The readings for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany Are…
Old Testament Genesis 45:3–11, 15
Psalm Psalm 37:1–11, 39–40
New Testament 1 Corinthians 15:35–38, 42–50
Gospel Luke 6:27–38
The Epiphany season is ending. It’s a season all about God’s glory showing forth in Jesus. Next Sunday is Transfiguration when it all climaxes with Jesus shining forth starkly and most vividly, and with the Father saying, “Listen to him.” But, for my money, this week’s Gospel expresses the glory of God in the most startling and world changing way: “Love your enemies.”
There is a lot of fodder for hating enemies in the Bible, if we read it literally and thus take it the wrong way. God is a jealous or zealous God. God’s nose literally gets hot and bothered, God’s wrath is kindled, and God zaps God’s own enemies and the enemies of the chosen ones. And this burning zeal is literally recommended for God’s faithful. One psalmist puts this ideal in prayer form:
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:21-22)
Jesus has another idea. An interpreter of Luke’s Gospel, François Bovon, points out that what Jesus is calling for is not the sentiment, but the behavior of love. He further points out that if we think only of us and our enemies, then Jesus is calling us to an impossible and “sick” preference for being hated. No, we must put Jesus, our Lord, in the equation, and habitually act as though, in any interaction, there is not just us and our enemies, but also a God who is not hot with wrath, but full of love and forgiveness. And so, Jesus, our friend, is always with us to enable us to give good in exchange for evil–love to erase hate.
So, love of enemies is the only thing that will change the world. The endless cycle of revenge that seems to be hard wired into the human species, is what is killing us. The knee jerk way we have of rising to the bait and doing unto others more harm than they can inflict on us, is the world’s great status quo, and the cycle must be broken.
Our first lesson, from Genesis, gives us an example of how Joseph saved both Egypt and Israel by returning good for evil. He found a way to feed both the very brothers who sold him into slavery, and those who imprisoned him.
Psalm 37 several times says we should not “fret” about the seeming prosperity and power of the wicked who are out to get us. The English “fret” is a translation of the same word that the Old Testament so often uses when it speaks of God’s “hot nose” and “burning wrath.” The Psalm is saying it may be okay to leave the burning to God; but if we take it up “it leads only to evil” (v. 8).
Loving enemies changes the world in two ways. First, we grow from being mere admirers of God to becoming God’s children (Luke 6:35); and second, we open fresh possibilities for those who may oppose, hate, or even hurt us. Again, François Bovon:
In the act of loving their enemies, Christians act on behalf of the future of their enemies. Like the bearers of tradition and the evangelists, Jesus hopes that the new attitude will give the enemies the opportunity and ability themselves to step out of their enmity. In the behavior of the Christians, the enemies will discover someone facing them in love, where they expected an opponent. The New Testament Scriptures want to win over their opponents for the gospel. Love of one’s enemies is thus not a passive resignation.
(François Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002, p. 239.)
Our world seems hell bent on keeping us all enemies. Our favorite way of changing the world now is by means of street demonstrations. Words are weapons on placards and in social media trolling. It makes us giddy to make noise. “Defund the police” on one side of the street. “Freedom” and “Overthrow the Deep State” on the other. We think we are winning and changing the world, but come weal or come woe, the status is quo. It all seems to add up to more and more of the same.
Jesus calls us out with a command that is also a BIG PROMISE: “If you want to change the world, Love your enemies.” Don’t give up your resistance of injustice. Don’t surrender your values. But rather than using words and actions as weapons, shape them into invitation, fresh possibilities, and a brand new world for us all, in which there is no room for enemies at all.
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Great thoughts, John – love in action, radical love, is the one thing we can offer.
Thanks, Carla. I think the power of your own ministry comes from the fact that you never let people be enemies, and you never speak ill of others. You are concerned by injustice, and resist evil, but you don’t let the fight poison God’s love out of you.