7th Sunday after The Epiphany Year C
Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th Century German philosopher, summed up the prevailing cultural mood of his day and maybe ours as well, when he wrote: “love for enemies is an ethic for cowards, deserving of contempt, not respect.”
But 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.
These are the words of Jesus, whom I would say was anything but a coward, deserving respect and even adulation. Someone whom his followers have tried to emulate for the last two thousand years with greater or lesser success.
Some of us may be thinking the familiar retort, “easy for you to say Jesus, we are not the Son of God, we’re just regular human beings, in fact we are fallen, sinful people who have a propensity to repay evil with good Old Testament ‘eye for an eye’ justice.
But it seems Jesus wants, even commands, his disciples to do just the opposite: to live our lives as an offering of love to everyone, maybe especially to our enemies. If someone hurts you by saying something disrespectful or you overhear a less than kind comment about some perceived short-coming you might have, our tendency is to fight back - to hurt the person who hurt us at least as bad as we have been hurt. This is our common human response. Yet Jesus, in no uncertain terms, tells us that is not his way or even God’s way.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Jesus is teaching us a new way to live and he lived his life as an example of that new way to live. As one of our prayers says, “the way of life is the way of the cross.” Or as Jesus himself said, “take up your cross and follow me, for those who lose their lives for me and the sake of the Gospel will find it.”
Jesus’ teaching is totally counter-cultural, counter-intuitive, counter to what every fiber in our being wants to do when someone has wronged us. And yet, somehow, this is God’s way, this is Jesus’ way, the way of love and the way of life.
Our Hebrew scripture reading today illustrates something of this new way of life when Joseph confronts his older brothers who had him sold into slavery in Egypt because he was his father Jacob’s favorite. You remember Joseph and the coat of many colors, how Joseph flaunted his favorite-son status before his older brothers so much so, that they plotted to kill him. But in the end God spared his life so that he could become a blessing to the very same brothers who had betrayed him. Joseph said to his brothers:
And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life ... What you meant for evil, God meant for good.
Joseph did what Jesus was teaching his followers to do, love and forgive their enemies. Remember what Jesus said on the cross, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Because that’s true, most of us know very little about what’s going on in the larger scheme of people’s lives. And all of our motives are mixed, but sometimes, with the Spirit’s help we are able to overcome our baser instincts and love our enemies.
Jack Kornfield tells a story that illustrates Jesus’ point: No matter how extreme the circumstances, a transformation of the heart is possible.
A fourteen year-old boy in Washington DC had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang. At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the murder. After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” The youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.
After about six-months, the mother of the slain teenager went to visit his killer. He had been homeless, living on the streets before the killing and she was the only visitor he had had. They talked for a time and when she left she gave him some money for anything he might need. She started step by step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts. Near the end of his three-year sentence she asked him what he would be doing when he got out.
He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to set him up with a job at a friend’s company. Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to go home to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job she had found for him. Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk. She asked,
“Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?”
“I sure do,” he replied.
“Well, I did,” she went on. “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth. I wanted him to die. That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things. That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house. That’s how I set about killing you. And that old boy, he’s gone. So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll make this your home. I’ve got an extra room and I’d like to adopt you if you’d let me.” And she became the mother of her son’s killer, the mother he never had.
That is a picture of the God who loves each of us and who calls us to love our enemies.