7th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

The most difficult of the Lord’s commands is also the most important question facing the world today. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, love your enemies.”  This great challenge is needs to be understood and obeyed hate seems to be growing and threatening.  Our politics are more combative and less sysmpathetic.  We see the vicious hurt of racism on the rise and the scourge of anti-Semitism has shown itself in our communities.  And this hatred is a global problem.  Let us not forget the new age of martyrdom inflicted upon Christians all over the world.  Eighty percent of religious violence occurs against Christians.

I am afraid that Jesus is losing the argument that we should love our enemies.  You might think that Jesus in losing many arguments now because we clearly do not love our neighbor as we should.  We are not as merciful as we have been called to be.  Nor do we let our light shine before others.  But I want to make a distinction.  While all that may be true, they are failures to live up to our best values.  We still seek vengeance, but very few would claim it as the moral high ground.  We may not forgive as we should, but we know that forgiveness is good, even physically healthy for us.  While we devolve into violence, we claim to strive for peace.

But there is something different in the commands to “turn the other cheek” or to “love your enemies.” I am not sure that people think it is even a good idea.  For example, if someone on a debate stage were to proclaim, “I will not turn the other cheek!” they would be met with thunderous applause.  And they would be directly contradicting Jesus!  Loving our enemies is seen as a sign of submission and of weakness.  Jesus seems to be losing the argument.

Of course it is an argument he cannot afford to lose for how and if we can live with each other hinges on loving our enemies.  Without love of enemies, positions become entrenched without the possibility of reconciliation.  Hope is vanquished and too often the dark specter of violence looms.  It is imperative to reclaim the value of love of enemies.

When Jesus gives us something hard, he makes sure it is not impossible.  When we love our enemies it is not a swooning, get goosebumps kind of love.  Love of enemies follows the classic definition of love “to will and do good for others.”  That is challenging enough, but there are ways for us to get there. The first is to seriously consider our enemy’s personhood.  How often we dismiss our enemies by demeaning them or referring to them as something other than human.  When you call someone a monster, you give yourself the right to hate for monsters have not rights; monsters must be slayed.  When we deprive someone of their humanity, we take away their story, the narrative that led them to the place you disagree with or is evil.  But everyone has a story and everyone’s story has meaning.  Secondly, we must do what Jesus calls us to do in the Gospel, “Pray for those who persecute you.” Our enemies take up a lot of space in our heads, sometimes even more than those we love.  Praying ensures that this relationship is something other than dark; that God mediates it.  Praying means we try to see our enemy through God’s eyes.

Failing to love our enemies corrupts our souls.  I doubt anyone woke up this morning looking forward to hating somebody all day.  We were built for something better than that.  Hatred turns us against our best selves.  Hatred turns us against the Spirit that is within us that longs for loving encounters.  Hatred leads to displacement, to hardness of heart, to embracing darkness.

Jesus knew this commandment would test us.  Perhaps that is why he ends this section with a plea, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That’s all we need to do – to be as perfect as God. But then he points out this is the way of divine love.  After all “if you love those who love you,” what’s the big deal, even tax collectors and pagans are capable of that.  We do not need a savior to love those who love you.  We need a savior for the harder stuff – to turn the other cheek; to love our enemy.  Only then can we break cycles of violence.  Only then can we achieve peace.  Only then can we begin anew. The hard work of a Christian is to love our enemies.  It just might save ourselves.  It just might save the world.