Saturday, February 19, 2011

Love Your Enemies (Feb 20, 2011)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 7, Feb 20 2011, Huntley
Readings:  Lev 19: 1-2,9-18; Ps 119:33-40; 1 Cor 3:10-11, 16-23; Mt 5:38-48

"Love your enemies"

Today’s gospel passage is one of the most important of all Jesus’ teachings.  The injunction to “love your enemy” is perhaps the most radical thing that Jesus ever said. It has changed the course of human history.  It inspired Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle to liberate India from British rule in the 1940’s.  It was the cornerstone of Martin Luther King Jr’s campaign for civil rights in the United States in the 1960’s.  And we hear echoes of it today in the peaceful demonstrations that continue in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.  However refusing to resist an evildoer and loving your enemy can be costly.   Jesus, Gandhi and King were all put to death, and so were four demonstrators in Bahrain just three days ago.

As I looked at our texts this past week, I was struck by the similarity of both the first statement and the last statement, and I think that together they serve as the foundation for all that comes in between.  Our Old Testament reading from Leviticus begins with God telling the people through Moses that “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  And at the end of today’s gospel, Jesus concludes by saying much the same thing:  “You shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Back in the 1990’s, when Michael Jordan was the best basketball player in the world, Gatorade put out a commercial (  which showed children playing basketball, interspersed with highlight clips of Michael Jordan’s best moments, and of Jordan actually coming to the playground to play basketball with the kids.  And the refrain of the song that played throughout the commercial, and the tag line that Gatorade used for years afterwards was very simple:  “Be like Mike”.

Well, if the marketing people were going to come up with a tag line for today’s gospel, and even for the whole of Jesus Sermon on the Mount, it would probably read “Be like God”.

“You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.”  The words tell us something about who we are and they hold out a vision for what we are becoming and who we are meant to be.  We are to be like God.  And we shall be because of who God is and because of the relationship that we have with him.  As Paul tells the Corinthians in the second reading, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

Jesus says much the same thing at the end of today’s gospel reading.  “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Now this is one of those verses where the English translation can sometimes lead us astray.  Sometimes we think of perfect as getting 10 out of 10 on a test, or sometimes we think it means doing nothing wrong.  But the actual Greek word used in the gospel of Matthew is “telos”, and telos has much more the sense of “what something is for” or what it’s purpose is. 

Let me give you an example.   Think of an acorn.  Now what is in an acorn is for?  Well, an acorn is meant to grow into an oak tree.  That’s it’s purpose, the end for which it was created.  In Greek we would say that the telos of an acorn is to grow into an oak tree.  That’s the word Jesus is using when he says “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect.” Imagine, then, that we are like the acorn, and God is like the oak tree.

So what is our purpose?  Our purpose is to grow into the people that we were created to be.  And we are meant to be like God.  That’s the identity that we’re growing into.  That’s what Jesus means when he says “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus wants us to become that which we already are, albeit in embryonic form:  children of God, living in the kingdom of heaven.

What Jesus is giving us in today’s gospel, and in the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, is not so much a prescription for ethical living as it is a blessing and affirmation of who we are and a vision of who we are becoming.  Be like God.

But what is God like?  That would seem to be the next question wouldn’t it!  If we are to be like God, then what is God like?  Well, Jesus says, God is like this:  God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  So you should do the same.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  Why?  Because that’s what God does, and you’re God’s children.

But that’s hard!  How can I love my enemies?  Is that humanly possible?  What would it look like in practice? Wouldn’t it be risky?  What does it mean for a human being to be like God?
Fortunately for us, we have an example of what it looks like for a human being to be like God.  Because God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, Jesus, to live among us.  If you want a model for what we’re growing into, we have the example of Jesus’ life among us, lived here on earth, recorded in the gospels.  Jesus is the model for us of what it looks like to love others, no matter whether those others are friends or foes, Pharisees or tax-collectors, family members or Roman soldiers.  Jesus had enemies, real enemies, enemies that eventually put him to death.  But even as the life drained from Jesus on the cross, he was able to love his enemies and pray for those who persecuted him, and ask God to forgive them.

That’s hard.  That sort of love for enemies may seem beyond our grasp.  Where do we even begin to put this into practice?

We begin with God’s love for us.  We begin by acknowledging and believing that we are who Jesus tells us we are, God’s children.  When we can begin to believe and accept and experience God’s love for us, just as we are, warts and all, when that becomes a reality in our lives, then we begin to respond, just as a flower opens when it feels the morning sun.   And as we open up and look around and see others, we realize that God loves them in the same way that he loves us.  And we begin to respond to the other not as an enemy, but as a brother or sister that we care for.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is both a blessing of who we are and a vision of who we are becoming.  It is therefore about identity, about who we are as children of God, and it is also about transformation and growth, a vision of the people we were created to be and how we are to grow into the identity that we’ve been blessed with.  And just as an acorn does not become an oak tree all on its own, but rather is nourished by water and soil and sun, we too will be nourished as we grow into our identity as children of God, nourished by God’s love which bathes us with both sun and rain.  It is God’s love working within us that enables us to love our neighbours, and even, eventually, our enemies.

Love has within it a redemptive power.  Love is healing and nourishing and creative. It is God’s love for us that gets us going and builds us up and works the sort of transformation in us that we are talking about.  And it is our love for others, including those we call our enemies, that begins that process of redemption in them as well.

You have heard it was said, “you shall love your neighbour 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.


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