Dr. Steve Lindsley
Luke 6: 27-38
Love your enemies. We have heard these three words a thousand times, probably more. From our pastor. From our Sunday School instructor. From our Mom. From our coach. From our 5th grade teacher. Well, my 5th grade teacher. Leroy, the tall kid who sat behind me in class, had been picking on me mercilessly all day, pushing all the right buttons (or wrong buttons); and at some point in the middle of our history lesson I whipped around and yelled in his face to shut up. Which promptly earned me some extra classroom time with my teacher during recess. I made my case to Mrs. Peoples, how Leroy was always picking on me and making my ten-year old life miserable. She listened and promised to do something about it. But you know, Steve, she then said, looking at me over the tops of her glasses like she always did when she really meant something, You know, Steve, the best thing you can do, better than anything I can do, is to love your enemies.
Love your enemies, It’s almost become a cultural mantra, something you might find etched on a coffee mug. In fact, right after typing that last sentence in my sermon prep this week, I googled it, and sure enough there are “Love Your Enemies” coffee mugs. And t-shirts. And bumper stickers. It’s something we whip out and put to use when we really don’t know what else to say. Life isn’t fair. People do not always treat you the way they should. What do you do? Love your enemies.
We lift it up because it seems like a good thing to do, like the right thing to do. And we undergird it with extraordinary stories, powerful and moving stories, where it does appear that enemies have, in fact, been loved. The endearing friendships between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, between George W. Bush and Michele Obama. The fans of one NFL team contributing nearly half a million dollars to the charity of an opposing’s team quarterback during the playoffs.
And this story: German pilot Franz Stigler who, during the second world war, refused to shoot down a crippled American bomber flying over Germany and trying to get back to England because he saw that the plane was riddled with bullets and would be no harm to the German forces. Instead he escorted him to safety and then peeled off, saluting the plane’s pilot as he did. Decades later, the two men met in a well-publicized friendly encounter.
Now how about that for some loving your enemies!
Have you noticed how we gravitate toward these extraordinary stories when we talk about loving enemies? Is it possible we do this because it takes something so outlandish, so unbelievable to convince us that such a crazy thing like loving your enemies can actually happen? Is it possible we do this because, when it comes to our own lives, we haven’t the faintest clue how to go about doing it?
Someone cuts us off in traffic – twice. Someone perpetually undermines us at work, taking credit for things we did. Someone is always there waiting in the digital wings, ready to pounce on anything we share on social media that could remotely be construed as “political.” Someone makes it their mission to make our 5th-grade life a misery fest.
And it certainly doesn’t help that society at large pushes us further and further into dichotomies, into opposing camps, where enemies are easy to recognize:
Vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers
Maskers vs. anti-maskers
Republicans vs. Democrats
Tar Heels vs. Blue Devils
Liberals vs. conservatives
Rich vs. poor
Rural vs. urban
Into all of this we hear Jesus in our passage today telling us to love our enemies. Telling this to everyone gathered that day on the plain – not a mountain, as we find in Matthew’s gospel, the sermon on the Mount. This is Luke’s version, the sermon on the plain, a level place, so the Jesus that Luke gives us here is not some “high up” Jesus where we have to bend our necks back in order to get a glimpse of him. No, this is a “right here” Jesus who’s on the same level we are. A Jesus who is accessible to all.
This accessible Jesus tells us to love our enemies – but more than that, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those who might curse us, even to pray for those who make our lives a living hell. This Jesus who asks us, while it’s certainly nice to go on loving those who already love us and make it oh so easy, is that really something we ought to be patting ourselves on the back for. This Jesus who dares to say that we should not only love our enemies but do so knowing that there’s no guarantee they’ll love us back.
And it’s hard, right? Because this is not that “high up on the mountain” Jesus we can barely see and easily discount because “he doesn’t know what’s going on down here.” This is the “right here” Jesus, the one who is easy to see; and from what we’ve seen we gather that he’s not asking us to do something he’s not willing to do himself.
But still – love your enemies? Really, Jesus? It’s not just that it’s hard loving enemies. It’s that it is unreasonable. It does not make sense. When we are mistreated, disrespected, undermined, harmed, hurt, abused, or taken advantage of, the reasonable response is not to love. It is, at the very least, to dislike. And no one can fault us for that, because that is just the way the world is. It is unreasonable to expect us to love people like that. Tolerate them, perhaps. Ignore them, maybe. But not love.
You see the rub, right? Once we get past the cultural mantra and coffee mug message. Once we come to understand that Jesus is not speaking about just the extraordinary instances. He is talking to us about us. He is talking about love – the Greek word here, agape, is more than friendly acquaintance or the mere absence of hate. It is a deep and holy love. An all-in love. An abiding and everlasting love.
An unreasonable love.
So what is it exactly that Jesus is asking us here? How does this “unreasonable love” play out? Jesus is kind enough to give a few examples that merit a closer look, not only so we might know what they mean but equally important what they do not mean. We get this bit about letting someone strike you on the other cheek, about offering your shirt if someone takes your coat. And over the years these words of Jesus, sifted through the sieve of our culture of domination and toxic masculinity, these words have led far too many to think that, at best, Jesus wants us to open ourselves up to being taken advantage of and, at worst, submit to abuse.
And so this is the point in the sermon when we state unequivocally that Jesus is saying nothing of the sort. Matthew’s rendition of this verse includes the important detail of being struck on the right cheek. Important because, if we assume that the one striking is right-handed, this suggests a backhanded slap instead of a fist – in other words, the kind of hit a superior would inflict on a subordinate. Turning the other cheek, then, is not to be hit twice but actually is a way of rendering the strike useless. You can test this out later at home to see what I’m talking about, although I do advise slow motion.
Here’s the point – when Jesus tells us to “turn the other cheek,” he is not advocating for the acceptance of abuse or allowing ourselves to become a doormat for others to walk on. Let me be crystal clear: Jesus is not saying that if you’re in an abusive situation you need to stay there. Quite the opposite – Jesus is in fact giving us the tools for nonviolent resistance to violence – which is an embodiment of “loving our enemies.”
Now there is more that Jesus unpacks for us here, including what I’d describe as the element of reciprocity in human interactions – that is, the temptation in our relationships to constantly assess, either intentionally or subconsciously, what we might get out of that relationship. In the world Jesus lived in, this was very much out in the open – relationships were often founded and built on the exchange of gifts, friendships and connections were forged between peers who could evenly reciprocate each other’s offerings. We find this very thing play out a few chapters later in Luke when Jesus describes a banquet where it is the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind who are invited – the ones who have no chance of repaying their host, which is precisely the point and why the parable shocks its listeners.
The truth, in fact, is that Luke’s Jesus is constantly in the business of upending this social structure and the conventional way of thinking about relationships and human interaction, because he knew then and would certainly know better than anyone later the deep, deep peril of reasonable love. Of reciprocated love. Love with strings attached. That kind of love only serves to uphold the way things are instead of transforming them into the way things ought to be. That kind of love is what makes possible things like systemic injustice, societal greed, racism and classism and heterosexism and every other “ism” you can think of. That kind of love is not really love at all.
And then here comes Jesus telling us to love our enemies – a most unreasonable love. To do good to those who hate us, bless those who might curse us, pray for those who make our lives a living hell. And in loving and doing good and blessing and praying, we are giving those on the receiving end a gift they have not earned. Call it grace, if you will – a deeply powerful and, like love, often overused and misunderstood word. But it is undoubtedly grace when a gift is given that is not deserved or earned – and that is simultaneously its tragedy and its beauty.
In the Flannery O’Connor short story titled, Revelation, we find ourselves in a doctor’s waiting room, filled with people seen through the eyes of prim and proper, self-professed Christian Mrs. Turpin. Through what she openly shares in casual conversation and the inner thoughts that only we as readers are privy to, we see the way Mrs. Turpin sizes up those around her, placing them into what she considers to be their “proper categories” in society and whether they are worthy of her respect and time. She masks her judgments in southern gentilities; but it is obvious to all what she is doing, including young Mary Grace, who at one point in frustration calls her out as “an old wart hog.”
This wounds Mrs. Turpin because it is not at all the way she sees herself, and for days she stews on the verbal slight. It is perhaps the first time her understanding of herself as a “good Christian woman” has been called into question. And the story ends as she experiences a vision of a procession of people advancing from earth toward Heaven, a procession where she and her husband and those like them are in the rear, and all of those in front of her are ones she had always considered beneath herself.
It’s significant, don’t you think, that the one who more or less shocks her system and elicits the vision is named Grace? Grace is truth revealed in hard words like “old wart hog” and “love your enemies.” They both cut the same. All of which is such a sticky wicket for the likes of you and me, because this grace and this love are exactly what we long for but have such a hard time understanding because our entire system of human interaction is built on mutual benefit and reciprocity. And it is this system that Jesus wants very much to upend, so much that he comes to us on the plain, right on our own level, and speaks hard truth.
We get this strange verse at the end of our passage:
A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.
In markets in the ancient world, buyers would purchase grain and then pull up their outer garment from below with both hands to form a bowl-like shape. The merchant would then pour the grain into the lap of the buyer and press it down to make more room so they could pour more. But they weren’t done yet, because the buyer would then shake his garment side-to-side to level it down even more. This process would repeat over and over again until the seller had topped it off with as much grain as it could take.
Pressed down. Shaken together. Running over. That’s grace in a nutshell. It is love – a most unreasonable love – that has the capability to change us and change the world if we are willing to make room for it. And Lord knows we need to make room for it. Beloved, now is not a time to be reasonable.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.