Matthew 5:38-48 – The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany – for Sunday, February 19, 2017
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you . . .” (Matthew 5:44)
I know his name.
I know his habits.
I know his weaknesses.
And I also know his strengths, and the ways that he can undermine me, hurt me, and often leave me battered and then walk away as if nothing happened. The “battered” is more metaphorical, based on the way he works, but if I don’t show any bruises after an encounter with him, it doesn’t mean his words or actions didn’t hurt me.
I am, of course, my own worst enemy. I pondered that while reading Jesus’ words in Matthew’s fifth chapter: “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you . . .”
What I pray is often not what I say.
What I say is often not what I do.
How often do I act with more hypocrisy than holiness? Am I not my own worst enemy by my two-faced omissions and false admissions? And yet I don’t suppose Jesus was referring to our private stares in the figurative mirrors of our lives as the reminder of who our enemies are.
I get the historic context of Jesus’ call to the love the enemy.
He lived under the cruel rule of the Roman Empire. The enemy was obvious in the corrupt regional rulers, the sharp spears of the foreign soldiers, and the endless edicts from a Caesar that no Palestinian farmer or villager or merchant would ever meet.
Rome wasn’t the only enemy. Yes, there were good Jewish priests and elders and Pharisees. But there were the bad ones: haughty, greedy, and vindictive. There were the cheating shopkeepers, the tax collectors carving out their cut of the Roman tax, and the beggars who received an offering of food in one hand while their other hand slipped into a pocket to palm coins. The enemy controlled your village. The enemy lurked outside your door. The enemy was everywhere you lived and worked.
Love your neighbor; love your enemy. It didn’t take long for anyone in any crowd that listened to Jesus’ preaching to name his or her enemy.
Who is your enemy?
As a United States citizen, from birth in the mid-20th century until now, I’ve always had enemies. Once it was the World War II memory of the imperial Japanese and Nazis. Then came the Communists of the U.S.S.R. and China. Don’t forget North Korea and North Vietnam. No list would be complete without Castro’s Cuba, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, and even those bad hombres in Grenada.
My life has been mundane, absent of much personal rancor or disappointment, to easily identify an enemy beyond the face in the mirror. I haven’t served as soldier in Vietnam or Afghanistan, where the grim, clever enemy looks like the frightened villager that you’re ordered to protect. I haven’t been the tragic financial loser in a Ponzi scheme. Though strangers have robbed me and burglarized my residence, those minor crimes didn’t prompt thoughts of revenge or a fearful life. I know a few whose entire lives were disrupted by the malicious actions of others. They, unlike me, could list real enemies with real faces that intentionally caused real pain.
Is President Trump my enemy? I despise his edicts and actions so far. I have personal memories of eleven Presidents, and none have seemed, in their first days of service, as petty or petulant as the Oval Office’s current occupant. Does my animosity mean that I’d better listen to Jesus’ call to love my enemies . . . including my president?
Globally, is ISIS (or ISIL or whatever title is used) my enemy? Doesn’t ISIS wish “me” dead and gone because I am an American citizen? If an unnamed terrorist I’ve never met deems me their enemy, how do I go about actively, overtly loving them? As a Christian, I can’t avoid that question . . . or can I?
Locally, what about my angry attitude toward another driver when she or he cuts me off in traffic? Would that person, given their literal threat against my life, along with the sudden crude vehemence of the thoughts and words I directed toward them, be considered my enemy?
For many, including boring me, isn’t Jesus’ call to love the enemy really a suggestion for others who have real enemies?
We all have enemies.
Yes, the face in the mirror. How can I remember to love myself?
If, at work or in the supermarket or on a social media site, I am insulted or maligned or overlooked by another, what will I do?
Identifying enemies will always be a struggle. As a citizen of a nation, what if I disagree with whom my leaders claim is “our” enemy? And do I really know enough about the driver who cut me off to even momentarily label them an enemy?
However, following Jesus requires little struggle with choosing the response to any real, imagined, or momentary enemy: show love to everyone. As is so often the case, Jesus’ words are easy to say, but then, when facing the enemy, easy is the least of it . . .