Love your enemies. This has to be one of the more difficult of Jesus’ commands. It’s part of the continuation of last week’s Sermon on the Plain. This is what living in the kingdom of God looks like. This is the kind of ethic that God wants for us. It’s hard to do. We have a good example in Joseph forgiving his brothers, but it’s a hard example to live up to. Thankfully, even when we fail, God continues to live by this radical ideal of forgiveness and love.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. If someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other cheek for them to hit, too. If someone takes your coat from you, give them your shirt as well. Give to everyone who asks you for something, and if someone takes something that’s yours, don’t ask for it back.”
I’ve had conversations with folks before who really struggle with this passage, and others like it in the Bible, where Jesus seems to be asking quite a lot of us. People almost always admire the ethic Jesus presents, but then the rubber hits the road. “This won’t work in the real world,” I hear. If you act like this, you’ll get taken advantage of, pushed around, walked over. It sounds nice, but to try to actually do it…well it just doesn’t work.
I feel that way, too sometimes. It seems futile to receive hatred and return love. To receive judgment and return compassion. To receive violence and return peace. If you wonder about the practicality of these commands, you’re certainly not the first. It was the command to love your enemies that made the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believe that the Christian ethic is designed for the weak and cowardly, and not for the strong and courageous. Jesus, to him, was simply an impractical idealist. A Utopian dreamer. Not meant for the real world.
And you know what, Nietzsche was right. Not that Christianity is for the weak and cowardly—I very much think the opposite is true. But he was right that these commands of Jesus are not practical. They’re just not. It’s not practical to live this way. Giving your stuff away. Loving people who hate you. Blessing people who curse you. It’s not at all practical. But it is powerful.
On an episode of the Invisibilia podcast, which looks at the unseeable things that help define human behavior, they told the true story of a dinner party gone awry. Eight friends had gathered for a celebration in one of their homes. The night was going well, they were enjoying the good food and wine, when suddenly, the home was broken into.
A man, armed with a gun, was standing in their dining room. He demanded that they give him money, or he would start shooting. Most of them were too scared to move or speak. But one of them took a chance. He offered the man a glass of wine. And you know what? The would-be burglar took him up on the invitation. He put down his gun and joined them.
Psychologists have started to study what they call “non-complimentary behavior.” And they’re realizing that Jesus was on to something. The church has known that for a while, but it’s nice to have the science to back it up. We’re conditioned as humans to give what we get, so to speak. If someone approaches us in a hostile manner, our defenses go up and we tend to be hostile back. If someone comes up to us with a cheerful smile on their face, we relax and return the warmth and goodwill. The complimentary response to an attempted armed robbery is aggression. The non-complimentary response is an invitation to a seat at the table.
A non-complimentary response flips the script. It changes everything. It’s what Joseph does to his brothers in the reading from Genesis. We come into this Joseph story in the middle, really almost at the end, so it’s kind of confusing. Many years before, Joseph, the youngest and favorite of twelve brothers, was attacked and sold into slavery by his older brothers, who resented his position as their father’s favorite. He ended up in Egypt, and although he got off to a rocky start, he rose to power and became Pharaoh’s second in command. It was his foresight, and visions from God, that prepared Egypt to survive this seven-year famine.
Joseph’s family wasn’t so lucky. His brothers were sent to Egypt by their father in search of food or fertile land. They don’t recognize the little brother they horribly mistreated years ago. And that’s where our reading starts. That’s why they’re dismayed to hear that this is their brother Joseph. They assume that they’ll be thrown in prison, killed, or at the very least sent away empty handed.
But then Joseph flips the script. He forgives them. He breaks free from the chains of the past that he could have let determine the future. He breaks with the oppression, fear, violence and murder of the past. In declaring his forgiveness, Joseph creates a new present and a new future.
Nietzsche said that Christianity is not for the courageous. He couldn’t have been more wrong. The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, writes: “In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.’ Over time, this definition has changed, and today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic…we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics are often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. And that’s pretty extraordinary.”
Flipping the script is courageous. It means being vulnerable. It means taking all of the hate and violence and condemnation in the world and returning instead love, and peace, and compassion. That’s not a cowardly thing to do, it’s incredibly brave. And when we do it—when we flip the script—we’re part of God’s kingdom breaking into this world. God’s promised future of mercy and love breaks into our present through our practices when we do these things and when we experience them from others. We get to participate in making God’s future our now.
And we get to be part of God’s future because of the greatest script-flipper of all: God. God has flipped our scripts so many times over. God takes in our doubts and gives us faith instead. God takes in our resentment and anger and returns compassion. God takes in our apathy and gives us zeal. God takes in our pasts, with all of our mistakes and regrets, and God gives us a future marked by forgiveness and love. We get to be part of God’s future, we get to be part of the in-breaking of this kingdom, because God refuses to give complimentary responses. Thank God for that. Amen.