Jesus wouldn’t have lasted a second in colonial America. Back then, Britain was exercising harsh imperial taxes on the colonists, their troops killed innocent civilians, and they made it clear who was in charge in these American colonies. Well, sure enough, we wouldn’t have any of that. The bravery and bullets of many Americans pushed back the British and won independence.
Yet Jesus’ response to this situation would’ve pigeonholed him as an enemy-sympathizer, coward, and traitor to his countrymen. If they didn’t kill him, the American revolutionaries would’ve done their part to silence his agenda.
It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus didn’t last long in his own day. Jesus shows up in a similar place – a colonial outpost garrisoned by troops of a cruel regime. They, too, are under financial, military, and social oppression. Uprisings and rumors of uprisings have been happening for decades. Just below the surface of many, the steady beat toward revolt rises. They’d seen enough crucifixes along hillsides, put up with enough blasphemous Caesar cults, and paid enough taxes to this blasphemer. Something had to be done, by God or otherwise.
Two questions are on everyone’s mind – “What is God going to do with these cruel Romans?” and “What can we do about it?”
The Jews of Jesus’ day knew the answer to the first one: God was going to one day deal with their oppressors and restore his people.
The second question, though, produced many answers. The Pharisees tried to shrug them off by obedience to Torah. The Essenes withdrew to the mountains to weather out God’s coming wrath on the Romans. The Sadducees just took advantage of the situation. And the Zealots figured getting brave and getting blades would help force God’s hand against Rome.
Along, though, comes Jesus. He’s building a national movement, a movement claiming that the answer to that first question is just around the corner. God’s kingdom justice is at hand! It’s like the sound of distant bombs falling in prisoner-of-war movies – they’re a sure sign that change is fast approaching. Murmurs of another possible liberator for Israel sweeps ‘round Judea, Galilee, and even into Samaria: I can imagine artisans trotting to the village center to hear what the hubbub was about. People are murmuring excitedly about this Jesus of Nazareth, a fellow who’s been travelling the countryside starting up cells of Jews trusting and living his kingdom way. The fresh breeze of revolution again breathes new life into the hearts of many Jews, whether they’ve heard Jesus’ specific teachings or not.
Today he’s giving a speech atop a local butte. And we’ve finally got a chance to hear what this local celebrity has to say. How’s he going to go about dealing with the evil of Rome? What’s his response to evil? Let’s hear part of what he has to say.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Whoah. Did he actually just say that?! This guy can’t know what he’s talking about. Hasn’t he seen those crucifixes? Hasn’t he heard of the scribes burnt alive for taking down the Roman emblem from atop the Temple? This guy sounds like a traitor, a fool, someone who doesn’t know evil when he sees it! Does he expect us to appease these monsters indefinitely? Preposterous.
No wonder they killed him.
I wonder: would we kill him today over this same passage?
In the face of terrorism and militant Islam, how long would the suggestion last, that we should love and pray for terrorists? We need to let these questions agitate us, severely.
Of course, this passage is not only about Jesus’ response to militant evil or violence. But it’s certainly not any less than that. Jesus’ command is about loving enormously, loving even those that our culture and our gut and our head tell us to loathe and wish ill against.
It’s not hard to land that home in this country. The culture wars in America tell us all the time who’s at the root of all this trouble, and stokes unloving responses to them. Talking heads and talk radio hosts scream for us to know who’s to blame.
• immigrants who are here illegally
• the media
• Al Gore
• SUV drivers
• torture-supporting politicians
• Certain professors
• theological liberals
• Charles Darwin
• George W. Bush
• Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Our list of people to be afraid of, to scorn, to avoid, to demean, and sometimes even condemn to death is far from short. At the health foods store I work at, I overhear a coworker slamming religious fundamentalists all the time. Then I go to campus and hear Bible professors taking pot-shots at Muslims and liberals, without the slightest hint of love. But it doesn’t stop there. I hear my own heart wishing agony upon SUV drivers, Wal-Mart shoppers, and military recruiters who refuse to apply this passage to Iraqis and Iranians. Our impulse as broken humans caught up in the systemic evil of culture wars and terror wars is to hate our enemies, and I myself feel like I’ve got the most to learn from Jesus about this. I’d rather not love an awful lot of this world.
But… if Jesus called his contemporaries to love and pray for the cruel Romans, then certainly we can learn to love and pray for whomever we’d rather not affiliate with. The scope of this love cuts across all boundaries we seek to set up to quarantine the culpable from it!
Now this isn’t to excuse or dodge the potential culpability of some of these folks. Homosexuality really is sin, it’s true. This White House really has tortured people, yep. Al Qaeda really has killed thousands of innocents. And that professor who drives you nuts, well, he or she may really be wrong about that important point! Jesus takes it for granted that the Romans are doing wretched things left and right, that your right cheek will be struck and your tunic taken. But he exposes evil for the sham it is precisely by not responding in kind. Jesus looks the world straight in the eye and says there’s a better way.
If Jesus meant this better way should apply to violent regimes and questionable cultural forces, then he certainly meant it apply also to that guy who cut you off in traffic this morning, to that co-worker who blames you for her mistakes, and to that small group leader who shamed you in front of everyone. Where the bad driver should be reprimanded, the coworker scorned, and the church leader exposed for their folly outright, Jesus calls us to a better way. It’s not enough to settle for only loving the good drivers, the capable coworkers, and the kindly church leaders. Loving the aggravating and the assaulting is Jesus’ better way.
And again I want to clarify: Jesus isn’t, nor is this sermon, primarily concerned about “pacifism”, peace, or nonviolence. It’s about love. My friend Bison told me yesterday about how he used to be involved in these radical action groups – some for the environment, others for peace. And he found that what motivated them often wasn’t love, but anger, or hate. It’s the fault of all those consumers + corporations, and damn them to hell! Well, it may well be their fault, but Jason soon realized that was a sinful response. See what Jesus is talking about here is doubly revolutionary. I can’t just settle for refusing to hit the bully back, to respond in kind to the office gossip, to respond to terrorist bombs with precision bombs, while having a bigoted wrath in my heart for ‘em. I can’t settle for not killing them with my hands, but killing them in my heart, for loving the Iraqi and hatin’ the American. That’s too small, and that’s too far from what Jesus is after. See, he’s after love. I gotta love those folks.
And like I said, I’d really rather not. Loving people in my life and in the world that thwart justice and pervert truth … it strikes me as entirely crazy.
Indeed the apparent craziness of this solution rings loudly through the pages of history, not least those of this past century. Jesus’ solution to evil would’ve spelled his execution everywhere you look.
Jesus wouldn’t have lasted long in France during World War 2. Hitler’s troops are on every street, bridges and playgrounds left in ruin, families vaporized by German artillery, and the nation is defeated. Choosing to actively love and bless these people would have been dangerous, treasonous for any Frenchman. But that’s Jesus’ solution to evil.
Jesus wouldn’t have lasted long in apartheid-era South Africa. The government of white Afrikaners was bullying, segregating, torturing, raping, murdering, and assassinating indigenous blacks. Heads were cut off with garden shears; parents slaughtered in front of their young children. Some resisted through violence – Molotov cocktails and guerilla terrorism against the Afrikaner government. Choosing to pursue reconciliation and love across apartheid lines must have gone against the deep instincts of worldly justice. But… that’s Jesus’ solution to evil.
Jesus wouldn’t have lasted long in today’s Iraq. One in five Iraqi households have lost at least one family member to this war. Occupying forces have been documented torturing prisoners, ransacking private homes, bombing core infrastructure, and spraying crowds with bullets. Extremists use the power vacuum to force their agenda through suicide bombings and roadside bombs. Between the Coalition Force’s campaigns and the terrorists whom they attracted, between 600,000 and one million Iraqis are dead. All this considered, one can see how tempting it would be to join the spiral of retributive violence against extremists and occupiers alike, and how hostile many would be to the notion of blessing and praying for terrorists or troops. But that’s Jesus’ solution to evil.
Jesus wouldn’t have lasted long in Palestine. Suicide bombers and RPG’s from one population. Apartheid walls and water shortages and bulldozers and laser-guided bombs from the other. Suggestions of peacemaking are cast into the outer darkness of hope, and the blood continues to poor. But that’s Jesus’ solution to evil.
Jesus wouldn’t have lasted long in America right after the 9/11 attacks. We all remember that day, and its horrors. Crashing planes, billowing smoke, fireballs and falling bodies, and demolished buildings. Most Americans endorsed a response that involved retaliation against the enemy. Those suggesting we send missionaries instead of missiles, nurses and doctors instead of naval destroyers, prayers instead of Predator gunships, were reviled and persecuted as unpatriotic traitors. But that’s Jesus’ solution to evil.
This paints out in agonizing clarity that old familiar doctrine that, were Jesus to appear today, we’d have killed him, too!
I mean, I’m with many of you all, I’m sure – how can we list out all these atrocities and injustices, how can we see this gnarling and thrashing sin for what it is, and then be so bonkers as to take Jesus for his word about it? His word that we are to respond in love. His command here scares and offends me as much as it does any of you.
So where in the world would Jesus have gotten this upside-down idea, this seemingly less-than-better way?
Where does he get this crazy idea? “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He gets it from the Father himself! Yahweh is the one who loves and blesses his enemies, who seeks out the other that so scorns him. God is the one who sends that ancient sign and assurance of blessing love not only to his treasured Israel, but also to the pagan, the gentile, even the Roman! They too are loved. It isn’t the elect alone who are to be regularly surprised by Father’s steady mercy. This is the God whose covenant mercy extends to the world, who ultimately dies for the world.
Jesus learned enemy love, the better way, his cruciform fate, from the true God in whose image we and he are called to reflect into the savage and terror-sanct world. Jesus loves his enemies because God loves his enemies. This crazy idea is our very salvation. And it is the way of God. We are called to love our enemies because God loves his enemies.
Who, though, are your enemies? Our enemies? I want to close this time with a moment of silence and prayer as we invite the Spirit to bring to our hearts those we hate, those we do not forgive, those we do not love. Is it a coworker? A politician? A people group in America? A relative? Muslims?