Series: October 2023
Speaker: Bethany Nelson
Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me! Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers;
say to my soul, “I am your salvation.” Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me. Let them be like chaff before the wind, with the angel of the Lord driving them on. Let their way be dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them. For without cause they hid their net for me; without cause they dug a pit for my life. Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.
“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.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus can sure pack a lot of wisdom into just a few sentences. There is a lot going on here. So much, in fact, that I am only going to focus on the second half of this passage today. If you’re interested in hearing more about the first half, I encourage you to the “sermons” page of our website (wpctiburon.org) and look up the sermon from February 19. That is an entire sermon on the first half of this passage that I preached earlier this year. The highlight? Jesus is not telling us to let ourselves be taken advantage of when he says to turn the other cheek or go the extra mile. Instead, he is encouraging to break the cycle of violence. To not respond to hate with more hate or to evil with more evil.
Which leads us nicely to the second part of this passage. Love your enemies, says Jesus. Pray for those who persecute you. This passage has been on my mind a lot over the last month, thanks to our friend, WPC member Scotty. Two different times in the last several weeks, during our joys and concerns time, Scotty has raised his hand and said two things – “prayers for Ukraine” and “pox on Putin.” Both times when he said this, I responded by saying, “Remember that Jesus calls us to love our enemies.” Both times, that was my knee jerk, in the moment response. We can’t pray for a pox on someone in the middle of worship ... can we?
Or can we? God already knows what is in our hearts. Why not speak aloud all our emotions? It is important to give voice to both what brings us joy and what troubles us. We shouldn’t feel like we have to keep silent about anything in the presence of God. Praying for God to curse our enemies actually has a special name - “imprecatory” prayer. We see examples of this throughout the Psalms. Listen again to the Psalm we heard today. “Fight against those who fight against me! Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers. Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life. Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me. Let their way be dark and slippery. Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.”
I know there are many people in our world who would not be sad if some of those things happened to Putin, this person who is responsible for so much violence and so much death. In fact, after one of the Sundays when Scotty offered his prayer request, I received an email from a different church member saying, “Know that others at church are wishing a pox on Putin too.” It makes sense to want to ask God to bring destruction upon someone who has caused so much destruction.
But then, Jesus inserts himself right into the middle of our imprecatory prayers. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …” Gee whiz Jesus, don’t you know how hard that is?
Actually, I think Jesus knew exactly how hard that is. And yet, he tells us to do it anyway. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. He not only teaches it, he lives it. In his last moments of life, while hanging on the cross, Jesus calls on God to forgive his enemies. “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
A few things to consider. First, love can have a lot of different meanings. When Jesus says to love our enemies, he is likely referring not to emotions, but to actions. We don’t need to have warm, fuzzy feelings for our enemies, but we are called to act in a positive way. For example, we walk a second mile, or we turn the other cheek. We do not retaliate. We do not respond to violence with violence.
Second, this does not mean that we ignore our upset and angry emotions. Theologian Douglas Hare makes the point that righteous indignation at the misdeeds of others is a very important human emotion. It is the power behind the struggle for justice. We don’t condone evil or appease bullies. We see someone being mistreated, and we get angry, and we work to make it right. But we can do this while still treating our enemies with love because they, too, are children of God.[i]
This sounds like a hard, if not impossible task, right? Jesus then ends the passage by seemingly making things even harder. “Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But before you throw in the towel, know that Jesus is not trying to set impossible goals or shame us when we can’t reach perfection. He is simply encouraging us to do what he has urged people to do throughout his ministry, which is to be a part of creating God’s kingdom here on earth. A big part of that kingdom – the most important part of that kingdom – is love. We create God’s kingdom on earth when we love with the perfect, unconditional love, of God. When we love all God’s children just as God does.
We can do this. We can do this because we each have experienced the love of God. Pastor and author Barbara Essex explains it like this, “The capacity for this kind of love is due to the empowering love given by God. We are able to be gracious, forgiving, hospitable, and generous because we are children of the God who showers us with abundant grace, mercy, love, and protection. Those who know God’s love now can love their enemies; those who experience God’s forgiveness now can forgive those who persecute them; those who claim God’s gift of generosity can now give back to those who have little or nothing. ‘Be perfect’ is not an indictment; it is a promise that carries the possibility that we may love the world as God has loved us – fully, richly, abundantly, and completely.”[ii]
Now, Essex also notes that we will always be caught in the tension between human nature and being children of God. At times, we are still, like the Psalmist, going to pray for evil to befall our enemies. It is human nature. And still, God is going to work in and through us. Our work is to open ourselves to that perfect love from God, so that we may then share that perfect love with the world. Over time, perhaps we notice that our imprecatory prayers decrease and our prayers of love for our enemies increase. Perhaps we love by establishing a firm boundary in a relationship that needs ending, while knowing that God continues to love that person. Perhaps we work for justice while reminding ourselves that our enemy is also a child of God. And, day by day, as we love just as God has loved us, we get just a little bit closer to creating God’s kingdom here on earth – a kingdom filled with perfect love. Amen.