Weekly Bible Devotional
“Everything Is Holy: Our Enemies”
April 25, 2021
Scripture for Sunday: Matthew 5:43-47
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Notes on the Text:
The text for this week is a part of the Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus takes the commandments of his faith and expands them to help people live out God’s vision for the world. One of the issues he addresses is conflict which is a normal part of our human experience. Oppression is something that has existed in human societies over the centuries and is in direct opposition to God’s desire for humanity. Resistance to oppression has often been violent.
Jesus offered an alternative way for resistance and for dealing with conflict. We often think that there are only two ways to respond to an offensive behavior from others: Fight or flight. This is our basic instinct. You either run away from the problem or you fight the other. Jesus offers us a third way. Jesus does not call for a submit-or-subdue kind of response. He invites us to a new and creative third way. This third way is about breaking the cycle of the conflict and exposing and disarming its violence. Learning to engage our “enemies” with dignity and respect allows us to see God in them. Even at their worst, the image of God is never taken away from someone. We just have to work harder to see that in someone. I once heard someone call such people “Extra-Grace Required” type people. We are sometimes in need of that extra grace as well.
This kind of redemptive love is about being creative and staying open to new ways for dealing with others. One of the leadership lessons I have learned in the last few years is not stepping into the playing field of a conflict. The idea is simple and yet powerful. When someone comes with a complaint or an issue to us, instead of just engaging them on the same level, the work is to help the other person and ourselves see the problem in its larger frame and from a broader perspective. We may need to ask ourselves questions like these: What is the desire or need which this person is expressing? What are the competing values we are presenting? We can’t avoid the issues that divide us because that would solve nothing. Our work is to reframe the issue and to engage each other openly about the greater good of the whole community (of faith or the larger society). Instead of stepping into the playing field to fight with each other, we allow a greater vision to guide us that even if the final outcome is not what we wanted, we can still live with each other and work together as a community without hating each other. Our commitment would be to see each other as neighbors.
This kind of approach is not easy as we rarely see it modeled in our culture. I know that it is much easier to hate and to shut the other people out. We also know from the example of Jesus, that winning in God’s way, may look like losing to the world, but at the end of the day, hate never brings any lasting change.
When we hear the words of Jesus, “Love your enemies,” sometimes we are tempted to think that Jesus was naïve or so divine that he couldn’t possibly expect us to love our enemies. We could also wonder about Jesus’ sense of justice in the world. Does it mean that we let abusers or criminals get away with their crimes? Jesus offers us the opportunity to allow the sacred to emerge even when we are looking at the worst of what humanity can bring. Jesus’ third way of resistance and redemption is about loving our enemies, but it is not about being weak. It is about giving us power on how to deal with conflict without using destructive means. It is about offering our enemies a path for redemption. It is about learning to let go of our instincts of fight or flight reactions to invoke the deeper part of our souls to work for justice without violating ourselves or others.
If hating our enemies is the cultural norm, how do we follow the invitation of Jesus? I don’t claim to have figured all of this out myself, but I know what does not work. Here are a few of the things that don’t work: 1. Accepting defeat 2. Avoiding conflict 3. Shutting people out 4. Gossip or malicious attacks (especially on social media) 5. Overpowering others 6. Ganging up on someone 7. Questioning the person’s moral commitments 8. Asking others to take our side (triangulating).
The contemplative David Steindl-Rast shares some helpful practices for us as we try to follow the example of Jesus:
- Show your enemies the genuine respect that every human being deserves. Learn to think of them with compassion.
- In cultivating compassion, it may help to visualize your enemies as the children they once were (and somehow remain).
- Do not dispense compassion from above, but meet your enemies in your imagination always at eye-level.
- Make every effort to come to know and understand them better, their hopes, their fears, concerns, and aspirations.
- Search for common goals, spell them out, and try to explore together ways of reaching these goals.
- Don’t cling to your own convictions. Examine them in light of your enemies’ convictions with all the sincerity you can muster.
- Invite your enemies to focus on issues. While focusing on the issues at hand, suspend your convictions.
- Do not judge persons, but look closely at the effect of their actions. Are they building up or endangering the common good?
- For the rest, entrust yourself and your enemies to the great Mystery of life that has assigned us such different and often opposing roles, and that will see us through if we play or part with love.
As followers of Jesus, we know that the path is challenging. Yet, we also know that we are never alone. Everything in life is sacred including our human conflicts. The divine presence can redeem what seems to be impossible for us to redeem. And so prayer is essential to seeing the sacred in our enemies. We need God’s grace to help transform us into the likeness of Christ.
“It cannot be stressed too much: love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Commitment to justice, liberation or the overthrow of opposition is not enough, for all too often the means used have brought in their wake new injustices and oppressions. Love of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God. The enemy too believes he or she is in the right, and fears us because we represent a threat against his or her values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny that they have that of God within them that makes transformation possible. Instead, we play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God. I submit that the ultimate religious question today is no longer the Reformation’s ‘How can I find a gracious God?’ It is instead, ‘How can I find God in my enemy?’ What guilt was for Luther, the enemy has become for us: the goad that can drive us to God. What has formerly been a purely private affair — justification by faith through grace — has now, in our age, grown to embrace the world. As John Stoner comments, we can no more save ourselves from our enemies than we can save ourselves from sin, but God’s amazing grace offers to save us from both. There is, in fact, no other way to God for our time but through the enemy, for loving the enemy has become the key both to human survival in the age of terror and to personal transformation. Either we find the God who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, or we may have no more sunrises.” Walter Wink
For Lost Friends by John O’Donohue:
Though a door may have closed,
Closed between us,
May we be able to view
Our lost friends with eyes
Wise with calming grace;
Forgive them the damage
We were left to inherit;
Free ourselves from the chains
Of forlorn resentment;
Bring warmth again to
Where the heart has frozen
In order that beyond the walls
Of our cherished hurt
And chosen distance
We may be able to
Celebrate the gifts they brought,
Learn and grow from the pain,
And prosper into difference,
Wishing them the peace
Where spirit can summon
Beauty from wounded space. Amen.