Brief synopsis of the readings: In Leviticus God commands that Moses forbid hatred between his people. If someone commits a sin he should be told of the offense and not exact revenge or vengeance. Matthew’s Gospel continues from last week. Here Jesus speaks about how the Old Testament demands “an eye for an eye.” But Jesus tells them this isn’t enough. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other. Furthermore, do not hate one who hates you. Instead you must love your enemy. Loving only those who love you is not enough.
I’ve been writing these homilies since July of 2013 and I try to find a balance. I attempt to dig into the readings and see them through the lens of what we experience today. My goal is to see these readings as relevant to our lives today. It’s a tough balance because I don’t wish to do the opposite: see today’s events and look to Scripture to back up my opinion.
But the events of the last few weeks compel me to push the envelope, just a little. Since 1953 the White House has hosted a prayer breakfast that gathers the President and several clergy members. This year it was held on February 6th and Harvard professor Arthur Brooks spoke. He quoted today’s Gospel and the command to love our enemies. The President responded by saying that “I don’t know if I agree with you” and used his time to criticized his enemies.
I think we can all agree that the command to love your enemies wasn’t Professor Brooks’ words, but Jesus’. I’ve often told my patients and families that choosing Christianity isn’t for those who desire easy lives. Christianity calls us to words and actions that place us in difficult and unpopular positions, and perhaps none more than today’s readings.
Some of our earliest memories as children remind us of our desire for friends. My longest uninterrupted friendship goes back to Jim in 8th grade. Because of Facebook I’ve reconnected with (another) Jim who I first met in kindergarden. The ability to make and keep friends dramatically informs healthy lives long into adulthood and even in our later years.
But, let’s face it, we also acquire enemies. It’s part of our human experience, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we encounter people who deeply hurt us or people we love, or who stand for things horrify us. Simply put, we cannot befriend these people because we cannot appear to support what they feel, believe or do.
And that’s understandable but Jesus demands that we progress beyond this. When we look at our friends we hope that we will remain friends forever and Jesus looks on this with approval. But we part ways with Jesus when we look on our enemies and shut down the possibility that they will ever not be our enemies.
If someone violates our values enough that we cannot befriend that person Jesus demands that we recognize the possibility of reconciliation. Jesus demands that look at our enemies not with contempt but with love. Jesus demands that we see them as having access to God’s love as much as we do.
I’ll admit I’m a history buff and I often look at current events through the lens of history. In the 20th Century our world suffered through two world wars (that we now call World War I and World War II) and I think they tell us a great deal about today’s readings.
World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918. It’s much more complex but for our purposes let us say that Germany lost and England and France won. World War I destroyed land and economies and devastated populations. At the end of the war England and France demanded that Germany be punished. They demanded reparations that ensured that Germany could not recover; simply put they sought revenge. The German people suffered so much that they turned to someone who promised a better future. Adolf Hitler told Germans that fascism and antisemitism would lead them back to power and they believed him.
Twenty one years after the end of one world war Europe found itself caught in World War II. Six years later much of Europe, Japan, and several Pacific Islands lay smoldering in ruins and only the United States held the ability to heal the world.
And I can’t say this strongly enough: the United States acted in exactly the way Jesus commands all of us: we loved our enemies. While the Soviet Union spent the rest of the 1940s gobbling up Eastern Europe the United States got to work rebuilding previous enemies even though 405,000 Americans died in the war. We didn’t want a healed nation, we wanted a healed world. After Pearl Harbor, after the Holocaust, after the Battle of Britain, after the Battle of the Bulge, after Iwo Jima, after Guadacanal, and after Okinawa, we decided to love our enemies.
The United States wasn’t in good shape. During the war we stopped building cars, we rationed gasoline, silk, and sugar. Windows in homes across the country showed gold stars that announced the death of a family member.
But when it was over we didn’t treat our enemies with contempt but with love. We recognized the revenge sought with Germany in 1918 didn’t lead to peace but another war. And we recognized that the populations of Germany and Japan were no longer our enemies. Today they are our allies and our trading partners. Our relationship benefits both of us.
When Jesus commanded us to love our enemies he didn’t want us to be weak or be victims. He recognized that when good triumphs over evil, good only remains good if it doesn’t see evil as remaining evil.
That’s a hard concept today. Too often our leaders use tragedy as a tactic to to their advantage and use victory as a way of destroying their enemies.
It’s not easy to be Christian but today, more than ever, calls us to love our enemies enough to pray they change. And (not to put too fine a point on this) it calls us to recognize the times when we are on the wrong side of right and we need to listen to why they are praying for us.