October 6, 2019
I had the great fortune this week to occasionally pop in on the 11th annual conference for the Society of Catholic Priests, an organization to which my wife Kelli belongs, because it is about little-c catholicity — that’s the tradition of the church going back before the Reformation made big-C Catholicism a thing — and it’s made up of Episcopalians.
I went because people I know and like were giving keynote addresses, and I’m glad that I did, because I had the electrifying, exhilarating experience of listening to not one but two talks that vigorously confirmed many things I already believe. That was a laugh line, but I am not sure it’s happened more than one time before. And it was honestly a little intoxicating. It felt amazing. I am significantly more sympathetic than I was just three days ago to people who attend rallies or speaking gigs or churches in order to hear what they already believe be vigorously confirmed. It felt amazing.
I am not sure a single person ever felt that way more than once or twice, listening to Jesus. I think many people must have felt it at least once — he’s often followed by great crowds, as he is here, in this portion from Luke’s “sermon on the plain” — but he’s also often left, after saying something particularly strange or hard to hear. Many of the people, after all, came for what Jesus could do for them, and did do: he healed them of their diseases and cast out demons from them. The crowds pressed in on him because if they touched him, power went out from him and healed all of them — this is at the beginning of the chapter, a preview of something seen again two chapters after this, when the woman who suffered from the flow of blood touches Jesus’ cloak in crowded place and is healed. But whether the experience of healing is enough to convince his hearers that what he says is true: that is certainly an open question. To this very day it is open, the question of what it is we do with what Jesus says, which is always before and after and alongside and woven through what he does. As if the two are meant to reinforce and complete each other, despite how much simpler it would be if they could be separated, the theory from the practice.
Here on the level place, the crowd pressing against him for healing, maybe listening, maybe not, surrounded by strangers and many disciples beyond the Twelve, Jesus opens his mouth to teach. He begins with a series of reversals which are by now so familiar that they’ve got their own name — the Beatitudes — and may or may not be able to shock and dismay us as they should: Proclamations that those to whom life has been the least kind, those suffering want, hunger, grief, and defamation are in fact particularly blessed by God, and that those in possession of those things for which we are wont to thank God, financial comfort, enough food, worldly happiness, are simply in line for sufferings of their own.
And then on the heels of that he offers the portion we have to hear together today. The commonsense ways of accounting, of determining what is good, God-loved, and what is not, are backwards, Jesus says, and so here are the ways you should act, accordingly: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. The way you are to act, to be in the world, is precisely backwards from what is sensible, because the working of God in the world, God’s blessing and reward is not sensible. It comes, God’s kindness, to the ungrateful and the wicked. It comes as much to those pressing in on Jesus to get their healing and be done as to those standing quietly, waiting for his word. It comes not because of desert on the part of the receivers, but because of who God is.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. The mercy Jesus commands of those who hear him — “I say to those of you who listen,” he begins, perhaps those who have not already tuned out after he told them they were blessed in their wretchedness and cursed in their comfort — is constant goodness towards those who can not and will not return it. Love those who are hostile and opposed to you; do good for those whose hearts are already set against you; pray for those who seek your harm; give more than has been asked to those who are not right to take from you; open your pockets to those who ask. Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Because, probably, your suspicions are exactly right: you won’t get it back. Not from them. As God stands to us, regardless of our merit, as a source of goodness, an always-giving giver of good gifts, so we are to be to others, regardless of theirs.
I say to those of you who listen, love your enemies… If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?
There are two presuppositions here that may be obvious but are worth making explicit: First, that we have enemies; and second, that there’s some kind of credit that we want. These presuppositions are underneath much of the gospels; the gospels are hard to understand without the assumptions that we have or will soon gain enemies and that doing what God wants, getting credit in our heavenly accounts, is a genuine motivation for us. These things too are worth really considering: that having enemies in principle is not just not bad but assumed by Christ, and that doing as God does and wants us to do is an intrinsic good, intrinsically motivating.
The question is: what does it mean to love? In what way is it sensical to love both a loved one and an enemy? In what way can we love that is like the way that God loves?
There are two very obvious, and very good, examples that have sat beside me as I’ve worked on this sermon this week, nudging me. The first is Dr. Martin King, who preached and spoke often on the power of love and forgiveness of enemies; if you are interested in his sermons, I have brought the collected volume, which you can also buy under the title Strength to Love. His sermon on loving enemies begins by talking about what it is to forgive them, even when they are not sorry and indeed continue to do you harm. The second is the family of Botham Jean, who was killed by an off-duty police officer last September; at the officer’s sentencing this week, Jean’s brother Brandt publicly forgave and embraced her, and his mother Alison released a statement forgiving her while crying out for greater justice. The video of the hug has gone viral, and a thousand thousand people, Christian and otherwise, have weighed in on the moment.
The examples are perfect, and yet in this country, in this time, when white Americans love to be forgiven, to see forgiveness of other white Americans by people we have wronged play out, and yet are so slow ourselves to offer any forgiveness or mercy — not to people sentenced in our courts, not to people detained at our border, not to people who really piss us off online, I am not sure we have a right to the stories of others. Dr. King did not write about love and the Jeans did not obey the commandment of Jesus Christ to forgive in order to become easy sermon examples. Not if our response to them is “how wonderful,” to feel warmed by them instead of convicted to the very bottoms of our souls by the fact that we, as a rule, decline to do the same.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
What is sensible, of course, is to limit our sphere of concern to those for whom the concern is mutual: Our families, our friends, those on whom we feel we can in some way rely. Our society is built on these pockets of concern: A person works to provide for their family, not for strangers, for instance. We live in homes that are built largely with the assumption that a single family, a couple and maybe children, will live in them. We drive cars built the same way on roads built for cars. Because our care is a limited resource, what is sensible is to spend it on people who care for us back. We love people who love us.
Of course this loving involves affection and approval sometimes, but inasmuch as the misbehavior of our children or the myriad small selfishnesses and errors we and our partners are prone to as humans do not automatically diminish the love we share, love is not defined by affection and approval. The best explanation I know for love is the decision to leverage one’s own resources for the ultimate good of the other. This is why it is loving to pull a child back from a hot stove, to speak frankly to a friend about your concern over their dangerous behavior, to refuse your car keys to a driver you know is not safe on the road. We know this to be real love, even when it means opposition to the desires of the other, because the greatest concern is for the other person’s greatest well-being.
What Jesus tells his hearers to do is to upend the usual order of concern, as he has upended the usual order of blessedness. We are to extend the lines that designate whose well-being matters to us so wide that everyone is included by them. We know that loving our children, our friends, our partners, and our families does not mean yes-manning them, and neither does it mean yes-manning our enemies. Love is no friend to injustice. But love does mean that the well-being of the other is of crucial importance. To love an enemy means that the ultimate well-being of even the hostile is something that concerns us.
When Jesus healed, he sometimes said, “you are healed,” and he sometimes said, “come out, unclean spirit,” and he sometimes said, “your sins are forgiven.” The health of our actions and the health of our bodies and the health of our souls are bound up in one another, and a person who works only evil needs the kind of healing that only Christ can provide them. We pray for and bless those who hate and abuse others not because prayer means approval but precisely because it doesn’t, because standing in the light of Jesus we are sometimes able to see the sickness in another and conforming ourselves to Jesus means extending ourselves for another’s healing as Jesus extended himself for the healing of the whole world. We who have been healed, we who have come close enough to Jesus to brush our fingers over the hem of his garment and feel his power replace the infirmities of our souls should, more than anyone, desire that great healing in the souls that are so sick that even we, despite the logs in our own eyes, can see it.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? If you, asks Jesus, who say you love God and follow me, mete and measure out your love and forgiveness in ways that are indistinguishable from people who claim neither, on what grounds do you say those things? The central claim of Christianity, the nonsensical truth upon which it insists, is that God became a human being, was killed, and broke death open and rose again in order to break the chains of sin from the wrists and ankles not of the good but of the sinful, not to pal around with people who were doing a good job being good but to go and pluck out of gullies and bramble-bushes those who had gotten themselves lost miles from the road to righteousness. We love our enemies because God loves our enemies, because God desires their healing as God desired ours, because Jesus died for them as for he did for us, and having ourselves been redeemed, we dare to hope for the redemption of our enemies as well. “Go and sin no more” is a word not of scolding but of healing, and what joy there will be on heaven and on earth when the soul-sickest among us have been healed. Love, pray for, bless, do good to your enemies, and you will be children of the Most High, Jesus says, children of the God who is defined above all by kindness to the deserving and the undeserving, whose gifts of creation and sustenance are not distributed according to merit but according to need. Children of the God who already sustains us, whose love and whose power flow through us, straightening our backs and strengthening our arms for the work of the Kingdom.
Your reward will be great, Jesus says, and we look for it not from people who cannot give it, but from its source, God the gift-giver. The good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, is not put into our laps by mortal hands, for us to portion out sparingly and guard like dragons on a hoard lest we find ourselves scraping the bottom. When we love our enemies, forgive those who have done us evil, pray for those who act like they have no health in them, we are giving, giving, giving from the running-over measure of God, who is always filling our laps with more. The love with which we love is the love with which we have been loved, the love with which we are loved still, today, in this moment, and forever.