February 16, 2020

Epiphany 6A

Love Your Enemies


Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ` ‘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 he makes his 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.   Matthew  5:38-48



“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Most would agree that this is a hard teaching.  Where I grew up in the Sicilian section of Brooklyn, this gospel was so counter culture that it could only be judged, not just a hard, but even an impossible teaching.

The responses to this teaching could range from:  “Yeah, well that was back then, this is now.” OR “Well, Jesus could do it because he was God, He can’t expect s mere human beings to do that.”  OR Since it was Brooklyn, someone would certainly have said, “Whadaya nuts!”

The culture seemed to prefer this wisdom: “If they beat you up, beat them up.  Don’t get mad get even. Fire when ready, and take no hostages.  Fuggetabout turning the other cheek, give them the back of your hand.”  Even within a family, it was considered within bounds, to hold a grudge, at least until that next funeral.  At wakes it was not unusual to witness public displays of long overdue reconciliation.  

When we think about it there always seem to be just too many innocent people suffering at the hands of tyrants; just too many innocent people suffering at the hands of political leaders, government agents, judicial systems; just too many innocent people suffering at the hands of abusive family members and abusive would-be friends, to make this scripture acceptable – at least at first glance.

And maybe we would be nutz to take it seriously.  But given the condition of this world, and the condition of so many relationships, is their any evidence that hatred and revenge really work.  Consider Israel and Palestine – seventy-one years and counting.

And so, maybe we would do well not dismiss the passage too hastily. Rather let’s give it another chance to speak its spirit-freeing message to us.

Jesus asks a lot, a whole lot.  He is not asking us to try a slightly improved way of living.  He is not asking us to embrace a differently nuanced ethical code, a notch or two above other codes.  He is not asking for a behavior change that good people, with a little extra effort, might implement.  

No, Jesus is introducing something entirely new. He is proposing a new way to live with one another.  He is offering a new way to be in relationship with each other. Those who enter this new way, this new reign, this kingdom of God, find themselves animated by a different Spirit. Jesus invites us to engage a new model.  It involves a paradigm shift. In the language of today, Jesus is offering the possibility of a serious and even costly upgrade in the software of our minds and hearts. 

If Jesus were asking for conformity to a more difficult external standard, this would only doom us to greater failure.  Look at our track record in keeping the commandments. No, He is offering us the grace to live life from a radically new place.  And if we take the gift, the perceived impossible becomes doable and, with practice, can even become second nature.   

The prophet Ezekiel spoke of the day of salvation as that day in which God would give us a new heart.  He would turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. For those who believe, it is the gift of a new heart that makes it possible to live life other than the way the world would have us live life.  

Jesus wills to place His Spirit within us.  But He does not force-feed us. The gift is freely given and it can only be freely received.  It is always a matter of choice. We must ask ourselves, “Do I want to live life animated by the Spirit of Jesus?  Do I want to live a counter-cultural life? Do I dare present myself as an oddity?  Do I dare risk the lot of those whom the world does not understand? Ridicules? Fears? And even would seek to destroy?”

After all, Christians are not just good people.  Good people love those who love them. Good people are good to those who are good to them.  Good people give to those who can be expected to return the favor. Rather Christians are people who live life from a different place,   because they know, in their bones, the power of God’s loving presence, such that they, in fact, live life not just from a different place but in a different place.  It is a place of deep awareness of the extraordinary texture and contours of the relationship with God into which we have been called  – a relationship of love, trust and joyful obedience.

The focal point for the Christian, who is in this world but not of this world, is always beyond the illusionary finality of death.  We keep before us, as part of the space we inhabit, that vision of where Home really is. Home is life within the mystery of God.  Home is life within the communion of Divine Love. 

And we are, in a very real sense, and this is the Good News, we are already Home.  We have already, in faith and by our commitment, taken up residence in that eternal dwelling place even now.  We are energized in the present moment by the eternal forever.  We can be radically different in all our relationships because we are grounded before all else in that relationship which is the loving of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. That blessed communion that is ours to embrace, engage and be bathed in each waking and sleeping moment of our lives. 

So what are the consequences of this gospel for those who have suffered abuse and who have been victimized?  To be sure, the words of Jesus are not an invitation to remain victims and suffer continuing abuse. Rather, Jesus’ teaching is about how not to be a victim.  Jesus is saying, “Take charge of your life and the situation.  Do not allow yourself to be controlled by or to have your responses determined by the action of the antagonistic and even hate-filled other.” 

Rather take the initiative in loving, caring, giving and forgiving. Whether with those who abuse or those who treat us favorably, our behavior is not to be determined by enemy or friend.  We behave based on the God we worship. “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” 

God does not withhold forgiveness from those who have not been friends.  God is not harsh to those who have not loved Him. Our norm is God – not the world.  God is always transforming and encouraging us to be as God is and has been. We are not to draw a circle around family, friends and good neighbors.  We don’t determine who is deserving of our love.  

With regard to victims – God initiates the work of reconciliation in the lives of victims.  We expect reconciliation to begin with the repentance of the wrongdoer. If it depended on this initiative, there would be no reconciliation.

God begins with the victim, restoring the humanity that has been damaged or destroyed.  The restoration of our humanity, as deeply loved by God, is the wellspring of reconciliation. In the ultimate victim, His crucified Son, God begins the process that leads to the reconciliation of the whole world. 

We are to develop and maintain the capacity to forgive.  Recognize the necessity of forgiving the offender. Forgiveness can only be initiated by the wronged.  This is what frees the spirit. 

But there is part two of the working out of this mystery of reconciliation.  The new heart that God gives us does make room for anger. However, this is not the reactive anger that we can so easily indulge and release.  There is anger and there is righteous anger.  

The first anger is our knee-jerk response to our being hurt.  I am sure that there is not one among us who has not experienced, even with some regularity this kind of anger.  With regard to this anger the scripture offers wise counsel. In the Letter of James we read, “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Instead of replying immediately, simply counting to ten before reacting usually leads to much better results in a contentious situation.

Righteous anger is a godly, good and even holy response on behalf of those who are made victims of the machinations of greed and power.  Righteous anger is the anger of God at the violation of the innocent. God takes the side of the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the oppressed. In the language of the scriptures, “widows and orphans” represent the vulnerable poor or powerless, in any age in in every generation, who know no protection before the merciless forces of the mighty.  

Racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities from age to age are singled out for abuse and made scapegoats. A few days ago, Rush Limbaugh, began to stroke the flames of homophobia in the fans of his champion, even as his champion protested that he would have no problem voting to elect someone like Mayor Pete.  This bad cop/good cop routine is most certainly calculated and so obviously transparent. Notice that Rush’s hero did not call out and indict the minion he honored with the Medal of Freedom.  

Promoting racial and ethnic purity, hatred of migrants, or strongman demagoguery, is a politics that is utterly opposite what the church calls us to be as Christians in the world.  

The Christians response to injustice is to be animated and fueled by the righteous anger of God.  We know that it is authentic when believers engage a response of solidarity, place themselves between the lash of the oppressor and the oppressed, take action to relieve the pain of those made to suffer, call out the evil and challenge the world of those who generate injustice with every non violent resource at their disposal.    

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “He that is angry without cause, shall be in danger; but he that is angry with cause, shall not be in danger: for without anger, teaching will be useless, judgments unstable, crimes unchecked,” and he concludes saying that “to be angry is therefore not always an evil and righteous anger must be our response to evil”.

Righteous  anger is the called for response to the mistreatment, insult, or malice directed at those whom the powers of this world would  brutalize and exclude. Righteous anger is the only form of anger which is not sinful.  Jesus regularly expressed this kind of anger at the political and religious hypocrtes of his day. 

So do not let the sun go down on your anger but let your righteous anger light up the world.  Then you will be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                                                                                                                 February 16, 2020