He knew how ridiculous it sounded; how off-the-wall, laugh in your face absurd it would ring in their ears. As the breeze wafted through the high grass around his disciples, a slight briny scent from the Sea of Galilee just to the south, he might have paused, expecting a snort or a chuckle at least. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” But he knew that the kingdom of heaven depended on these teachings to not only be heard, but inscribed on the hearts of his students, his friends, whom he loved.
This morning we come to the final portion of the first chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and he gives a big challenge to chew on. In fact, I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that this is the most difficult teaching we encounter in the whole of scripture. He is upending generations of tradition and civil law, basically continuing to turn the world on its head. We are, after all, a people called to live upside down in the world.
There are many temptations when it comes to interpreting this passage.
“The first will be to not take it seriously… simply because when [we] get to really difficult sayings from Jesus, we tend to assume that Jesus didn’t really expect us to do these things, only to remind us of our inability to satisfy God’s commands so that we might flee to Jesus for forgiveness and grace” (Lose).
David Lose calls this the “Lutheran Temptation,” but I don’t think it is really confined to that one Reformation tradition. “But what if Jesus was serious?”
“The second temptation will be to take them too seriously. As in, believing that we’ve got it in us to do all this.” This is “the Pelagian temptation, as the heresy of that 4th-century monk who so vexed Augustine with his belief that we can overcome sin- in ourselves and in the world.” Quite “frankly, I think Pelagius’ overconfidence still haunts us… each time we urge our [selves] to rid [ourselves]… or society… of sin and sit back waiting for it to happen, we fall prey to the temptation to think ourselves sufficient and end up not really needing God’s grace, only God’s instruction and encouragement” (Lose).
So what do we do with this? Especially with the most ludicrous part of the last verse: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I suppose we find ourselves most likely to fall to the first temptation much more easily when we read that last verse, after all, no one is perfect! Of course, we also live in a time and a culture that serves the “self” most of all, and we believe, if not overtly, then through our daily living, that we can overcome anything by our own will power. So what do we do?
Let’s do a little working backward here. First, a note on the translation. David Lose points out that “the word we translate ‘perfect’ is actually the Greek word telos and implies less a moral perfection than it does reaching one’s intended outcome. The telos of an arrow shot by an archer is to reach its target. The telos of a peach tree is to yield peaches. Which means that we might translate this passage more loosely to mean, ‘Be the person and community God created you to be, just as God is the One God is supposed to be.” If read this way, Jesus is not so much giving a command, but a promise. “God sees more in you than you do. God has plans and a purpose for you. God intends to use you to achieve something spectacular. And that something spectacular is precisely to be who you were created to be an, in so doing, to help create a different kind of world. Jesus calls this new world the kingdom of God- where violence doesn’t always breed more violence and hate doesn’t always kindle more hate” (Lose).
When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he is basically asking us what kind of people do we want to be? Do you want to be the kind of people who only love those who love you? Well, while that’s pretty easy, “if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have indeed? How is that a mark of discipleship? How is that living into Jesus’ last words to his disciples in Matthew, ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (Lewis).
The Great Commission of Matthew’s last chapter is the culmination of everything that comes before it. “This is where Jesus is going, and the disciples need to know this on the front end. The disciples need to know the end goal of Emmanuel- that their discipleship, in part, means bringing ‘God with us’ to the world” (Lewis).
We are in the last week of the season of Epiphany. Next Sunday is Transfiguration Sunday which acts as a transition into the season of Lent, which “calls attention to the ways in which the world will reject such a revelation of God. What do we do with such rejection? We continue to be the salt and the light. That is all we can do. That is what Jesus needs us to do” (Lewis).
As he sat on the side of that mountain, teaching his disciples about God’s kingdom, Jesus knew that this teaching, probably more than any other, would not sit well with most of them. Contextually, think about what Jesus was asking them: to love those who were oppressing them, in particular, the Roman Empire who held the region in an iron grip; the local authorities who had sold out their kin in order to have power, control, and riches. This wasn’t an empire that let people go on about their daily living with only minor inconveniences, but a tyrannical system that murdered those who dared to defy it, who slaughtered people who stood against them. Think back to early in Matthew’s narrative when Herod ordered the killing of all the children under two just to purge the threat of a rumored king of the Jews.
So yeah, loving our enemies? Not an easy one. It probably doesn’t sit well with those of us gathered here this morning, either. I know it is a hard one for me to swallow.
I was first introduced to the Myers-Briggs personality assessment many years ago. For those who are not familiar, it is an introspective self-report questionnaire designed to indicate psychological preferences in how people perceive the world and make decisions. Assessments like this are especially useful in helping us to understand why we react to things the way we do and can help us in our interactions with others.
For example, I am what is known as an INFP. This type, called “the Mediator,” means that I tend to be introverted (though I act like an extrovert!), I tend to trust my feeling and intuitions, and I am a true idealist, always looking for the good in even the worst of times. Now, Elena (who I have permission from to share this, by the way!), is an INFJ. This type, known as “the Advocate” is very similar to the Mediator, but what sets them apart is the accompanying Judging trait- they are not idle dreamers, but people capable of taking concrete steps to realize their goals and make a lasting positive impact. In many ways, Elena and I are very similar… but when it comes to our systems of organization, we are very different. Elena likes concrete plans and no surprises, while I am much more laissez-faire, taking things as they come, embracing change, and liking to do things spur of the moment. Elena has learned how to cope with me… but I still need to remember to actually make, and stick to, plans…
Anyway, one of the things I learned about myself in my personality type is that, when INFP’s are hurt or feel wronged, they can tend to hold on to grudges for a long time, internalizing their hurt and anger. This can cause relationships to become strained or broken, sometimes shutting off communication from the transgressor completely. So when I read, “Love your enemy,” I find myself quite convicted, knowing that I have not always lived into God’s kingdom.
How can we love our enemies?
The first question we need to answer is, who are our enemies? “They are often not the obvious suspects. Determining the identity of our enemy is a line that has been blurred by the global response to terrorism. Our enemy has indeed become our neighbor, or so we think. Suddenly, the world that Jesus envisioned has become rather small. And that is not a good turn of events. Our similarities have become our differences and our differences our similarities. We suspect those we never did. We question those who we thought were our friends. We look differently at those that others have said, ‘Do you really know who they are?’” (Lewis).
It is hard enough to love the enemy that remains ambiguous in our minds: in the middle half of the 20th century it was the Soviets or the Vietcong, today it is al Qaeda and ISIS. How can we love them when our values seem so at odds with one another?
Yet, we are called to…
How much harder is it to love the enemy we see every day?
Frederick Buechner wrote in Whistling in the Dark that,
“Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.
“You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they’re tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they’re vulnerable. You see where they’re scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You’re still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It’s possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can’t, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough.”
Maybe that is the heart of what Jesus was getting at: to see our enemies as the human beings they are; to see the God-light shining through them, even if it is dimly. We must remember that they, too, were created in God’s image, and that is reason enough to love them, or at least try to.
And that is why the telos of verse 48 is so important; it’s not something that happens instantly, but a target to aim for, an outcome to strive towards. “Can we do this- turn the other cheek, love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us? No, not perfectly. On some days, maybe not at all. But that’s not really the point. It’s not our job to bring in the kingdom; Jesus does that. It’s our job to live like we really believe Jesus actually is bringing in God’s kingdom, and to realize that we get to practice living like Jesus’ disciples and citizens of this new kingdom in the meantime” (Lose).
When Dylann Roof murdered nine worshippers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the nation was horrified. This past December, he was sentenced to death. When the trial began, some of the focus shifted to the family members of the victims, who came together to publicly tell Roof that they forgave him. “Just two days after [the shooting]… mourning loved ones vocalized their mercy and compassion for the accused gunman, even before they had a chance to bury the dead” (Wagner). Nadine Collier, the daughter of victim Ethel Lance, “was the first family member to speak out at Roof’s bond hearing… ‘I forgive you,’ [she] said, fighting back tears as she addressed Roof at the June 19, 2015, hearing. ‘I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you… If God forgives you, I forgive you.’ Following Collier’s lead, one by one, other grieving loved ones stood up to speak about the people they lost- and to forgive the man accused of taking their lives” (Wagner). Their statements were not planned; they did not coordinate; “the forgiveness was just a ‘natural reaction,’” it was said. “‘They just spoke from the heart. This is a spiritual forgiveness,’” one of the family members said.
That is the kind of powerful love the world doesn’t understand. An attorney who represents some of the victim’s family members told a news reporter that this is “‘genuinely who these people are… that’s in their DNA. And for those of us who do not have that same faith, it’s hard to imagine- but it’s ingrained in them’” (Wagner).
I ask myself if I would be able to do that. Would I be able to write a letter of love and compassion and forgiveness to one who had hurt me so deeply? Would I not only be able to say the words but actually believe them in my own heart?
This morning, we are challenged to consider what kind of people, what kind of community we desire to be. What are our telos? What is our target, our yield, our intended outcome? If we truly say we follow Jesus, let it be love. Amen.
Buechner, Frederick. “Enemy.” Frederickbuechner.com. N.p., 19 Oct. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. “Commentary on Matthew 5:38-48.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 19 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
Lose, David. “Epiphany 7 A: Telos.” In the Meantime RSS. N.p., 13 Feb. 2017. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.
Wagner, Meg. “S.C. Church Shooting Victims’ Families Still Forgive Dylann Roof.” NY Daily News. NY Daily News, 03 Nov. 2016. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.