Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” In this series called “Straight Talk,” God has been saying some blunt things to us, and the scriptures have been speaking for themselves.
“Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God…” (Micah 6:8)
“…let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)
“…when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
God has a vision – and an expectation – that God’s people will be somehow different from “normal” human beings, and that their presence in the world will make a positive difference for other people. Thank God we don’t do this alone. When you have faith, God living in you makes it possible. Jesus has high expectations when it comes to forgiveness, and you’ll hear it once again in this passage from Matthew:
Matthew 5:38-48. ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
For most of us, unless you have no computer or television, the news from outside the United States has been hard to escape; the Olympics have been getting a lot of attention over the last couple of weeks. The thrill of victory, the agony… (of defeat – an old ABC introduction to Olympic programming). It’s a kind of a nice diversion.
Then, mixed with the news about how many medals the United States teams have won and stories about judging controversies, we get first-hand reports about violence in the Ukraine, Somalia, and Syria. The civil war in Syria and thousands of people have died. Such a contrast, this expression of healthy competition and mindless bloodshed.
About 2,000 years ago, the news coverage was different, but the situation was basically the same. The original Olympics were happening every few years in Greece, and on the evening news, if it were possible, you’d see images of violence.
It was south of Syria, just over the border in Palestine that Jesus was speaking to a crowd of people who knew all about violence, saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). Probably one of the most well-known scriptures in the Bible – because it is so hard to do. I wonder how many people have read that passage and thought, “Well, I guess I just can’t be a good Christian.” And if that wasn’t enough, Jesus says, “Be perfect.” Be perfect.
Let’s put ourselves in the place of the people who first heard those words.
Jesus is in Galilee, being followed by huge crowds who have come from many miles around, even from other countries (see 4:24-25). They are mostly are mostly Jewish, but many are not, and they have at least one thing in common: They are coming, they are gathering, because they wanted to be healed from something and they’ve heard Jesus can make that happen. This is also the place where Jesus gave an evening meal to 5,000 people. So, they’ve left work and the daily routine of life and walked a long walk to be healed. Or get something to eat.
To put yourself in that crowd, maybe it would help to think of that one thing that needs healing in your life – how far would you drive to have it fixed, immediately, by Jesus? What are you hungry for?
One other thing everyone in this crowd has in common is the Romans – an occupying army that keeps everybody under control with brutal force (usually with the help of upper class folks with money). This crowd is defenseless and poor. They have no power and not much meaningful control over their lives. That would be the Romans over on that other hilltop, the guys with the helmets and the swords. They don’t like crowds, because crowds can breed a kind of contagious hatred. Violence. Jesus might be pointing at them as he is yelling to the crowd, “Love your enemies!”
Can you hear them grumbling? Unhappy? I walked all this way to be healed, and I have to listen to this?
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44)
Jesus said “love your enemies” because God does, and you are God’s family. God would like to have a relationship with your enemies, and you might be getting in the way. “Be perfect – (not perfect in yourself or for yourself, but) as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word perfect in that verse should really be translated as “complete, or “whole.”
When you see the enemy as God sees them, as an object of love, just like you, then you become a complete person. Perfect! If you want to be healed, love your enemies.
And then to illustrate what he said, one of the first things Jesus did next was heal the servant of a Roman centurion and give the centurion high marks for his faith (8:5-13).
The love Jesus wants from us is less about warm, fuzzy greeting cards than about our willingness to walk in other peoples’ shoes.
The love Jesus wants is that willingness, with the help of God, to get our minds off of ourselves, in our relationships, in our life together, and in our worship. Off of ourselves and on to others. If you are prone to being offended and reactionary, ask God to help you overcome that addiction. The love of God sets people free, it breaks down barriers. It brings a new outlook on life. It heals relationships, gives us the ability to let it go. It brings people together. Faith in Jesus gives his followers the power to do these things. The love of God is dangerous, because it disrupts a world that loves to hate.
The problem with us is that we can have enemies and be enemies at the same time. You might need to stop for a moment, and think on how you might have, or have had, an enemy. I think that might go beyond petty disagreements to some form of warfare. Now, God never said don’t protect yourself from danger, but have you let it go yet? Is it possible that there is someone in your life who needs a break from you? Remember, last week Jesus said, “…leave your gift (for God) at the altar and go, be reconciled. (5:24) It’s not just about another person; your relationship with God depends on this.
If we love our enemies will everybody be happy? Will life be peaceful? Probably not. But you will be more complete.
As you think about the life of Jesus, remember he had a habit of ignoring tradition; breaking the rules; upsetting certain people. He didn’t come to make people happy. Jesus came to make them whole.
Prejudices and habits are hard to break, even when we know that the change is for our own good sometimes. We are used to our prisons, we feel secure in our prisons, but Jesus keeps offering the key that unlocks doors: the strength to love.
Our potential for hatred never goes away. It’s long been known that hate crimes increase during a recession, and we’ve seen it just this week in the news (some young college guys put a noose around the neck of a statue in Mississippi). When we have a crisis in our lives, financial or otherwise, we need a scapegoat -someone to blame. Hatred can be addictive.
In 1992, Time Magazine (February 17, 1992; pp. 14-16) ran a story about the relationship of two men from Lincoln, Nebraska: Larry Trapp and Michael Weisser. When they met, Larry was the Grand Dragon of the Nebraska Klu Klux Klan and a member of the American Nazi Party. Michael was the cantor in a local synagogue. Larry hated Michael. Larry’s job was to hate and spread hatred.
Larry harassed and threatened Michael. He made phone calls, he sent hate mail, and Michael was pretty frightened. He knew who was doing these things, but there was no way to prove it. There was nothing he could do… but talk to Larry. So Michael called Larry. At first he reached only an answering machine, so he would leave messages. “Larry, you’d better think about all this hatred you’re doing, that you’re involved with, because you’re going to have to deal with God one day and it’s not going to be easy.” Although Michael was angry, he tried not to express anger on the phone. He kept leaving messages.
One day, in the middle of one of Michael’s messages, Larry Trapp picked up the phone. “What do you want? You’re harassing me!”
Now Michael knew that Larry was in a wheelchair and had a hard time getting around, so he asked him if maybe he needed a ride to the grocery store. Suddenly, the anger went out of Larry’s voice and he said, “No, I’ve got that taken care of, but thanks for asking.”
Larry and Michael never actually met until sometime later when Larry called Michael to say, “I want to get out of this and I don’t know how.”
Michael and his wife went to Larry’s house. They brought dinner and a peace offering: a silver ring. When Michael touched his hand, Larry burst into tears.
Larry already had silver rings, one on each hand, both with swastikas. He took them off and gave them to the Weissers. “Take these rings. They symbolize hatred and evil, and I want them out of my life.” And he put the Weissers’ ring on his finger.
What a feeling that is; being able to take your hatred, your sin, identify it with an object, and then bury that object or give it away. This is what the cross of Jesus is: the place where sin is nailed; where it dies with Jesus. Ultimately, the greatest healing miracle Jesus does is to remove the burden of sin from a crowd of people -people like you and me -and bury it in a tomb in Jerusalem. Then we are free to love. Sure, we fall sometimes, but we get back up and keep going. In the kingdom of God, quitting is worse than falling.
Our faith in the living Jesus conquers hatred and sets us free -in our families, our church, our community, our country, and our world. It begins within each of us. It begins with faith in the one who sets us free.
The Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.