There are probably a million reasons why every-day, ordinary Christians of good standing in their congregations, completely ignore what Jesus has to say in this passage. And the reason for this is that the precepts that Jesus espouses in this passage sound just as ridiculous to us today as they did to Jesus’ very first listeners.
If we’re feeling extra sharp this morning, some of this stuff probably sounds very much like some of the stuff that’s in the Sermon on the Mount. The Gospel of Luke, though, doesn’t have a sermon on the mount. Luke has a sermon in the great meadow, and we’re looking at part of that sermon this morning.
Jesus already knows that some of the stuff that he is about to say is not going to be well received. And so he sets it up right at the start. He pretty much says, I’m only going to be talking to those of you who are willing to listen. Here’s what it is in Jesus-speak: “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Not gaining points, there, Jesus, not at all. Gonna lose your audience if you keep that up. That there is just ridiculous talk. It is insanity. The sane person has no intention of wasting love on enemies. The sane person makes a concerted effort to avoid his or her enemies. The sane person keeps ones enemies in a constant state of alienation. There’s a reason that “stranger” and “alien” are pretty much the same word. We want our enemies to be strangers to us, and even then, sometimes that’s a little bit too close!
And so here we have Jesus instructing us to do that which is very nearly impossible. Our enemies are our enemies for some very good reasons. There’s lots of reasons why people become enemies, and I thought of three of them right off. First of all, we can do something dreadful to someone else. Secondly, someone else can do something dreadful to us, or we can do dreadful things to each other. And thirdly, enemies become enemies because of misunderstandings or because of distrust or fear. I’m thinking of racism, mostly. We can have an enemy and not even know his or her name. We can dislike or hate someone whom we’ve never met.
But what all enemies share is common is this: there is no desire whatsoever for any kind of relationship, let alone one that is characterized by love. And Jesus knows this, and if he’s got anyone still listening to him, he starts to get specific about beginning to develop relationships with our enemies. And so he says, “Do good to those who hate you.” Great. He’s already told us to love the ones that we hate, now he’s telling us to do good to the ones who hate us!
Jesus asked some really great questions over the course of his ministry, and as I was working on this sermon, a Jesus kind of question popped in to my head. Which is easier, to say that I love my enemies, or to do good to those who hate me? We Christians have got all kinds of cute ways to say that we love our enemies, but precious few strategies when it comes to doing good to those who hate us. I think that Jesus is telling us, do something, try something, anything at all that might bring about the beginning of a relationship. Do good to those who hate you.
But Jesus is also quite wise, and he knows that something like that might not produce a desired result at all! It just might backfire right into our faces. And so in anticipation of a big blow-up, Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Venturing in to enemy territory is never very predictable. It could be extraordinarily disastrous. And again, as I was working through some of the insanity of what Jesus is encouraging us to do, I thought of the awful specter of verbal and physical abuse. Verbal and physical abuse is a horrendous evil in our culture, as it was in Jesus’ day. The sinful human creature is always in search of ways to destroy its fellow creatures. It sounds trite, but sin ruins lives. And some evil people are intent on ruining as many lives as possible. It often takes more than a life time to recover from the damage done by those who physically and verbally abuse others. Suicide among the abused is very high. The Christian church has not yet even scratched the surface when it comes to the potential of ministering to those who have suffered physical and verbal abuse.
So, what in the world is Jesus saying here? Is he trivializing the damage that millions have suffered? Is he simply saying, say something nice to those who are intent on ruining your life? I don’t think so. Jesus himself is the victim of those who were intent on ruining his life. Jesus himself is the victim of physical and verbal abuse. It’s insane, but Jesus just might be saying that victims don’t have to be victims for the rest of their lives. Victims have the potential to find healing for their wounds, victims have the potential to become victors. And they start that process by taking control of the one who has controlled them. Victims who are intent on becoming victors do that by giving an almighty, God empowered, God thundering blessing to their abusers. This is contrary to the wisdom of the world, which counsels retribution and retaliation, but invoking God’s power over our abusers just might start us on the path to healing and to victory. It may be that this is exactly what Jesus is talking about. It may not be as insane or as ridiculous as it sounds; counter-intuitive, to be sure, but maybe not so crazy after all.
The sermon is over, but I’m going to talk for some 5 or 6 minutes more. Jesus did, after all, talk for a few minutes more, and what better example is there? And I’m suspecting that by now, that Jesus has probably already lost at least half of his audience. And so with just a few of them still listening, he offers up a handful of specifics that support his general principle of loving our enemies, because that is after all, the category that everything that is in this passage fits into. And here we discover that sometimes, if we are determined to love our enemies, we are apt to find ourselves in a very vulnerable spot. And so there’s this business of turning the other cheek; of taking the upper hand by daring our enemy to insult us yet again.
What’s a shirt, anyway? It was more of a something in the first century than it is now, and certainly the coat was very valuable, but Jesus says that we ought to be willing to lose both. Losing both, actually, is pretty much the same thing as turning the other cheek. It is designed to give pause for a least a moment to those who would misuse us. The surprise and shock of getting a shirt, too, when only a coat was demanded just might be the lead to an opening for a relationship. Or, not at all. The thief could be pleasantly surprised to get both a coat and a shirt, and disappear happily into the darkness. I’m pretty sure that Jesus knew that this was also a very real possibility. It did not stop him, however, from encouraging us to take risks in ministry.
Jesus also said to give to everyone who begs from us, and not to worry about the stuff that we loan to people. If it comes back, all well and good. But if it doesn’t come back, that also should be all well and good.
When I first began working on this sermon, it was the beggar who first caught my attention. Philosophically, the beggar is my enemy. And like all of my enemies, I want to keep the beggar at a very wide distance. I will alter my course in order to avoid the beggar. I want the beggar to be a stranger. I want the beggar to remain in a state of alienation from me, because the beggar represents everything that I think that I am not. The beggar and I have opposing views of what fiscal responsibility is all about, and while I have never done it, I have been sorely tempted to scream “Get a job!” at the beggars who cross my path. And I would feel justified in that, because, as we have already very clearly seen, enemies hurl insults at their enemies. If I am going to keep an enemy, then I should treat that person as if they are an enemy. And part of my struggle with this passage is that Jesus delivers his message in very clear and very direct statements, without the slightest hint of any sense of qualification whatsoever. I believe that Jesus said what he intended to say. And we must receive what he said in the manner in which Jesus has delivered it. That has not stopped us from adding some qualifications of our own, and sometimes for good reason. Sometimes those qualifications are even biblical.
The beggar however, continues to trouble me, because the beggar is a completely different kind of enemy. All of the other enemies that come into our lives are the kind of enemies who want to maintain as much distance and alienation from us as we want to maintain from them. We want to be estranged from them, even though Jesus tells us that we ought not to be estranged. This is the whole point of this passage. But the beggar is different, because the beggar takes the initiative and breaks the veil of alienation, even though the beggar is fully aware of his or her perceived enemy status. The beggar arrives, hat in hand, seeking a relationship. Along with the hat though, there is almost always an intimate tale of woe, which rather irrelevantly may or may not even be true. Perhaps without realizing it, the beggar has done just exactly what Jesus has instructed the rest of us to do. Those seeking a relationship should receive one. Giving to beggars just might be easy and good practice as we take steps toward learning to love our enemies.
Lastly, Jesus has plenty to say to those of us who wish to maintain our enemies as enemies, for those of us who would rather hold on to all of the answers that we very carefully have down pat, and to those of us who would rather be overly cautious in our ministry, and in our lives. He asks, what credit is that?