3 Put your trust in the Lord and do good; *
dwell in the land and feed on its riches.
4 Take delight in the Lord, *
and he shall give you your heart’s desire.
5 Commit your way to the Lord and put your trust in him, *
and he will bring it to pass. (Psalm 37)
Our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Luke continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. He has talked about blessings and woes. And today we hear the words of Jesus, “I say to you who are willing to hear, Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.” (CEB) These are great words. They are words that are life giving. They are words that are essential to the kingdom of God.
But often these words strike our ears and our hearts as being impossible. Certainly they are difficult words to follow. And some would say that Jesus could not possibly have meant for us to live this command out in real life. But all we need to do today is look around, open our ears, lift up our eyes and see that this command is not only essential, it is absolutely necessary for the survival of our world. For only love will save our world, love even for those we consider to be our enemies.
Daily we hear of anger that leads to violence. Hatred that leads to oppression. Diminishment of the other that allows policies and actions to destroy lives. There are still children on our southern border who do not know where their parents are and they are being held in prisons.
Our Roman Catholic brothers are facing the reality that priests, bishops, and cardinals have horrifically abused the children of God—men, women and children. The Pope has spoken loudly against the sin, but no change in policy has occurred. Our United Methodist brothers and sisters are meeting in convention to decide which parts of the body of Christ are non-essential to the health of the body. And the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, has decided to pull the welcome seat out from underneath the spouses of bishops who are gay or lesbian by refusing to allow them to attend the 2020 Lambeth Conference.
This hatred, violence, and dishonor is not a new occurrence in history. Jesus experienced anger and oppression and destruction in his time. He faced betrayal, even by his closest friends. He knew violence intimately. And I believe this is why Jesus is very serious when he gives this command in his sermon. He does not take lightly the call that love is the only way—even love of those who hate you, who curse you or who abuse you.
Now immediately I need to interject here. Jesus is not condoning abuse. Jesus is not telling those who will hear, that they should allow themselves to be harmed or degraded. Jesus condemns those who persecute and injure others and so should we. But Jesus says that there is another way to respond to this harm. That the way to destroy hate is not through more hating. That the way to end violence is not through more violence. Jesus does not ask anyone to resign themselves to oppression. Rather he says we must discover the power of love, because the only way forward will be through love.
How do we do this? It is often difficult for us even to regard those who hurt us or oppose us or curse us. How can we possibly love our enemies?
First let me describe the word “love” in this text. The Greek word used is agape. The Greek language has three words for love that captures the real meaning and depth of love. Eros is the kind of love that is aesthetic. It is a yearning of the soul for the beauty of the divine. It is a beautiful love where mysteriously you find someone who is attractive to you and so you pour out your like and your love on that person. It is the kind of love we read about in books and see in movies. It has come to be known as a sort of romantic love.
Philia is another type of beautiful love. It is the kind of intimate relationship you have with your best friends. It is the kind of love that gives and receives in equal measure. You like this person because he or she likes you. You have things you hold in common. It is easy to talk with this friend. And you like to be together sharing work and fun. This is philia.
Agape is a different kind of love. It is more than eros. It is beyond philia. Agape is a kind of love that does not expect anything in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of people. With agape you love someone, not simply because they are attractive or easy to be with or even likeable. You love them because God loves them. Because you are loved completely by God, you have an overflowing love that can love even those who are considered an “enemy.” Because we are loved endlessly by God, God working in us can undo the damage done by hatred.
And this is what Jesus means, I think, when he says, Love your enemy.” Jesus does not say we have to like their actions, or their beliefs. It does not mean that we stand by and ignore injustice. But Jesus says love is greater than all of this. Jesus loves others because God loves. Jesus says loving others means you do no harm, that you desire redemptive goodwill for all. You refuse to allow hatred to create a space in you that festers into desiring harm for someone. Hatred cannot flourish because you have agape in your soul.
So how do we love our enemy—or in the scripture the word echthros says—those we hate? First I believe we have to take a good look at ourselves. It is true some people treat us poorly just because they can. Some people disgorge their anger and their hopelessness on us because they have allowed hatred to take root and we just happen to get in the way. But sometimes we need to do some soul searching as to how we may have contributed to this hostility. We might discover that we have created an environment for distrust and anger because we have done something that aroused this response in the other. Maybe it was something we said, something we did, something we failed to do. It is often hard to recognize our own responsibility in the making of an enemy. This is what Jesus means when he says, “How is it that you see the splinter in your brother or sister’s eye and fail to see the log in your own.” (Luke 6:41) We also may need to take a look at how our own anger is being fed or how it is stoking some deep fire within us.
There is an old story where a man is telling his grandson that deep in us “there is a battle between two wolves that live inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, regret, greed, arrogance, lies, false pride. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, generosity, truth, compassion. The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Which wolf wins?” The grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”
Jesus is calling us to feed the good that is in us. It is easy these days to feed the part of us that runs on anger, and superiority and outright disgust with those we see on the other side of the political or religious or social chasm as a result of the constant bombardment of bad news. Enemies can draw us in so that we create mythical stories about them. We can become distorted ourselves. By creating such a strong force from our contempt, we can lose ourselves, we can stop thinking clearly. We can give ourselves over to an anger that is corrosive. Reclaiming God’s call to love as our first response, even our enemies, can be our saving grace.
The second way we can seek to love our enemy or those we see as the enemy is by working to see the good that is in them. Every time you begin to feel anger or bitterness or hate toward a person, recognize that there is good there as well. In each of us there is a bit of a wrestling match between our best selves and our less than best selves. As the apostle Paul lamented, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do regardless.” (Romans 7:15) Within the best of us, there is an impulse that can be unkind, a reaction that is dishonest, a twinge that takes delight in another’s downfall. And in the worst of us, there is, even if deeply hidden, a longing for beauty, and kindness, and love. Jesus calls us to look in the face of each person and see the image of God within. To remember that no matter what that person is or does, God’s image is there. No matter the harm a person does, there is an element of goodness that resides within that cannot be destroyed.
And love has within it a redemptive power. There is a power that transforms people. Jesus calls us to love our enemies because at the very root of love is the power of redemption. There is something about love that is creative and builds up. So in God, loving our enemies can be our enemy’s saving grace.
The third way to love your enemy is when an opportunity presents itself to defeat or shame or diminish your enemy, you do not do it. Rather than seeking revenge or retribution, you refuse to return hatred with hatred or violence with violence. There may come a time when the person or persons you harbor the harshest feelings toward, the one who has hurt you or diminished you or caused you shame, you will have the chance to turn the tables on that person—you will have the opportunity to get back at that person. It may come when the person is vulnerable, or it may come when they are strong. You may have the opportunity to speak against the person privately or publicly, have the chance to open or close doors for them, or simply be present or unavailable in their life. Jesus calls those who seek to follow him to instead of going where your anger or hostility leads you, to instead choose love.
That is the meaning of the kind of love Jesus talks about. It’s not sentimental. It is not based on reciprocity. It is not even based on liking the person. It is a creative desire for the other’s redemption. We must recognize and act accordingly that hatred will never end by hating more, that violence and war will never be ended by more violence and more war. We are called as followers of Jesus Christ to be the ones where the chain of hate and violence ends. Love is the only thing that redeems. Loving our enemies can be our world’s saving grace.
Our scripture readings this morning opens with the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. Despite their treatment of him–almost killing him and then selling him into slavery– Joseph has achieved great success in life. Now he has his brothers right where he wants them. They are desperate and afraid. They are hungry and without any possibilities. But Joseph has agape in his heart and so he draws them to him and tells them that though they intended harm, God has redeemed the story. Love will win even when it means loving those you hate or those who are your enemies. It seems improbable. But time and again, God working in us redeems our story and the stories of those we consider “other.” It will only be through love –even our enemies– where we will find our saving grace.