Sunday, February 20th 2022
“Love Your Enemies?” Reflections given by the Rev. Joe Summers at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation
Readings for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany (c): Genesis 45:3-11,15, Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42, I Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50, Luke 6:27-38
Note: This reflections looks at Jesus’ call to love our enemies within the context of Luke and Matthew’s versions of the beatitudes which I have copied at the end of these reflections.
Sometimes when we hear the scriptures it’s like grace itself just lands on us, drops on us, as we can so hear and experience what God is about, what God is saying to us. Other times we have to wrestle with the scriptures, like Jacob wrestling with God, to get a blessing from them. This should not be surprising given how we often hear the scriptures through the cultures and ideologies of colonialism, patriarchy, individualism, capitalism, ego-psychology, meritocracy and its counterpart—various systems of shaming. It wasn’t only enslaved African Americans whose first encounter with the bible was the way their masters were using it to justify their abuse. Those who have sought to conquer, control and exploit others have constantly striven to make God and the Bible in their own image. This is part of why learning the different texts we find in the bible is so helpful. You can make any one text in the bible justify almost anything, but when you listen to the variety of voices and perspectives in the bible—this is so much harder to do.
In Luke’s gospel today we hear; “ Jesus said, ‘I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also’.” Love your enemies? How many women have heard this as a text that says they should tolerate their violent partner’s abuse? How many poor and exploited people throughout history have been told this is what they must do to get into heaven? If we don’t hear this as totally bad news, something that would make things worse, it’s so easy to hear it as simply impossible, or something we could only do at the price of cutting ourselves off from our humanity.
Today I want to look at Jesus’ call to love our enemies within the context of Luke and Matthew’s different versions of the Beatitudes. Looking at them together gives us a fuller picture of what each is saying and what this call to love your enemies is really about . This is important not only because it is one the most misunderstood of Jesus’s teachings, but I also think it’s one of the key issues we’re facing in this time.
First of all, it’s important to note the different context for Luke and Matthew’s versions of the Beatitudes. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes up onto a mountain top and presents this teaching to his disciples. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus has been up on a mountain praying and he comes down from the mountain and presents these teachings, not just to his disciples but to the great multitude that has been following him looking for healing, people from all over Judea, Jerusalem and the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon. In Luke’s gospel Jesus presents these teachings while standing on a level place. For Luke this is significant because for social equality is at the heart of the Good News so he’s presenting Jesus as talking to people face to face, not from above them. We will come back to the importance of Matthew’s having Jesus present these teaching to a small group of disciples rather than the masses.
In Luke’s gospel we hear that Jesus then “looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Human One. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets."
These four proclamations of blessing parallel Matthew’s nine statements of blessing beginning with “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” and ending with “Blessed are you who are persecuted for my sake.” But rather than presenting Matthews more extensive list of who God is choosing to bless, to lift up, Luke instead goes on to say who is going to be cast down.
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
They are hard words. While part of me rejoices in them, another part immediately feels empathy for the rich, the full, those who are laughing and those who all speak well of. I think we are meant to feel empathy as we hear they are headed into pain.
It’s also so striking to me that these words come from Luke, because in so many ways, especially in contrast to Matthew, Luke is the brother who doesn’t like conflict, who wants everybody to be happy and get along. For example, in the Book of Acts, Luke seems to cover over some of the conflicts among the disciples. He suggests the conflict over Jewish and Gentile Christians breaking bread together was resolved through a divine revelation that came through a dream Peter had, rather than the kind of public confrontation and conflict Paul speaks about having with Peter in his Letter to the Galatians. Luke’s gospel is the gospel in which the Christmas angel says to the Shepherds “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” so why does he go out of his way to proclaim that, at least initially, the wealthy and powerful are going to be unhappy?
It’s because, for Luke, the Kingdom of God is about a new order in our world, a new social order, a new social reality which, we hear in his Book of Acts, turns the current world order upside down. In other words, Luke making sure we don’t spiritualize Jesus teaching to the extent that they no longer have earthly implications. He’s calling on us to recognize that, at least initially, some are going to be terrified, or horrified, or grief stricken about this new social reality, much as the Southern Planter class reacted when those they had enslaved won their freedom. In other words, Luke is trying to wake us up to the implications of the call to love as a call to social equality.
Now, we need to be careful here. Part of the culture of domination has been to teach us the idea that we live in a meritocracy in which some deserve to be rewarded and some to be punished. If we read the text through that lens we can hear it simply as a call simply to reverse whose being punished and whose being rewarded. That might lead us to rejoice in the suffering of others. Rejoicing in the suffering of others seems the very opposite of the call to love. I don’t hear Luke calling for punishment, but rather the transformation necessary for us to be able to live together in peace. As Luke says early in his gospel, for peace to reign on earth, for all of humanity to see salvation—the valleys must be raised up and the mountains brought low. The poor and poor in Spirit must become strong and claim their voice and, in Mary’s words, the proud must be scattered in the imagination of their hearts. This is because the reason why the poor have so little and suffer as they do is precisely because of the way the wealthy have claimed our common resources as their private possessions. If you’ve lived your whole life feeling your identity is based on being above and separate from others and feeling secure because of your ability to control others through wealth and coercion, true social equality may sound like death itself. And that’s usually how the wealthy and powerful have responded to movements for social equality, whether they were on Southern Plantations, or in Northern Industrial Cities, or even in more liberal towns like Ann Arbor. It’s painful.
It’s also striking to me that Matthew, who is so focused on justice issues, and who so clearly portrays how those who reject the reign of love are going to suffer-- doesn’t do it here. I suspect it’s because he doesn’t want to give Jesus’ disciples any grounds for judging others.
Now, immediately following the statements of blessings and woes in Luke’s gospel, Jesus then goes on to call on those who are listening to love evil doers, just as God does, not because of the evil they do ( God hates the evil they do) but because God loves all people, as incomprehensible as that may be to us. So much of what we hear in this section sounds like the bad news that we’re supposed to be like little gods who go around tolerating evil because we’re so spiritual.
Here is where I find Matthew’s version of the beatitudes to be a helpful corrective because in Matthew gospel these aren’t just some vague instructions about being kind. Rather they reflect Matthew’s understanding that it is going to be in and through those who God is choosing to lift up, the poor in spirit, those who are hungry and thirsty or homeless, those hungering for justice and peace, those being persecuted for pursuing social transformation, who are also going to be the means through which God’s will is going to be done on earth as it is in heaven. For Matthew, this is what it means to be a disciple, one who is about this work. This work is not for the faint hearted and needs to be understood in the context of Jesus’ other teachings, which is I suspect why Matthew presents Jesus giving these instructions to his disciples, rather than the masses.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus’s proclamation of the blessings are immediately followed by the proclamation: “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world.” You are the light of the world. What kind of blasphemy is that? Isn’t God the light of the world? Isn’t Jesus the light of the world? Yes, and Matthew says, and as a God follower, you are also to be the light of the world.
Matthew then goes on to specify how this God revolution, this social revolution, is going to happen: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
Not knowing the context, this can sound like a call to be nice while being abused. Instead, Matthew’s listeners would have heard it as a call to the kind of non-violent truth struggle that Gandhi and Martin Luther King saw as the only effective way to overthrow the systems of domination and exploitation.
Matthew specifies what to do if you are struck on the “right” cheek. His audience would have known that when someone strikes you on the right check that it was not a direct punch but a back slap. This was the blow people at the time used against those they viewed as their social inferiors. It was a blow designed not just to inflict pain but to humiliate and establish who is superior and who is inferior. The backslap was how masters hit their slaves, husbands hit their wives, parents their children. If you turn the other cheek, that is the left cheek, they would have had to punch you directly which in that time would have signified that you were their equal. In other words, turning the other cheek was a strategy for affirming your worth, your equality, without automatically getting you killed.
Matthew’s audience knew that if someone took your coat, it would have been for the failure to repay a loan for which people put up their coats as collateral. If in the process of giving whoever gave you the loan also the undergarment you wore beneath your coat, it would not only would have shown the world what they were doing to you, but it would also have shamed them for in the Jewish world it was considered shameful to look on someone who was naked. It’s the strategy Francis embraced in dealing with his wealthy father who had taken him to court for giving his money to the poor. It was the strategy the Doukhobors in Canada have used when they feel others are trying to persecute or coerce them. It’s surprisingly effective.
Matthew’s audience would also have understood the Roman law that said that Roman soldiers could force you to carry their heavy backpacks for one mile, but no more than that. Thus carrying a pack for longer puts the soldier in the position of having to ask you to put down their pack. This reverses the power dynamic.
In other words, the original context for these teachings was about strategies to affirm your human dignity, your equality, and put an ax to the humiliating experiences and the ideologies that lead some to see themselves as superior to others, which is the foundation of the domination system. For Matthew, being a disciple is not just about being blessed and healed by God, it is about revealing the contradiction between how those doing evil view themselves and how they are behaving. This was part of how Gandhi’s movement overthrew British imperialism in India and the Civil Rights’ movement overthrew white supremacy in the South. It’s the opposite of cooperating with abuse.
This morning Robert Thurman and Sharon Salzberg were on “On Being” speaking of ways Buddhism can help us further understand this call to love your enemies in way that doesn’t dehumanize us. Thurman pointed out that whereas Jesus was only able to teach his disciples for 3 to 4 years the Buddha got to teach his disciples for 46 years so he had much more time to explain his teachings and how they worked. Buddha taught people to love their enemies because “hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can drive out hate.” That’s something that I believe Martin Luther King used to quote. From their talk I heard three things that seem vital.
First, we cannot love our enemies in a good or helpful way, unless we learn to love ourselves. Thus we might want to first take these teachings and apply them not to our enemies but to ourselves. Can we learn to practice loving kindness with ourselves by holding ourselves in love despite all the things we’ve done, or had done to us, that we hate? We then might want to try applying these teachings to our friends and loved ones or people in our community. I suspect you can’t sustain any loving relationships over time without learning to respond in ways that are both lovingly truthful and non-retaliatory.
Secondly, Buddhism teaches there is an in-between state between hating our enemies and loving our enemies which is the state of not hating our enemies. From what I understood this seems to begin with having compassion on ourselves, in part by letting ourselves feel our hatred for our enemies and then reflecting on the real consequences of our hatred and the way it consumes us and twists us. It helps us to see that though we may not love our enemies, we don’t want to let the harms they have done us further victimize us, so we begin to let go of hatred. Importantly, letting go of hatred is not about letting go of anger, because anger can be a source not only of vital energy but also of fierce mental clarify. We may want to transform our anger, but we need that energy and intellectual insight.
Third, only after having learned to love ourselves, might we learn to love our enemies, by seeing how the harms they have done, or are doing, are rooted in their woundedness and fear. Loving others is about desiring their well-being. Desiring the happiness of our enemies is not simply for their sake, but also for the sake of others, because if become happy they are less likely to harm others.
I find all of these ideas helpful as we consider how we might love our enemies in a way that doesn’t do violence to us and helps promote justice, peace, equality and real healing.
Now to return to Matthew’s version of the beatitudes. While I embrace Matthew’s vision that we need to learn to live and act from a place of Godly love, that is a place of understanding , creative, redemptive good will for all, I have a strongly negative reaction to the way Matthew concludes these teaching by having Jesus say “Be ye perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.” Whatever perfection meant in Matthew’s time it clearly has comes to means something radically different now because in our world the whole vision of perfectionism is totally inhuman and tied to an idolatrous conception of what’s possible, and that vision of meritocracy which keeps people from doing the very things Matthew is calling us to do. So here I find it’s helpful to turn back to Luke and his translation of this text which does not hold up perfection but rather compassion: “Be ye compassionate/merciful as God is compassionate/merciful.”
So---what I hope you are hearing today, through Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels is the nature of the Good News.
First, that the Beatitudes, God’s blessings, are about God’s new creation, who God is choosing to uplift to create a new social reality so that peace and love can reign on earth through equality and justice.
Secondly, that the blessing of this new creation is going to happen through God’s working through human beings, and often the very human beings who have been seen as the cursed of the world.
It’s a stunning revelation. It seems impossible. I suspect this is part of why Paul talks about how with God all things are possible and why he is so insistent that just as God has raised Jesus from the dead so, even now, God is working in us to raise us from the dead so that we might help to give birth to a new world.
For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us. Amen