Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
It’s been said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” That’s how G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) put it in his essay “What’s Wrong With the World.” Chesterton was an English poet, philosopher, and dramatist, Roman Catholic lay theologian, literary and art critic, best known for his Father Brown murder mysteries. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
Chesterton could easily have been talking about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-8), perhaps 5:38-48, in particular. These words are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching and ministry. They are classic Jesus. We could say these verses sound, so,…well…Christian. We all know Jesus said them; they are associated with his followers. Christians and non-Christians, alike, know what Jesus said about “turning the other cheek,” or “going the next mile.” You don’t have to be a Christian to know that Jesus said to his followers, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” (Mt 5:43). Yes, we know what Jesus said. And we also know just how blasted difficult it is to follow him. The Christian life is difficult and, maybe, that’s why it has been left untried. Christian ideas and practices have been on the scene for more than 2,000 years and the Church has yet to really practice what we preach.
All of the teachings in this section of the sermon are challenging. Perhaps the most demanding, revolutionary, and radical teaching is what Jesus had to say about loving the enemy. Friends—this is unbelievably difficult to put into practice, human nature being what it is. It’s important for me to go slowly here, because I don’t want you to get the impression that I’ve “mastered” this teaching, because I haven’t.
So, what does Jesus say? “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Mt 5:43). This teaching, like many others in the sermon, is designed to get us to think about God in a different way and, therefore, live in a new way. Some of these sayings are known as the Great Antitheses. For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” You have heard that it was said…where? This saying is found in Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE), the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” which established justice as quid pro quo. It’s also found in Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:19-20, although here an “eye for an eye” meant “only an eye.” In other words if you take out my eye, I can’t take from you two eyes and two arms. The law was means to restrict compensation. If you hurt me, I get to hurt you equally hard. That’s fair play. This is how most people understand justice, both in the Church and outside it—but it’s actually, theologically, biblically wrong to think of justice this way. “But I say to you, ‘Do not resist the evildoer…’” (Mt. 5:38-39). Jesus tells us that his followers have to move past the endless, vicious cycle of “getting even.” Gandhi (1869-1948) understood this. He said, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Perhaps that’s why Gandhi admired Christ so much. As for Christians, well, …not so much.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” We need to stop here. Yes, Leviticus 19:18, part of the Jewish Law (Torah) reads, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But the Hebrew scriptures say nothing about hating one’s enemies. So, is Jesus misquoting scripture? No. Religious pious types often tried to figure out the minimum requirements of the faith. These religious literalists claimed that scripture said we are to love our neighbor. Since scripture was silent about loving one’s enemy, that meant it was okay to hate one’s enemy. I’m free to do whatever I want to a non-neighbor. The scripture doesn’t say that I can’t hate my enemy. I’m obliged to love the person next door, but I don’t have to love someone in another town or country, or of a different ethnicity, race, or religion.
Then Jesus says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you….” In other words, Jesus increases the demands of God’s Law! Jesus has higher expectations for his people. You can’t get out of loving only your neighbor. If you’re going to be my follower, Jesus says, then you are called to love your non-neighbor and you’re expected to love even your enemy. Jesus increases the weight of responsibility upon us; he doesn’t lessen it.
You’re probably asking, “Okay, how do I do this? How do I love my enemies?” Maybe you don’t have enemies. Maybe you do. Maybe there’s someone you utterly hate and despise, someone you can’t stand to be around, someone you hate so much because of their hate toward you, because of what they did to you or continue to do to you. Are you being persecuted? Perhaps you don’t have people like that in your life. Then, what about people who make you uncomfortable, who frustrate you, who disgust you, who make you anxious? What about them? What is your responsibility, as a Christian, toward them?
Jesus says, “You shall love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Love, Jesus says. This is the first time the word “love” is found in Matthew’s gospel. Love. Really, Jesus? Love? It can’t be that simple. Perhaps I can love my neighbor—although, sometimes even my neighbors are tough to love, but I try—but my enemies? That’s asking too much. That’s unrealistic, Jesus. Maybe for some. Maybe for your saints. Not for me.
It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) who said, “Love is the only force that can transform an enemy into a friend.” King had lots of enemies. He had good reasons to hate. Yet, as a servant of Christ, his only response was love. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.” These are difficult words. Dr. King preached many-a-sermon on this text. As he knew, embodying the text is entirely something else. He never gave up his vision of Christian non-violence, active resistance.
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We’ve been reflecting upon interpersonal relationships—which are tough enough. But, does Jesus’ teaching apply to geo-political affairs? Aside from the question of whether it is appropriate for a Christian to engage in acts of war, at a minimum, we can still pray for our enemy. But even that, for some, is asking too much. So, then, what does that say about one’s commitment to Jesus and his teachings and the responsibility of the Church? When I first arrived at Catonsville Presbyterian Church in 1999, I heard the story of the time, during the first Gulf War in 1991, when Lorne Bostwick, the associate pastor here, prayed for Saddam Hussein in worship during the Prayers of the People. Some stormed out, furious. Some ripped up their offering checks and threw them in the offering plate. The story surfaced again here, in 2002, as the United States invaded Iraq. Praying for Hussein was too much for some. Are there limits to all of this Jesus stuff?
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If it’s too demanding to love our neighbors and enemies “out there,” wherever “there” might be, what if we turned inward? Not in a selfish or self-serving way. Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), the Lebanese-American poet, once wrote, “And God said “Love Your Enemy,” and I obeyed him and loved myself.” What if the “enemy” that needs to be loved is one’s self? What if the “enemy” is within, a part of ourselves, the part we have difficulty loving and accepting? What if we loved the part of us that seems to persecute and judge us? You know those voices, the voices that say you’re not good enough, not bright enough, not kind enough, not loving enough, not enough of whatever, just never enough. Personally, I think, much of what we project out upon the world, how we treat our neighbor and enemies—whether it’s with love or condemnation, judging or loathing—originates within us, within the human heart. How can a Christian begin to love neighbor, as well as enemy, if we are at odds with ourselves, if we can’t even love ourselves, if we hate ourselves, or believe that God hates us? Didn’t Jesus call us to love our neighbor—and how does the rest of it go? “As you love yourself”? (Mt. 22:39).
On the morning I finally arrived in Santiago de Compostela, after trekking 500 miles across Spain, I walked the last ten miles in conversation with my friend, Oswald. We had walked many miles together and shared hours of deep conversation. He was raised in the church, in Holland. Today, he is more of a Buddhist, he’s a world-class photographer, and teaches Kundalini yoga in his studio in Barcelona. It was Sunday morning. We were hoping to arrive in time to go to Mass. We reflected on what it means, these days, to say that one is Christian. Oswald said all he heard about growing up was the need to love his neighbor. He said, “In my church I never heard about the rest of the verse, ‘as you love yourself.’”
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So how can we love our neighbor and our enemy? How do we have the maturity and courage to pray for those who persecute us? How do we love the enemy within? I began the sermon by quoting Chesterton, about the difficulty of the Christian ideal. It is difficult, that’s true. But Chesterton gets something wrong. Jesus is not talking about an ideal. I can’t image that Jesus was setting up an impossible to reach standard of behavior, only to judge us for not reaching it. That would be cruel.
What is often missed in this text—and it’s easy to do when we turn Jesus’ teaching into an ethical ideal, something that I or we have to do—is the second half of the verse. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”—why?—“so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45). And what does God do, according to Jesus? “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the righteous and unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45). God’s children reflect the Holy Parent. God does not hate the enemy. God cannot hate, cannot hate God’s enemies—which includes all of us, especially when we are God’s “enemies” or at odds with God’s will for our lives and the world. God’s grace falls upon all of us, because that’s whom God is and that’s what God does. And it’s in this sense that God is perfect and calls us to be perfect—perfect, not in an ethical sense, never ever making a mistake, never failing, getting an A+ on every moral test. A better translation for the Greek here is wholeness or love or holiness, not “perfect”—that’s such a loaded word. In other words, just as God lives out God’s purpose by being loving, so, too, when we know we are rooted and grounded in God’s love for us, as God’s children, then we are free to live out our purpose, which is to reflect and embody God’s love and wholeness and holiness! “We respond to other people—even our enemies—with the kind of compassion and desire for the good that expresses the way God responds to the world.”
In the end, it comes down to love. How do we begin to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? We start with God, we start with God’s love toward us, and we stay there and sit with this love until we see and feel and know ourselves as the object, the recipient of God’s radical grace, God’s compassion, and God’s mercy. The more we know what God’s love feels like, the more we experience it, the more we dwell and abide and rest in God’s love—the One who loves us through and through—the more we discover, gradually over time, what is the loving, compassionate, merciful, even difficult thing we must do, because we are God’s children.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the brilliant German theologian, pastor, martyr, wrote a book on the meaning of discipleship, based on the Sermon on the Mount. We know it in English as The Cost of Discipleship; in German, the title is simply one word Nachfolge, meaning, Follow. Published in 1937, the book was written (illegally) for seminarians studying at his secret seminary, Finkenwalde, which was eventually shut down by the Gestapo. Reflecting on Matthew 5:43, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it. And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love? Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy? Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies?”
Love simply seeks those who need it most.
Isn’t that the way God loves us?
Then, that’s the way we can love.
 Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 64.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 164.