Troubling Words of Jesus
As I’ve been writing about the Kavanaugh drama and our fervent tribalism, some verses of Scripture have been niggling at me. Verses about only loving those who love us.
They come from the Sermon on the Mount, the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, verses 43 – 48, where Jesus says to his disciples,
“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 maybe children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and 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: 43 – 48)
The opening line is a pretty succinct summary of tribalism: “Love your neighbor (in some translations, “love your friends”) and hate your enemy.” Love those who love us, who are like us, who are on our side, who may do us some good. Hate with a holy hatred the other guys, the enemy, the not us.
Turns out you can be a very “loving” person and not be following Jesus at all. If the only ones you love are those who love you, what’s the big deal in that, he asks? Everyone does that.
I’ve often felt that the problem I have with the Bible is not, as people often claim about it, that it is old, dated and irrelevant to “the modern world.” My problem is that Bible is so damn relevant, altogether too contemporary.
The love your friends/ hate your enemy mode is both prevalent and appealing. It confers a sense of identity and belonging. It organizes the world neatly. It makes us feel righteous.
Jesus, darn him, asked something different of us, something quite bizarre. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Well, that’s neither prevalent nor particularly appealing. It is difficult and it is scandalous. But don’t my word for it, try it.
What does it mean in our polarized and divided nation?
What does it mean in a time when the President of the country is a perfect embodiment of the, “Love your friends, hate your enemies” philosophy?
“The heart of the law, as Jesus interpreted it,” writes Tom Long, “was to love even your enemies and pray even for those who persecute you. The reason that one ought to do this is because God is like this, and we are God’s children.
“God,” he continues, “does not hate the enemy; indeed, the good gifts of life — the sun and the rain — are lavished on everyone. If we love only those who love us, we are simply imitating the world (even scoundrels such as ‘tax collectors’ love those who love them) rather than imitating God.
“It is this call to be like God that best interprets the saying, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ ‘Perfection’ here is not making an A+ on every test; perfection is wholeness, consumed by love, holiness. To be ‘perfect’ is to respond to other people — even our enemies — with the kind of compassion and desire for the good that expresses the way God responds to the world.”
We have come through a sad and bruising experience as a nation in recent weeks.
It seems that we face a choice. We can continue in our increasingly tribal ways, each side blaming the other. Each side seeking to exact some revenge. Or rise above this vicious, familiar cycle, and be in the world in a different and a better, but not easier, way.
Back in the 90’s I recall people being incredulous at the tribal hatreds and ethnic cleansing that was taking place then in Serbia. “How can people do such things?” we asked. There was an unspoken there. It was, “I’m glad we’re not like that.”
I was never so sure of our innocence. In fact, I thought we were pretty much exactly like that, at least potentially. And if we knew our history, ethnic cleansing is a part of it.
Loving our enemies doesn’t mean letting evil go unchecked or uncontested. It does mean restraining the impulses of vengeance, of recrimination and for the demonization of others. It means being aware of our own capacity for evil.
It means rather than tit-for-tat, eye for an eye, a different way, being better than that.
The Scripture reading where I went to church on Sunday contained these words, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5: 15 – 16).
“The days are evil” — now there’s a haunting phrase.
The evilness of these days is precisely our caught-ness in recrimination and demonization, in “love your friends, hate your enemies.”