Sermon: Love Your Enemies

Sunday 24 February 2019
The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

Most every week I get together with a group of local clergy in a gathering we call Reflectionary. On Wednesday afternoon, everyone comes over to the Spirit of Grace office building, and we spend a little time checking in with one another, and then we read through the Bible passages that are assigned for the coming Sunday and talk about our reactions to them. Pastors come from Hood River, Odell, Parkdale, White Salmon and The Dalles, and from six different denomination to participate.

The lectionary assigns at least four different bible passages for every Sunday, and sometimes there can be eight or even twelve to choose from. So most weeks not everyone is preaching on the same text. Usually there are two or three different lectionary readings that different pastors are preaching on. Sometimes most everyone is preaching on one text, but just one or two have chosen a different text to preach from that week.

But not this week. This week everyone is preaching from the same text. I can’t remember the last time that happened. But this week none of us could avoid what may be Jesus’s most radical teaching of all, Luke 6:27: “I say to those of you who are listening, Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.” Easy right? Just love your enemies. No problem.

So what is that supposed to mean? Is it like what Michelle Obama says, “When they go low, we go high”? Does it have that sense of not being dragged into the mud by other people? That’s definitely part of it. Just because someone treats you inappropriately, it doesn’t mean that it gives you an excuse to treat that person in an inappropriate way.

That sounds a lot like the advice that you might give a child, right? Well, he hit me first. She called me a name first. Okay, but that doesn’t mean that you are allowed to hit or to call names.

So part of the message here is about integrity. Don’t let your values be compromised by what other people are doing. If you know it’s not right to hurt other people, then don’t hurt other people, even if they might be trying to hurt you. 

But that’s not all of it. Jesus doesn’t say, Don’t hate people who hate you. That would be hard enough, right? But that’s not what he says. He says, Love people who hate you. And that’s a lot more difficult. What would that be like?

Well, let’s look at some of the examples that Jesus gives. What does he say? “It someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either.” Matthew’s version of this same text also adds, “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with them two.”

This is a really dangerous passage, because it can be very easily misinterpreted. It often leads to a kind of doormat theology. People who are without power are encouraged to let people with power hurt them, over and over, without putting up any resistance or protest. You’ve certainly heard these words used that way, right? Turn the other cheek. Just don’t let it bother you when someone abuses you. Just be quiet and put up with it. These words have been used, especially against women and oppressed minorities, to keep them down. If you are being abused by your husband, just be quiet and take it. If you are being brutalized by society, just be quiet and take it.

But I want to tell you today, that is not what Jesus is saying here, not by a long shot. Jesus does not say to just be quiet and take it. He does not say that if you are abuse you should do nothing. He says that if you are abused, you should do something. And what you should do is shame the person who is abusing you.

In ancient Mediterranean culture, and to some degree today, there is a difference between a backhanded slap and a forehanded slap. The backhanded slap is considered more shaming to the person who is hit. A forehanded slap is what you might use on an equal. A backhanded slap implies that the person being slapped is inferior. It’s a bit more clear in Matthew’s version of this saying, where Jesus says to turn the left cheek if you are struck on the right. Doing so would force your assailant to slap you forehanded, to acknowledge that you are a person of equal humanity.

But even if we forget about the left and right thing, turning the other cheek is not an act of submission, it’s an act of defiance. The normal reaction to getting hit, especially if you are hit by someone who has power over you, is to cower, to shrink away. Or the other reaction would be to hit back. Be a victim, or fight back. But Jesus suggests a third option. Protest the act of violence that has been committed. Imagine what that looks like to get hit and turn the other cheek. “You want to hit me? You missed a spot!” That is defiance! And it shames your abuser. Everyone will know that they are one who resorted to violence, not you. Everyone will know that they were wrong, and everyone will see you weren’t afraid.

It’s the same thing with the coat and the shirt. Your typical Judean peasant only had two articles of clothing: a sort of tunic, called a χιτῶν (chiton), and a cloak that went over it, called a ἱμάτιον (himation). Jesus says if they take your cloak, you should give them your tunic also. Again, this is not just standing by while someone abuses you, this is defying that abuse and shaming the person who has done it. They take your cloak. If you give them your shirt, you’ll be standing their naked. It brings attention to the wrong that has been done to you. They can’t get away with taking your coat without suffering the shame of having caused your nakedness. It is defiance, not submission. It is a form a protest.

In fact, we have a name for this kind of protest. It’s called nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance was famously taught by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. They all came upon this strategy through their study of Jesus and each other. Nonviolent resistance is a strategy that refuses to engage in the violent tactics of the oppressor, and instead defies them. It points out the injustice of the situation and highlights the humanity of the person being injured. It attempts to make the abuse public, so that it cannot escape notice. That should engage the abusers shame. They will see that what they are doing is wrong and stop. But even if the abuser is shameless, having made the harm public should inspire the outrage of other people. Once the abuse is exposed to the rest of the world, in a way in which it cannot be ignored, then there should be pressure to make things right.

Nonviolent resistance is not easy. It requires people to endure abuse and to make that abuse public. And it usually doesn’t work right away. It takes time to convince enough people of the virtue of your cause so that those in power will be forced, through shame or through other political pressure, to change. But it is the sort of activity that Jesus recommends here. It’s not meeting violence with violence. But it’s not being a doormat, either. It is an act of defiance in the face of violence.

But that isn’t all that Jesus is talking about. What Jesus calls for is even more radical than that. It’s not just about refraining from harming those who are against you. Jesus says that we should love our enemies, do good for those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us. So part of that is going high when others go low. Part of it is nonviolent resistance to abuse. But there is still more.

How can I love my enemy? What does it do if I try to love my enemy? Obviously I’m never going to be able to love an enemy in the same way that I love someone who is dear to me. It’s going to be hard to have affection for someone who hates me. That’s not the kind of love we’re talking about.

You may remember a few weeks ago we talked about agape love. It’s not like the love between spouses, or the love between friends or the love between parents and children. Agape love, the kind of love we’re talking about here, is the kind of love that God has for us. It is unconditional love, not based on any merit at all. It is a love that is based on grace. In fact, the passage today says as much. It says, if you love the people who love you, what credit is that to you. What it actually says in Greek is, what grace is that to you. In other words, it doesn’t take grace to love someone who loves you, but it does take grace to love someone who doesn’t love you.

So if I try to love my enemy, what happens? Well, first I would try to wish good things for them. I would want them to have a happy and fulfilling life. Of course, having a happy and fulfilling life does not include abusing other people. But nonetheless, I would wish good things for them. And then I might start to think about the circumstances of their life. What would a happy and fulfilling life look like for a person in their situation? What are the things in their life that bring joy? I would wish them more of that. And what are the things in their life that bring discomfort and pain, fear and anxiety? I would wish them relief from that.

And in the process, I might find that I am starting to see my enemy not as some heartless foe, but as a human being. And human beings are complicated. If I am loving my enemy, then I start to be able to see things from their perspective. It doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree with them, but perhaps I can begin to understand. When people hurt others, it’s usually not because they are just evil to the core and enjoy inflicting harm on others. There are usually motivations behind their actions. Those motivations may not justify their actions, but they might explain some things. Because behind destructive behavior, there is usually some need that is not being fulfilled, some hurt that is not being tended, some fear that is not being addressed. Fear is often at the core. Fear of change. Fear of losing power. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the loss of identity. And as Master Yoda has taught us, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Behind that hate and suffering, there is usually some fear. And if I am trying to love my enemy, I can begin to see the fear or the hurt that lies behind their hatred for me.

And like Yoda, Jesus warns against a dark-side response to suffering. Jesus encourages us to break the cycle of hatred and violence with a godly love. To love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us.

And again, it doesn’t mean simply submitting quietly to continued abuse. But we can wish well for someone even if that person is hurting us. Sometimes our act of love for an enemy is enough to transform the situation. How do you react when you heap abuse on someone and they return it with love? It can be disarming. It can lead us to see the wrong that we have been doing and make a change.

But things don’t always work out that well. Sometimes our love for an enemy does nothing to lessen their hatred for us. And even in that case, it is still worthwhile to love. It is good for us, because otherwise we can be consumed by our own fear and hatred. It is good for those around us, because it sets an example for how to be made free of hatred. And it is good for the world, because evil can never be defeated with more evil.

Our Buddhist sisters and brothers have a word for a concept that is not dissimilar to our agape love: Metta. Metta can be defined as benevolence, loving-kindness, friendliness, amity, good will, and active interest in others. And many Buddhists spend time in meditation, seeking to cultivate this Metta compassion. Many of you will know the Ven. Kozen Sampson, who is the monk in charge of Buddhist temple at Trout Lake Abbey. Whenever we have events together, if Kozen is asked to give a benediction, he uses a Metta prayer. And it’s very simple. It is: may you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace. But he always likes to lead us in it together, so I’d like to lead you through it now. We always start with ourselves and move out. So repeat after me:

May I be well. May I be happy. May I know joy. May I know peace.

And now we’ll move beyond ourselves and address those who are around us.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

And now think of someone who is dear to you, but someone who is not in the room here with you now. And direct this blessing to them.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

This time we’re going to try to stretch like Jesus asks us to. Call to mind the person or people you would call enemy, rival, the thorn in your side, and direct this blessing toward them.

May you be well. May you be happy. May you know joy. May you know peace.

And finally, think of all the world’s people, in our great variety and diversity. And with the whole global community in mind, let us say,

May we be well. May we be happy. May we know joy. May we know peace.

This is the kind of love Jesus is calling for. He says that when we have that kind of love for our enemies we will be greatly rewarded, because, he says, we are acting like children of the Most High, because God is kind to ungrateful and wicked people. Jesus says: “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” This is what Jesus calls us to, a transformative love in the face of hatred. It is not easy. It is a gift of God. So may we be empowered, along with all of God’s children everywhere, to see each other with the eyes of compassion, to wish well and do good even for those who are against us, to love our enemies, because God has offered us unconditional love.

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