Today’s passages are central to the ultimate message of Jesus. We are told by Jesus that really there are only 2 commandments. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But Jesus explains over and over who that neighbor is, and it is not just the person who lives next door, or the family member or the friend who can return the favors that you grant. It is also that person whom you fear, and the person you hate, and the person who makes your very skin crawl. It is that person who represents for you everything that you are against. Who might that person be for you? We all have people like this in our lives, and it is not usually those people we might first consider. In this church we are very good at seeing and feeding and housing and LOVING the economically disadvantaged. We give money and food to church street ministries. We house the homeless through Family Promise. We serve meals through Bethany and the Berea Area Ministers community meals. We write letters for Bread for the World and we make lunches for our summer lunch program. We make bags of food to give to families over Memorial Day weekend, we go on mission trips to provide help with housing and disaster relief, we give food from our garden to the food pantry, we provide mittens and gifts at Christmas and malaria nets at mother’s day, we buy heifer animals to help those in need in other places, and there is more. When we serve this food we look at those we serve, we engage them, we sit with them, we eat with them. We are good at seeing these people as our neighbors. But there are others. When you think of people who make you angry, or who make your skin crawl, who do you think of? Are there people you consider the epitome of evil? Who are they?
I shared this story recently with our Wednesday evening Bible study, but I think it is a good illustration of who those hard to love enemies might be.
Corrie Ten Boom Story on Forgiving
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
“It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’
“The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’
“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“ ‘You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.
“ ‘But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’
“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’
“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’
“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“ ‘I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’
“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”
That was an enemy. This man, who had partial responsibility of her sister’s death and for her own torture, humiliation and deepest suffering. – that is an enemy in the truest sense of the word. And while the story I shared with you is a story about forgiveness, it is also a story about making the decision to love, truly love, your enemies, those people you would rather never see, never touch, never interact with. It is the hardest thing in the world to do, but it is our call.
I look at these words from Matthew, “But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. 40 When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. 41 When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. 42 Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.” There are so many books, so many studies, so many interpretations of these words. There are so many explanations out there for what it means to turn the other cheek. But this last week I heard these in a different and more profound way. In each of these situations, the bottom line is one not simply of not seeking retaliation, not simply one of not returning evil for evil. Each of these commands are calling us into engagement with the enemy. When someone slaps your right cheek, are we told to just walk away and not retaliate? That could have been what Jesus said. Just don’t retaliate. Accept what has come to you that is evil, accept it, don’t return evil back, and move on. But that’s not what Jesus said. He says, turn the other cheek to them as well. In other words, engage them. Continue to be with them. Look them in the eye and continue the relationship, even in the midst of the pain they are causing you. Second, we are told when someone forces you to go one mile, “go with them two”. GO WITH THEM two. In other words, don’t just quietly accept what they’ve asked you to do. Don’t just allow yourself to be used for a mile. Engage the other, walk with them for two miles, walk with this enemy, this brother. Engage them. We are told when they haul you to court and want to take your shirt, give them your coat too. In other words, don’t just let go of anger and accept that you have to pay and pay and pay what is not fair and not right and not theirs for you to pay them. Engage them further. Give them more. Interact with them and hand them what is more.
I am reminded of the musical and now the movie “les Miserable”. The story begins with the release after 19 years imprisonment of Jean Valjean. In the story, he was sentenced for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her family as well as for attempted escapes from prison. Now that he’s been released, he can’t find a place to stay because his papers mark his as a former prisoner. But the Bishop, Myriel offers him shelter when no one else will. Still, instead of expressing gratitude and thanksgiving to the bishop, Jean Valjean waits until night and then runs off with Myriel's silverware, stealing from the very man who has just given him a break, shown him grace and care. When the police capture Jean Valjean, the Bishop though surprises everyone, especially jean Valjean by pretending that the silverware Jean Valjean stole was actually given to him as a gift. But he goes even farther. Just like in what Jesus asks us to do, not only does he not press charges against the man who has hurt him, not only does he not insist on what is right and fair, which would be that the bishop be rewarded for caring for this man rather than punished by having his things stolen, not only this, but he follows Jesus command to give even more to those who would take from us and the Bishop presses Jean Valjean to take two silver candlesticks as well, as if he had forgotten to take them, too. He does exactly what jesus says to do – he gives, in essence, his cloak as well as his shirt; giving the candlesticks as well as the silverware that Jean Valjean would steal. We know the rest of the story. Jean Valjean is changed by this act of grace. He does change his life around and becomes a successful and giving member of society.
But the reality is that we cannot do good for the other expecting the good that we do to change them. That isn’t our job. Our job is to do what God asks us to do and leave the results of that love and that care to God. Does that mean it might not make a difference? Of course. Does that mean that a person we offer care to might just take advantage of us and continue to use and abuse others? Of course. But again, what they do with the love we offer is not our job. What is our job is to offer the love Jesus calls us to offer.
Still, what Jesus asks here is SOOO hard. How many of us could do that? When we are taken to court, we fight. When someone steals from us, we want them to pay. How many have we seen on the news who insist “in the name of God” on “justice”, completely missing that God’s justice is detailed here, by Jesus and it is NOT, NOT EVER one of revenge, or one of seeking what is “fair” for us, or seeking retribution. NOT EVER. God’s justice, what we are called to do, looks like this. It looks like the behavior of the Bishop in Les Mis, it looks like Corrie Ten Boom in her response to the guard, it looks like what Jesus outlines here – it looks like loving our enemies and engaging them, giving much more than is deserved, even to those we fear, even to those we hate, even to those who are seeking, actively to hurt us.
How hard are these words! For us, these enemies may be people we have loved, people closer than we know, people who have hurt us beyond compare. I have a friend who has been divorced almost a year. When his wife left him, the courts gave instructions for the children to live with their mother but to have a set amount of time with their father. But his wife is angry, though it was her decision to seek the divorce. She does not want the children to have access to their father, she does not want their father to have access to the kids. So even though the law instructs that they have a certain amount of time with him, in the year since the divorce, he has seen them for a total of about 12 hours, or an hour a month. His ex-wife is an “enemy” in the sense presented to us here. She is taking from him what is rightfully his. She is taking from the children a relationship with their father. She is taking what matters most to him in all the world, despite the fact that she has no real right to do that. What would Jesus say to do in a situation like this? How do you love an enemy like this, that is taking what is most dear to you, what is most important to you? And when that decision is not just affecting yourself but others as well, children as well, how are we to respond in a loving way?
The scriptures today again show us this one really important aspect that transcends most problems, and that, again, is engagement. Continuing to keep those lines of communication open, continuing to work not from an adversarial position (no matter how much we may feel adversarial!) but from a place of love, of care, of outreach, that is what we are called to do. What will the results be? We don’t know. We can’t know. But again, the results are not up to us. What is up to us is choosing to act in love, even in the face of our pain, even in the face of our loss, even in the face of others’ determination to hurt us. Again, not easy at all. Not at all. And yet it is what we are called to do. Every time.
As with everything that God calls us to do, this is not going to be something we are always able to do. But we do it as much as we can. And we trust in the grace of God, the love of God, that continues to encourage and hold us, even when we can’t spread that same love to others. And that is the good news, today and everyday.