“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. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” (Luke 6:27-30)
I suspect that no one remembers the last time I preached on this passage. If you do remember, your name is Jan, as Jan Pickering is the only parishioner who was a part of Holy Trinity when I last spoke on this passage, which was in February 2001
The reason that I haven’t spoken on this passage since is because these words from the Gospel of Luke have not been publicly read in this church since February 2001. Indeed, this is my 29th year in the parish, and I believe that this is only the second time in that period that we have ever had this Gospel passage read aloud in church!
Why, you might ask, have we been working so hard to avoid these commands to love our enemies, to give to those who ask, and not to judge. Why indeed?
I’ll try to offer an authoritative answer to that question a little later. Let me say now though that it’s not because these words are not popular. Indeed, I suspect that this passage (or the variation of it that appears in Matthew’s Gospel) has appeared on more posters and more Powerpoint presentations (with soothing and inspiring music playing in the background) than any other snippet from the New Testament!
As a younger Christian, I had exactly such a poster blue-tacked to my bedroom wall. It was an image of a sunset, if I remember, highlighting rolling hills and natural beauty with these words overlaid on top. They included the Beatitudes of course – Matthew’s version, that is (the one that blesses the ‘poor in spirit’, rather than Luke’s version, where Jesus simply blesses ‘the poor’) – and it concluded with these commands that we love our enemies and give without expecting anything in return.
I am not sure how these words from Jesus managed to make it into the Helen Steiner Rice lectionary of gentle and insipidly-inspiring spiritual words. Even so, what I am reasonably confident of is that, when they were originally spoken, these words must have been amongst the most offensive things Jesus ever said!
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28)
To appreciate the deeply offensive nature of this language, we only need to ask ourselves who Jesus was referring to when He spoke of our enemies.
When we use the word ‘enemy’ in our own context, we probably think of any number of persons who wronged us over the years – the guy who used to bully me at school, the woman who spreads rumors about me at the office, and my former partner who has made life hell for me and for the kids – and I don’t doubt that we can make real enemies in this life. Even so, when Jesus spoke of the enemy I don’t have any doubt that for His listening audience only one group of people came to mind – the Romans.
It would be exactly the same if you went to the birthplace of Jesus today and started telling people to love their enemies. Regardless of how people responded, there’d be no ambiguity as to who you were referring to when you spoke of the enemy. You’d be referring to the occupying army (in today’s case, the Israeli Defense Forces).
I read a rather gut-wrenching article by Dr Ghada Karmi, written last Christmas, about her perception of modern-day Bethlehem.
She quotes the carol, “O little town of Bethlehem/How still we see thee lie/Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by” and says “Nothing could be further from the truth than the image of a sweet, untroubled Bethlehem as depicted in a carol originally created by the pious imagination of a Victorian Western-Christian.”
She then goes on to outline what it is like for the modern-day residents of Bethlehem – Christian and Muslim alike – walled in from the outside world and surrounded by twenty-two Israeli settlements that have taken their land and uprooted their trees.
Regardless of what you think of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, my point is simply that if you wandered the streets of Bethlehem today, telling people to love their enemies there would be no doubt who you were referring to. Likewise, with the Jews of first-century Israel, when Jesus told them to love their enemies there would have been no ambiguity as to who He was referring to. It was to the occupying army.
This is even more obvious in Matthew’s rendering of these commands, which includes the exhortation, “And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two” (Matt. 5:41), as the reference is clearly to a Roman soldier.
It was Roman law that a soldier could compel any Jew to carry his backpack for him for one mile (1,000 paces) – a backpack that normally weighed around 30 kilograms – and if you refused to drop what you were doing and comply you would be flogged.
Jesus commands His followers to go an extra mile, which would mean you’d have to go four miles out of your way by the time you’d finished the task (two miles there and two miles back). That was a big ask, but not nearly so big an ask as the greater command to love these people, who were not simply unwelcome foreigners, but the people who killed your uncle and had put your brother in prison!
It’s impossible to know exactly what it would have been like to live under the Roman occupation but historians like Josephus say it was a brutal experience. According to him, in one case, 20,000 Jews were killed in a riot that started when a Roman soldier ridiculed some pilgrims at the Passover with an obscene gesture. Some think Josephus prone to exaggeration, but even if the casualties were only a tenth of that number, it’s still a horrible example of the abuse of power and of military brutality.
As I say, it’s easy to take these words out of context, where they sound lovely and sweet and inspiring, but in the context of a violent and bloody military occupation, the command to love those who oppress and persecute you is a big ask, and the command doesn’t translate easily into our context – most especially into my context.
Speaking as a white, middle-class, heterosexual male, I must be a part of one of the least persecuted groups in human history. If you’re black, female, gay and financially struggling (or any combination of the above) you probably have a better appreciation of the enormity of what Jesus is asking of us here. Even so, and even for me, it seems like a big ask, as we seem to be required to open ourselves to abuse!
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again”
What happened to ‘don’t let people treat you like a doormat’ and ‘stand up for your rights’? There doesn’t seem to be room here for self-defense, or even for justice!
Mind you, one person who took these words extremely seriously and who took a firm stand for justice was Martin Luther King, Jr. He often quoted these words from Luke chapter 6 and said that they showed Jesus to be an extremist – an extremist for love!
When I think of King and his work, one image always comes to my mind. It’s the image of African-American protestors trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7th, 1965. I expect that all of us who have seen newsreel clips or photographs from that event will likewise remember it.
It’s the event the Civil Rights movement remembered as ‘Bloody Sunday’, where unarmed protestors were sprayed with tear-gas, charged by police on horseback, and hit on the head with truncheons as they tried to peacefully cross the bridge.
Perhaps particularly memorable was the image of Amelia Boynton (one of the organisers of the march) who was beaten unconscious by state troopers and photographed lying bleeding on the road of the bridge.
It is a terrible thing to watch defenseless people brutalized by armed representatives of the state, especially when they seem to be doing nothing to provoke the violence. King though believed that this sort of non-violent resistance to injustice was exactly what their master – the extremist for love – demanded of them, and indeed, these verses do seem encourage this willingness to allow yourself to be abused.
I’m not sure I can do that. I remember being invited last year to a protest in support of asylum-seekers that was organised by a Christian group with an explicit commitment to pacifism. I asked them whether I had to make a commitment to total non-violence in order to be a part of the protest.
I wasn’t sure I could do it. I figured I could probably take a beating myself if I had to, but I can’t imagine I could have stood back and watched Amelia Boynton being beaten unconscious, or that I could watch anyone else get beaten unconscious without wanting to step in and try to do something, with my fists if necessary.
How far do you take this? Yes, Jesus was clearly offering a challenge to the Jews of first century Palestine in terms of how they should respond to their Roman overlords, but what would Jesus have done if He had been living in the Warsaw ghetto in German-occupied Europe during World War II? Would Jesus have really simply embraced the brutal Nazi persecution and gone willingly to the death camps?
I’m not sure what the answer to that question is, but one thing I am sure of is that those academics who have suggested that Jesus was really a zealot revolutionary, intent on the violent overthrow of the Roman occupation, are way off track.
I don’t know if many others here have read Reza Aslan’s recently-published book, “Zealot”, but Azlan is the latest in a long list of academics who have suggested that the historical Jesus was just another revolutionary who failed in his goals and who was later transformed into a supernatural figure by his first followers who had a far different agenda to that of their master.
I mentioned Azlan’s book only because it is current and popular, and not because I think it is a particularly good book. Indeed, I found his cherry-picking approach to New Testament to be annoying, and I still can’t work out why he thinks that Matthew 22:21 – “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” – proves that Jesus was really a revolutionary.
No matter how you interpret that verse (which can be interpreted in a lot of ways) you’ve still got to take into account other things Jesus said that were directly relevant to the Roman occupation, such as, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
By trying to place these commandments from Jesus where they belong – in the context of the first century Roman occupation of Palestine – I do not mean to suggest that they are not relevant to us in 21st century suburban Sydney. My point is rather that if Jesus expected his disciples to love, bless and pray for those who were murdering members of their family, taking their lands, and persecuting and oppressing them, how much more does He expect us to forgive and forget when it comes to the petty grievances that most of us deal with.
I’m not suggesting that all of our grievances are petty. Some are not, but none of our grievances would be more serious than those suffered by the people to whom Jesus originally addressed these words. If Jesus’ initial hearers were expected to respond to violence and persecution with love, blessing, patience and forgiveness, how much more should we be expected to do the same?
The problem is that it’s hard. It’s really hard to forgive those who just make us feel uncomfortable, let alone those who genuinely injure us, and yet that is exactly what we are commanded to do!
I said at the outset today that I’d try to offer you an authoritative answer as to why this is only the second time we have read this passage in church in the last 29 years. In theory, it’s all to do with the date that Easter falls on, and hence when the season of Epiphany ends and Lent starts, and the readings are rostered accordingly. We don’t normally have this many Sundays in Epiphany, but Easter is coming late this year (for reasons I totally don’t understand) and hence we have these extra passages from Luke’s Gospel.
That sort of explains the issue, though it doesn’t explain why the church chose to schedule this reading at a point where they must have known that it would almost never get read. As a person who loves a good conspiracy-theory, I’m tempted to think that the historic church, which has a prolific history of meting out violence to its enemies and of waging war in the name of Christ, knew exactly what it was doing when it structured the lectionary the way it did.
I’m going to conclude today’s sermon with the same illustration I used when I preached on this passage in 2001, with the story of the little boy who goes each week to the corner store with his mother to do the shopping.
Each week when mum goes to the checkout, the proprietor, Mr Jones, encourages the boy to put his hand into the lolly jar and take as many lollies as he can. Each week the boy declines the invitation, and each time he does, Mr Jones reaches into the lolly jar himself and gives him the boy a handful of lollies.
The boy’s mother eventually asks her son why he always refuses the invitation to put his own hand into the jar and instead lets Mr Jones do it for him. He replies, “because his hands are much bigger than mine”.
We find ourselves in a similar position, facing these commandments to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. It is really difficult. Yet His hands are bigger than ours. His heart is greater than ours. His capacity to forgive is endless
Lord, give us your hands, give us your heart, give us your capacity to forgive. Amen.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 24th February, 2019.