or the terrible cashier.
Enemies can be all around, when we think of how many people are different than us in some way, supportive of things we don’t agree with. Many people have talked about how polarized our society is. I was surprised to see how quickly discussion about what was happening in Ferguson, Missouri divided along political lines. When I saw things like this posted, I saw an unhelpful example of how politically polarized we are.
I don’t find this sort of thing helpful at all. Go ahead and care about injustice. Go ahead and point our attention to how to take constructive steps against racism…but something like this fuels the partisan battles rather than move anyone toward something productive. [CLICK to black]
Politics is one of the ways I see us making “enemies” of one another. How might what Jesus teaches here need to be applied to our political “enemies”?
In the last year I’ve met over coffee with two people who have left our church.
When I asked why, each said it was because of conversations they had with other people from our church. These two felt like they were on one side of the political fence, and the conversations were with people on the other side.
Disagreement is not the problem. I would expect that with politics, as with many things, many of us are going to disagree with one another. What troubled me as I listened to these two talk about their experience is that they both said they felt people had said to them, “Not only do we disagree with you politically, but your views aren’t welcome here at NFC.”
That troubles me greatly.
I understand it. For many of us, we hold the political beliefs that we do because we see them as rooted in the bible and in our faith. So when we get into conversations with our political “enemy”, we feel like so much is at stake.
For the record, over the years I have had people from the progressive end of the spectrum and from the conservative end of the spectrum tell me they haven’t felt welcomed by others in the church. Let’s go ahead and disagree. Let’s have conversations about why we believe and vote the way we do. But let’s find ways to show love and acceptance in that process. Let’s find ways to not push each other out and communicate that the other isn’t welcome.
Why should we try to be in relationship with those whom we disagree?
The “why” is found in what Jesus says about God here. The “why” of loving our enemy, the “why” of staying in community even with those who support things we believe are wrong, is the example of God’s interaction with our world.
The foundation of Jesus’ teaching is “that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Jesus wants us to behave like God. What is God like? Jesus takes just one verse to outline it, and I’ve tended to read over it too quickly. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
But this is the key. This is the reason why. Look at how God interacts with this world, Jesus says. Good things come to everyone. God doesn’t withhold gifts from those who are in the wrong. This is the theme that Paul picks up on in Romans: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God.
God’s good work is done for all. God’s love extends to all…even those who are evil and unrighteous and enemies. Even those who are annoying and petty and stuck up and politically liberal or conservative.
If we only love those like ourselves…if we only “greet your own people”…if we only are in relationship with people who are like us and are “our people”…we aren’t like our God. We are like the tax collectors and the pagans, says Jesus.
So that leaves the how…how do we love our enemies?
And as I read the responses to my question about this verse on Facebook, the “how” many people suggested came directly out of the “why”.
God’s practice of giving good things to all people comes from God’s love for each created person. People reminded me this week that we live out this passage when we, too, remember each person is created in God’s image. That’s some of the “how” to love our enemies.
Penny Koffler wrote this: “Hate only breeds gulfs in-between people who could be friends rather than enemies. The loving acceptance of those who are different based on Christ’s unconditional love for us will cause those gulfs to recede.”
Paula Hampton wrote: “I’ll add on here and echo what others have said — Seeing the image of God in another [is key]. I know that this theme is repeated over and over by people on BOTH sides of the Israel/Palestinian issue. ‘Help us see the image of God in each other…’”
I’ve said before that I love reading history.
Often it’s depressing, but it’s always instructive. There is no denying that Christians (whether Roman Catholic or Protestant or whatever) not only have a history of ignoring what Jesus teaches here, but have actually done the exact opposite. Christians have prostituted our theology and our beliefs many times by misusing Christianity to label an enemy, teaching that they are to be hated and destroyed.
The obvious example is the Crusades, but we see it over and over again: Catholics burning Protestant heretics at the stake, Reformers making martyrs out of Mennonites, English Protestants killing Scottish Catholics. Christian “theology” justified slavery by teaching the supposed inferiority of African Americans. Christian theology was twisted to support the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
Nations survive and rally support for war by making enemies of those who think differently. Jesus’ words ought to shout to us that we must stand against this misuse of Christianity to support national aims!
Our own Twila Tschan boiled it down to something easy to understand:
“As I thought about this post throughout the day, I tried to think of something I could do concretely and realized that oftentimes my love of ‘things’ gets in the way of me loving my enemies. When I have a sense of ownership ‘This BELONGS to me (be it possessions, pride, or even my life)’ it makes anything or anyone that encroaches on my attachment an immediate threat. But God says that we are ‘stewards’ and that our attachment shouldn’t be to earthly things. It’s hard in a culture that promotes ‘accumulate and defend,’ but I think a good place to start in my life would be to examine my emotional connections to the possessions around me, figure out where I can simplify, and hold everything I’m given in this life loosely. Having nothing to lose makes it easier to do crazy things… even love your enemies.”
May we continue to learn from each other as we follow Jesus! May we do the radically hard work of being like God, and loving our enemies.