Love your enemies 2014 ( A Sermon on Matthew 5:21-48)

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“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sisterwill be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. …

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well …

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

No prizes for guessing that these words are taken from the Sermon on the Mount – the most famous sermon Jesus ever gave and (for many people) a distillation of the wisdom of Jesus.

I’ve cherry-picked four of the most prominent commands Jesus gives there, all recorded in the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mathew and amongst them are surely two of the most inspiring and uplifting appeals Jesus ever gave – the exhortation to turn the other cheek to those who abuse us, and the exhortation to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!

These mandates were more than mere words for Jesus, of course, who lived the life of non-violence and non-retaliation all the way through to the bitter end, as indeed they became a form of life for some of history’s most famous social reformers – Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King being two obvious examples.

‘Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, turn the other cheek, give to those who ask, do not turn away those who want to borrow …’ ­– these surely are amongst the most beautiful (even if unmanageable) things Jesus ever taught us, and yet when we take them not as isolated aphorisms but see them in context we see that they were delivered alongside what were surely two of the most oppressive and depressing pronouncements Jesus ever made:

  • The proposition that anybody who calls their brother or sister and idiot is in danger of going to hell
  • The teaching that anybody who lusts is guilty of adultery!

I’ll focus on the second of these two teachings because I don’t think anybody has ever taken the first too seriously.

Have any of us ever sensed the flames of hell licking at our heels when we’ve called a brother or sister an idiot? That sort of language is not uncommon in my household and, while I don’t take pride in that, quite frankly if the worst your children ever do to each other is call each other idiots then you’re living in a rather blessed environment!

I remember hearing of a discussion in a Sunday School once where a boy asks his teacher “the commandments tell us that we have to respect our mother and father but do they say anything about how a sister is supposed to treat her brother?” to which his sister interjects, “Yes, it says ‘Thou shalt not kill!’”

That was on par with my own childhood experience. If we three brothers weren’t killing each other we were doing pretty well, and the odd bit of cussing wasn’t a cause for too much fuss, let along grounds for religious trauma, but not so with the prohibition against lust!

“But I tell you”, says Jesus, “that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28)

I suspect that for a great many devout, young Christian men the battle with the flesh at this point is almost a full-time occupation, and by ‘young’ I mean anyone under 50.

Socrates did say that one of the great benefits of old age was that you find yourself increasingly less troubled by your fleshly desires and there is no doubt that this is true!  Even so, perhaps ‘men under 50’ is a little narrow as it is not only young men who struggle with lust, nor is it only men!

I did do some research in preparation for this sermon and it seems that up to one third of the consumers of Internet porn now are women!

I found that statistic rather surprising as I had assumed that Internet porn was fundamentally a male problem, and yet there was one statistic I uncovered that I found even more shocking – namely, that the rates of Internet porn addiction are generally thought to be higher amongst Christians than in the broader population (see here)!

I was astounded by that statistic, though I did also read various explanations offered as to how the data might have been misinterpreted. Even so, none of the analysts I could find – even those who thought the problem in the church might have been exaggerated – thought that Christians were dealing with Internet porn any better than the rest of the community. Far from it!

Why is that so? Is it because of the guilt and shame associated with lust? Is it because it’s all so terrible that we keep it all in the dark and so allow it to fester and grow? Is it because the standards that are set – such as the one outlined by Jesus here in the Sermon on the Mount – are impossible to keep and so we abandon our standards altogether? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that denying the problem is not going to solve it!

Mind you, I’m not sure if pious denial is specifically a Christian problem either. It may be a problem shared equally by all the religious communities. It’s hard to know.

The Muslim community certainly takes issues of lust at least as seriously as the church does, though it places the onus on women to cover up.

Conversely, according to William Barclay, there was amongst the early Jewish sects a group known as the ‘bruised and bleeding Pharisees’ who took the responsibility upon themselves to deal with their temptation by wearing hoods over their faces when in public. Thus they effectively ensured that they would not look lustfully on a woman as they couldn’t see anything! Of course this created another problem – namely, that they kept bumping into things and so were left bruised and bleeding!

The bottom line is that the faithful have never been immune from temptation and indeed I suspect we have always handled things worse than our secular peers, and it’s probably about time we came clean about that!

I remember some years ago listening to a well-known preacher whose sermons were broadcast on the radio as he was railing against the evils of Internet porn, and he was detailing some of the horrible things that were portrayed and the vile and debasing behaviour that you could see depicted on the NET, and then he added “or so I have been told”.

This sort of self-righteous finger-wagging helps no one, I believe. As Jesus says elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, we Christians are excellent at taking the speck out of our brother’s eye while failing to see the log in our own (Matthew 7:3).

No one is righteous – no, not one – and it’s time we Christians admitted that we struggle and fail and have as much trouble sorting out our sexuality as everybody else in this world does, and in fact I think that’s actually the whole point of Jesus’ teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But don’t think that you’re especially holy because you haven’t slept with somebody else’s partner yet. Have you looked at another woman lustfully? If so then you’ve already committed adultery with her in your imagination. So what is it that differentiates you from the person who literally did commit adultery? Opportunity!

I suppose ‘opportunity’ may not be the only thing that separates the lustful person from the adulterer. The lustful person may also lack the courage to go through with it. Either way the point is that the lustful person is not morally superior to the person who fulfils their lusts. They both want to do it, they both imagine doing it, and they both would have if they could have because they are both made of the same stuff, because we are all made of the same stuff!

The same goes for the angry person. Do you think you’re a superior breed of person because you’ve never killed anybody? Have you ever been murderously angry?

I suspect we’ve all been there. Someone cuts in front of us in traffic or spills their drink on is in a pub and our knee-jerk desire is to thump them or slam the car into them or in some other way to make them pay.

What is it that separates us from the guy who does actually lash out in deadly violence? There may be a number of factors that stop us acting on our impulses but for the most part I suspect again that it fundamentally comes down to opportunity.

We’re all made of the same stuff – that’s the bottom line! We’ve all been angry enough to kill someone just as we’ve all been lustful enough to have been adulterers and adulteresses just as we all could have done any number of despicable things had the situation been different and had the circumstances of our upbringing not been so fortunate and had the opportunity been there.

Now I’m sure there’s somebody who is hearing this or who is reading this on the NET who is saying to themselves ‘yeah, yeah – you’re a typical liberal leftist do-gooder who believes that everybody is basically good and that all of us will get by if we just have a little more love and understanding …’

No …! My point is the opposite! We are not all basically good. We are all hopeless! We are all equally hopeless! I think that’s the point Jesus is making too. We are supposed to be ‘perfect’ Jesus tells us (Matthew 5:48) but we are not, and it’s time to stop pretending that we are or that we are ever going to be!

We are all made of the same stuff, whether we’ve murdered or only got angry, whether we’ve slept around or just wished we had, and I think it’s when we recognise this deep down that we reach a place where we can begin to live out the greater exhortations that Jesus gives us in the Sermon on the Mount – namely to love or enemies and to turn the other cheek.

While I was in Lebanon and Syria last year I had the opportunity of meeting some truly wonderful people, and one of those wonderful people was Mel Duncan , founder of the ‘Nonviolent Peaceforce’ which is an unarmed peacekeeping organization that tries to protect civilians and reduce violence in areas affected by armed conflict.

Mel had been in areas of front-line violence many times in his life and was looking for opportunities to deploy fellow unarmed peacekeepers in Syria, and I hope I’m not sharing with you here details that he meant to share with me privately but I don’t think he would mind me telling you something he passed on to me that really impacted me and that has stayed with me ever since we talked about it.

He spoke about the challenge he took on early in his life to ‘enter the heart of his enemy’.

That was the phrase Mel used – ‘to enter the heart of your enemy’, and by this he meant more than just having an academic understanding of what made the person who wanted to kill you tick. He meant being able to get inside their skin and see the world from their perspective. Until you can do this you cannot really engage with your enemy as an equal, though once you do achieve this, of course, your enemy is no longer your enemy. He’s your brother!

This is the same process, I believe, that Jesus is drawing us into in the Sermon on the Mount. We have no right to think of ourselves as superior to those who rape and murder. We are all made of the same stuff. And it’s all very well for us to take up arms to slaughter those who are trying to rape our country and murder our children but it becomes much more difficult when we realise that they are just like us!

It is no coincidence that in any war we always come up with derogatory terms for whoever it is that we are fighting. The Germans used to be referred to as ‘Huns’, the Japanese were ‘Nips’, the Vietnamese were ‘the Gook’s’ and the Iraqi’s, Libyan’s, Afghan’s, Iranians, Syrians, and anybody else who we decide to go to war with in the Middle East are all collectively referred to as ‘Haji’s’ or ‘Ragheads’.

And of course each of those groups – the Germans and the Japanese and the Vietnamese and the Iraqi’s, Libyans, Afghans, Iranians and Syrians – all have ther own similarly derogatory names for us.

Why do we do this? Why is name-calling always requisite to warfare? There is no great mystery here, is there? We need to dehumanise the enemy before we can expect our people to kill them.

It is very difficult to bring yourself to kill someone who you see as being your equal in the eyes of God. We need to bring them down – to label and dehumanise them. We need to transform them into the great unwashed – the infidels, the heretics, the less-than-human who have less right to live than we do – but when we begin to absorb the teachings of Jesus this process of dehumanisation becomes impossible to maintain!

It is hard to get inside the heart of your enemy. I’m not sure it’s always even possible

If I have an enemy on the streets today it is most probably the person who preys sexually upon children, and I find it basically impossible to sympathise with the mindset that can perpetrate criminal acts of this kind against little ones. Even so, I recognise too that my own sexual preference for adult women was not something that I wisely chose during my teenage years. I can take no credit for it. I was lucky (though of course every sexual orientation brings with it its own set of problems).

The bottom line, at any rate, is that we’re all made of the same stuff – the predator, the murderer, the adulterer, the thief, the drug-user and the drug-pusher, the oppressor and the oppressed! No one is righteous – no, not one – and that is all rather depressing but it is also rather liberating! We know that we are always going to be in the wrong, and yet we know that God loves us anyway and we know that the grace of God is sufficient to get us through!

Most importantly for today’s purposes, we know that we stand on an equal footing before God with all our brothers and sisters in the human family, and that is the basis upon which miracles can happen!

Life – we’re all in this together and so we’d better learn to get along!  So … “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 23rd of February, 2014.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker, martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of four. www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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