by Mike Kinman, Rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena
The gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this coming Sunday —the Sunday we celebrate Independence Day — with food for thought on loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us and becoming fully alive in God’s love … Gnaw away!
Propers for Independence Day: Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor but hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. This will prove that you are children of God. For God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good alike, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. If you love only those who love you, what merit is there in that? Do not even the tax collectors do as much? And if you greet only your friends, what is exceptional in that? Do not even the pagans do that much? Let the love you extend be full just as the love God extends is full.”
The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?
Jesus is using a literary device called an antithesis (putting two ideas in opposition to one another), in this case “you have heard that it was said … but I say to you.” Jesus uses this — after telling people that their righteousness needs to exceed that of the Pharisees — to invite his disciples to consider not what the minimum they
have to do to fulfill the commandments of the law is but instead to think about what it means to dive into the depths of living a Beatitude life.
It’s no accident that most of the antitheses Jesus uses are about conflict … both because conflict is a natural part of life but especially because if they are going to follow Jesus and live as a different kind of community in the world, they are going to be in LOTS of conflict (remember the last two Beatitudes … “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil
against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”)
What sets this saying apart is that Jesus — unbeknownst to his disciples — is preparing them for his death. He is preparing them for his trip to Jerusalem where he will be shown in no uncertain terms who his enemies are and who will love them to the end.
Jesus is forming the Beloved Community … the community that will be the Body of Christ. It is a community that doesn’t keep score or worry about strategy. This isn’t “turn the other cheek … that’ll show ’em!” … it is “Turn the other cheek … that will show them the nature of God, the nature of you, the nature of who they can be.”
A few things to chew on:
It is the tradition of All Saints Church to use the readings for Independence Day on the Sunday closest to July 4. It is instructive that for a holiday that is so often marked by exceptionalism and triumphalism we are reminded of this most difficult ethic of love of enemies. How would this country look different if we lived into this command more fully?
There are so many things in this brief passage that we tend to think of in terms of effectiveness and strategy. But there is only one purpose that Jesus gives: “so that you may be children of God.” We have so many roles we use to label ourselves. We are partners, husbands, wives, parents, brothers, sisters, employees, teachers, students, friends, etc., etc. And we act differently when we consider each of these roles. Jesus is inviting his disciples (and that’s us!) to think “what would a
child of God do?” … because before anything else that’s who we are. What would someone who knows without a shadow of a doubt they are God’s beloved do? What would someone who loves the world without bounds do? What would Jesus do?
Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor but hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Jesus puts loving and praying for together for a reason. When we love someone, we want what is best for them … and as tempting as it may be for us to assume that is having them believe or act like us, the truth is God knows far more what is best for them than we do.
And so the best way to love our enemies is to pray for them. Not for them to become like us, but for God to touch and shape their hearts the same way we pray God will touch and shape ours. For God to use us as instruments of love in their lives.
When we pray for our enemies, for those whom we despise and for those who despise us, we are affirming that they are not “the other” but that we are connected. We are affirming that the love of God touches us both — that we are all adored by God and desired by God … and that God dreams for us all to be one.
This week, take a little time each day and pray for someone you find yourself at odds with … even despising. Lift them to God and ask God to use us to love them.
The last line of this passage is often translated “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Is there a more hopeless passage in all of scripture than this? As if things weren’t hard enough already, we now have to be PERFECT? Except this is a perfectly rotten translation of the Greek. A better translation is “So then, if you do all these things you will be a whole person, just as your Father in heaven is whole.” …. Or the Priests for Equality version, which we use is: “Let the love you extend be full just as the love God extends is full.”
Wow! That changes it a LOT! Being perfect means never making a mistake. Not going to happen! Being whole, having the love you extend be full, means living with integrity, believing in your belovedness enough that you can love the world without bounds. Being whole and loving fully as God is whole and loves fully means being fully alive. The Gospel this week is about conflict. When we give into violence of thought or action in conflict we let others have power over us.
This week, spend some time journaling about the conflicts in your life and how you can not give others power over you in them. How can you be “whole as God is whole?” How can you “Let the love you extend be full just as the love God extends is full?”
Love Your Enemies
“Love your enemies.”
Jesus says these words and we tremble. We tremble not only because they are difficult words but because they are words of great power. Power to liberate and heal … but also power to subjugate and wound.
The ethic of enemy-love and forgiveness that Christ preaches and embodies can transform the world and our hearts and lives. It is how we stop cycles of violence and division and lay down the burden of hate that, as Dr. King noted, is “too great a burden to bear.”
It is also a command that can be and has been used toward incredible injury and destruction. It has been used to tell traumatized, abused and oppressed people that they must remain docile, that their anger is inappropriate or even sinful, that no matter what terrible things are done to them, they must respond in love.
In short, it has been used not for liberation but to trap people in places of violence, oppression and abuse.
As with all of scripture, we need to look beyond the sound bite. Jesus doesn’t just say “love your enemies” … but also “Let the love you extend be full just as the love God extends is full.”
So what do we trust about God’s love … and how can that help us here?
God’s love is for us as we are.
God’s love is safe love – love that heals and does not wound, love that frees and does not imprison.
God’s love is about justice – about creating a world where all God’s children are treated with equity, compassion and honor.
God’s love cannot be demanded or coerced, it can only be offered freely.
So the first thing we need to remember when we are called to love our enemies with full love as God’s love is full … is that love starts from a place of accepting that love for ourselves. Accepting that we are not only lovable but are, in fact, beloved. Rejecting any voices that would lie to us by saying different.
If that is our core, then we can look at what it means to love our enemies.
It means we can choose to receive wounds and oppression, not because we deserve it but because we are freely choosing to receive them as a sign of our own strength and compassion for others.
It means we can choose to receive wounds and oppression for the cause of justice and with the hope of bringing about that world where all God’s children are treated with equity, compassion and honor.
It means that love – and the choice to receive wounds and oppression — can never be demanded of the oppressed by the oppressor. Never demanded of the abused by the abuser. Love can never be coerced but only offered freely.
And because God’s love is a love that heals, it is completely compatible with feeling and expressing the results of trauma and oppression – anger, pain, fear and more. It is absolutely loving our enemies to express anger, pain and fear toward them so they can see the consequences of their behavior … and so that we can feel so we can heal.
Loving our enemies is about loving as God loves … a love that desires healing justice in all things. It is a love that desires conversion rather than defeat and destruction AND a love that recognizes resistance to the evil that can affect the human heart is not only compatible with enemy-love but a necessary part of it.
Loving our enemies is about loving as God loves – always desiring the best for all people, no matter how offensive they are to us … and recognizing that allowing abusers to continue to abuse and allowing oppressors to continue to oppress is never the best, most loving thing for anyone.
Check out the rest of Sunday’s readings
The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday – click here for this Sunday’s readings.
Collect for Sunday: Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.
Loving God, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and in peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Want to read more?
“The Text This Week” is an excellent online resource for anyone who wants to dive more deeply into the scriptures for the week.