by Rev. Elizabeth Jones.
Throughout history, we can trace many battles between enemies. I don’t mean outright war, like between armies with guns and tanks and bombs, but enemies, nevertheless. Serious sports rivalries can turn ugly, like soccer hooligans causing fistfights and even rioting. Factions and strife in a town can cause a cohesive neighborhood to break up. And in recent times, political differences can cause serious rifts between former friends. Deep tension even makes family members stop speaking to each other, sometimes for years.
What is this corrosive feeling between enemies? Some say envy, others say fear, others say hatred, plain and simple. Which brings us to the Gospel. What does Jesus say about enemies?
But, first we need to back up, and remind ourselves of what came just before. Or rather, what we heard last week. Just a reminder that Luke chapter 6 contains much of the same information that Jesus preached in Matthew, chapters 5, 6 and 7. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount—leading off with the Beatitudes—is summarized in about one third of the space, right here. In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.
Jesus said a lot of controversial things, a lot of which got Him into serious hot water. But, “love your enemies” was a particularly troublesome statement.
The country of Israel was under occupation. Just imagine occupied France or the Netherlands during World War II. The hated Romans were Israel’s overlords, and the whole country had to pay Roman taxes. Essentially, paying tribute to Caesar and his armies. The Roman soldiers threw their weight around, and it was backed up by the threat of force of arms. In other words, Roman garrisons were stationed in towns throughout Israel, keeping the populace in line and making certain there was order in Rome’s occupied territory.
Somehow, I doubt whether the Rabbi Jesus scored many points with either the Jewish leaders or the Jewish people by preaching about loving their enemies.
Sharp divisions have come up from time to time in the modern day, too. Think back several decades, to the 1960’s. A sharp debate over civil rights tore our country apart, much like certain political stands do today.
Let’s think about that debate concerning civil rights. This is February, Black History Month. Black leaders protested, held sit-ins, and even marched on Washington in August 1963, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the famous “I have a dream” speech. But many Americans at that time did not agree with civil rights, or with blacks and other people of color receiving equal treatment under the law, or equal treatment in general society.
Remember the race riots around the country, and here in Chicago. The National Guard needed to be sent in a number of situations to keep the peace. A great divide was evident in our country throughout the 1960’s, and my retired professor Ken Vaux and Pastor Gordon Smith were among those allies who stood with the black protestors.
Many people on both sides of that political divide would say that they were sincere, devout Christians. Christians who probably would hear sermons on Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain from time to time in their churches.
Wait a minute. People on both sides of the civil rights issue? Sincere, devout Christians? Well, yes. Yes, they were.
Let’s get back to Jesus, preaching the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. He challenges the crowd. “He says the shocking phrase, ‘Love your enemies.’ What?! He doesn’t just tell us to listen to them. We are to love them!….Some must have decided that they were not ‘willing to hear’ and walked away with their heads full of questions. Others began to work on the bargain. Which enemy might they “love” without risking their own position? Others tried to imagine how they could love their enemies.”
How can anyone do this seemingly impossible stuff Jesus told us to do?
First, Jesus does not ask our opinion. He doesn’t check in with us and see whether we agree with Him. His words are not an option. “Love your enemies.” “He is talking about the Kingdom of God, where love is the rule, not an eye for an eye.” What did Gandhi say of that bloodthirsty comment? “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Let’s hear the next few verses: “32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.” Wouldn’t you expect yourself to be loving, caring and generous? Don’t we all think of ourselves in a positive light, as Jesus suggests here?
Not so fast. Jesus does not let anyone off easily. He holds us all to a high standard. These verses have “examples of ways we should be generous and loving, expecting nothing in return. In fact, Jesus tells us (if we are willing to hear), ‘If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended?’ We are to ‘Be compassionate just as [God] is compassionate.’ Everything about this way of being in the world goes against the ways of the world. It is so counter-cultural that we may not be willing to hear.”
So, what ought we to do when we encounter an enemy?
It could be meeting a real White Sox fanatic, when your family has been Chicago Cubs fans for generations. Or, at this local election time of the year, it could be sitting at the lunch table or the senior center with someone who vocally supports someone from the opposite political party.
Dr. Margaret Ann Crain, a retired professor from my seminary, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, tells the following story. “Many years ago, when I was first employed by a congregation as an educator, I was appalled by the resistance that came from some members of the church. They made a show of walking out on the pastor when he began to preach each Sunday. They tried to stir up support for their point of view whenever the church council had a decision to make. I confess: I did not love them! But I also did not ever ask them to explain their point of view. They were enemies, and I didn’t listen to them. As I look back now, 40 years later, I really regret that response. If I had listened to them, I could have become more compassionate and understanding. They were faithful church members all their lives. I suspect that they had some faith-filled reasons for their resistance. Clearly, their methods were poorly chosen. Yet, they may have had important lessons that all of us needed to hear. I will never know because I did not love my enemies. I was not willing to hear what Jesus has to say to us today. Are you?”
What do we do when we meet someone who disagrees with us vehemently? Jesus says in verse 31, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” We are asked to do what to our enemies? Love them. We are told to treat others—all others—how? As we wish to be treated. Period. Jesus said it, and it is not an option.
Is this difficult? Well nigh impossible! Except—with God’s help. So help us God, help us love our enemies. Help us love them as we love You, and treat our enemies as we wish to be treated.