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Feb 19, 2017

Love Your Enemies

Passage: Matthew 5:38-48

Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

Series: Epiphany 2017

Category: Peace


Do we take these sayings seriously?


‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’

I used this passage of scripture in Sunday School in October. It was part of our baptismal unit and I chose it because in our baptismal covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self. I was asking the kids about it and one of them raised his hand and said that Jesus was wrong, he must be.  

These are some pretty familiar sayings. Not an eye for an eye, but turn the other cheek. Give to everyone who begs from you. And from Leviticus, Love your neighbor as yourself (which is oft quoted elsewhere) and leave your field for the poor and the alien. Very famous sayings. We heard them whispered to us by the wise when we are children. Turn the other cheek. Share. Don’t spend it all on yourself, think of those in need. We heard it as a way to escape the violence, the danger, the risk of living a human existence, almost like a survival manual. As we got older and continued hearing Jesus’ words from his Sermon on the Mount, we added nuance:

  1. Turn the other cheek unless you are the mightiest.
  2. Or when someone has done something extremely heinous.
  3. Or be generous as long as you have saved carefully for a long retirement lived in comfort and so that you are not a burden to others.
  4. Or for any one of them: they are the ideals that apply to exemplars like Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, the priest.
  5. Or I’ll definitely do this tomorrow, but right now I’m ok.

Jesus called us to be perfect. We know that is way too high a bar because we are human. So we say, I’ll do the best I can and I’m ok with that (but I will be sure to pretend to be perfect and will expect perfection from others).

So, we are comfortable rationalizing revenge, retribution, and the defensive attack. It is even celebrated in our common life (we cheer those who return the attack if they are part of our group/think like us) because we don’t want to be seen as defeated or at the mercy of another.

I have a feeling that is the interpretation of Jesus’ famous words as we hear them read.

It applies to them, but not to me. Because I am on the right side of history.

Is that what Jesus intended his words to convey? Not so fast. Jesus was speaking to people gathered around him on that day who were not the powerful, who had few if any resources, and most likely lacked an adequate retirement account. These were people who scrapped the bottom of the bowl for just an inkling of possibility. So, we could say that it doesn’t apply to us (who have much more in the way of rights and freedoms than Jesus’ disciples and most of his followers).

But, that is our nature writing nuance into challenging sayings. See, I am convinced that Jesus’ words do apply to us. Not in a literal way. We have spoken over the past several weeks about how Jesus uses hyperbole to express points in his sermon, but it does apply to us spiritually.

What I mean by that: It is hard to say to someone being abused, verbally or physically, in a relationship to turn the other cheek because that is cruel and unusual punishment. That is not loving ourselves which therefore demeans loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

What all of these sayings of Jesus are pointing to is to turn the tables on the evil and make it good. To, like Ghandi (who took inspiration from these sayings of Jesus), remove yourself from the familiar cycle of injury and power accumulation. If you take that away, then you are feeding violence and hate with the only thing that defeats it: love.

So, when this passage is read, as it was at our Sunday School service, kids will believe that Jesus is wrong. That there must have been a mistake in the translation. They want to study the Greek. They question loving enemies and even praying for them. And the reason that they believe it is wrong? Because they have already discerned our culture’s ambivalence to these famous sayings. They have learned, through their earliest experiences, that hating and cursing our enemies is acceptable because that is what we teach them (not necessarily by what we say; but by what we do).

I can think of many incidents over the past several months when my blood was boiling because of what was being said or being done. I have actually vacated regular usage of Facebook because the words of my friends directed toward others is too vile. But it is couched in this rhetoric of being right and therefore justified.

So, when I am reminded of Jesus’ example of love even to the point of losing his life, I find some glimmer of hope for a way forward in an unsteady and confusing world. When we are assaulted, we must focus on creative ways to align our values with our action.

Last week, we heard Jesus redefine the law regarding divorce and adultery and murder. We heard Jesus a few weeks back name all those who were blessed. And most, if not all of you know Jesus’ life story. All of these things were about relationships. No matter what someone did or even threatened to do, Jesus continued to love them without condition. How do we translate that into our lives? That is what this lesson is about. Even when someone is playing against our goodness (and breaks Jesus’ rules), we are called to turn the other cheek, to offer generously, to love with abandon. Nature tells us to strike back, but Jesus calls us to repurpose vengeance with compassion and love. It might seem futile, but it is what prepares us for something greater and expands the opportunities for hope.

So, we are in a moment when Jesus’ words can and should be applied. As we are assaulted, think about turning the other cheek (not in a way that supports the act) but in a way that turns it around in love. Break the cycle by acting like we would like to be treated. And remember that without love whatever we do is worth nothing.  


The Rev. Dr. Kurt Gerhard

St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church

February 19, 2017