2/19/2017 Seventh Sunday after Epiphany The text is Matthew 5:38-48.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Love your neighbors. Love yourself. Love your enemies. Lately, I’ve been in a lot of discussions about love. One person confesses that she has never loved a member of her family and yet, she stood beside that very same person, providing for basic needs. Another person questions how God can love someone who murders or commits rape, as if God’s forgiveness and grace is limited to those people who commit “little sins”. Another reeling from a broken relationship questions what love is, assuming it involves an unbreakable bond between two people. And still another questions: how can we love our enemies when we have a tough enough time loving people we know and loving ourselves?
These are all good questions. Love doesn’t grow on trees or fall from the sky and light on us. Love takes work as it involves some kind of emotional attachment. And yet, not all love is the same. I love my friend John as a good friend and confidant, and so his wife has no problems with our relationship. I love you like a brother and sister, and so instead of kicking off my shoes relaxing today, I am here.
The difficulty we have with love is that we have only one word for it. In the Bible, there are three words for love, each expressing a different aspect of a caring relationship. The first, philios, expresses brotherly love or the love between friends; the second, eros, is romantic love; and the third, agape, is the love that God has for the world when he sends Jesus to us. It is a compassionate or merciful love, an unquenchable goodwill that is given without the traditional emotional baggage.
When Jesus speaks about loving our enemies, he is talking about this third kind of love. Jesus is not asking us to like everyone, or to be emotionally attached in the way a good parent is to a child or lovers are to one another. Lord knows how impossible that would be, especially living in such close quarters. All of us, at one time for another would agree with Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip: “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” So, to suggest that we all should be friends would be fruitless. What Jesus is asking of us is to let his love, his compassion, his forgiveness and mercy shine through us, even to those who don’t like us and to those that we think of as “pains in the neck.”
Yes, this is a tall order. For it means that no matter how badly we have been mistreated, no matter how badly we’ve been insulted, no matter how much we’ve been hurt, we are not to let bitterness and malice invade our hearts. Forgiveness is to be a way of life and that doesn’t come easy. When we are hurt, we are much more likely to strike back. And yet, forgiveness doesn’t mean accepting bad behavior, nor is it a type of amnesia. To forgive someone doesn’t mean that we put ourselves back into a dysfunctional relationship. To forgive means letting go and moving on with life. To love means letting God be the judge, letting God take the burden from us and then, in peace, wishing the best for our enemies.
For, no matter how hard we try, we all have enemies, or people who seem to hate us. There are people whom we’ve offended and to whom we’ve apologized, but who refuse to accept our apologies. There are people at work whom we’ve angered, who are jealous of us or who have set themselves against us. There are people in our families who hold a grudge against us for some mysterious reason that we can’t even understand. And there are people who seem to dislike us or wish us ill for no good reason and it’s useless to try to change them.
These are people that Jesus wants us to love. But Jesus does not expect us to love them in the same way that we speak about “falling in love.” Jesus isn’t asking us to love our enemies in the way we love our family members. Jesus isn’t even asking us to walk in our enemies shoes, or to open our home to them. Jesus is asking us to put aside the human instinct to strike, and instead, to pray for those who hate us and to go the extra mile by truly caring about them and their well-being.
Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye.’ But I say to you offer no resistance to one who is evil.” This is not a call to be a door mat…to let others walk all over you or to continue to put yourself in harm’s way.
When Jesus talks about someone turning the other cheek, many Scripture scholars feel that he’s talking about a particular act. The Gospel of Matthew specifies the “right cheek.” This means the blow comes from the back of the assailant’s left hand, and therefore constitutes an insult not a violent assault. So some scholars say that when Jesus says the “other cheek,” the idea is that when you’re insulted by a slap on the cheek you should turn away and not retaliate. It’s not so much an invitation for someone to keep hitting you as it is for you not to retaliate….
Loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you is liberating. Too often we can find ourselves in pitched battles with the people who hate us, always seeking the upper hand, always noting who’s up and who’s down, always analyzing every slight. You see this in families and even in office environments, where people are trapped into cycles of vengefulness. It wears both parties down and dehumanizes everyone involved. I’ve seen couples, for example, whose marriages are utterly destroyed by the inability to forgive; the two become like scorpions in a jar. (quote from Rev. James Martin)
Jesus is not suggesting that we stay in unhealthy relationships. But he is offering us a different way of life – a way of life seeped in God’s grace. For, although some schools of psychology say that you should always vent anger (rather than let it fester), turning away from insults, hatred and contempt is emotionally healthy.
So, acknowledge your anger and express your frustration in a calm way, and live in the type of love that Jesus has for each of us. Go the extra mile. Help those in need. Pray for those who hate you and for those you who irritate you. Visit those who can be easily forgotten. Share, even with your enemies, the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord. For, living in this way will not only offer forgiveness and charity to someone else, it will bring you peace in our own life, too.
As you strive to do as Jesus asks, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.