Sermons from St Faith's

Loving our Enemies
Fr Dennis Smith, 13th February, 2011

“Love your enemies … that you may be children of your Father in heaven”.

Do mountain heights lead to heights of human thinking? Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount tackles huge issues and points us to the highest possible values and aspirations, including this teaching on loving enemies, which John Stott has described as the most admired and the most resented of his teachings.

“Enemies” refers to anyone of any group that is opposed or hostile. A family quarrel, a dispute between neighbours, communal misunderstanding prejudiced views, territorial claims, or violent deeds, can all lead to people seeing each other as enemies. And the way of the world is such that hostilities can quickly escalate until the way back to sanity and peace is difficult to achieve. 

Along the road from Zinica to Zepce in Bosnia, there used to be two villages, one above the other on the hillside. Croats lived in the top one, with a Muslim community below. During the Bosnian war the Muslims drove the Croats out with disastrous results for both villages.

The Croats had a number of wells for their village water supply, and while they were living there the water they pumped kept the groundwater at a safe level. But after they were driven out and the village was deserted, the ground became waterlogged, and the hillside crumb led down into the Muslim village.

The lesson wasn’t lost on the Muslims. “If we hadn’t driven out the Croats, we could both have lived in peace,” they admitted, “but now both our villages have been destroyed.”

In telling us to love our enemies Jesus puts before us a way through mutually opposed views and actions that is demanding and difficult, yet one that can break cycles of hostility. So how can we love out enemies?

First, we should draw on the best biblical resources, and today’s reading from Leviticus offers some riches. Chapter 19 describes a way of life that is inclusive, sensitive to different human needs, and which seeks to preserve the rights and dignity of everyone in the community.

Rejecting slander, false judgement, vengeance of the bearing of grudges, and insisting on honest, compassion for the needy, respect for property, just laws and fair trade, are as relevant in today’s global village as they were in small rural communities three millennia ago.

Everything is summed up in the words that Jesus points to as one of the two greatest commandments: “Love your neighbour as yourself”.

Such love isn’t a vague, sentimentality; it’s firmly earthed in fair dealings, honest values, and compassionate concern. To live by such values, gives us a basic tool in dealing with enemies.

Second, we can turn to the example of Christians who have fought the good fight and left an example for us to follow. One obvious example is Dr. Martin Luther King, who through his leadership in the American Civil Rights movement exemplified love for his enemies.

One of his sermons is entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart”, which qualities, he believed, Jesus requires of us all.

It’s very easy to be soft in the sense that we are gullible, superstitious, fear change, or allow ourselves to be persuaded by prejudice and false argument. He quotes Adolf Hitler who, in Mein Kampf, wrote: “By means of shrewd lies, unremittingly repeated, it is possible to make people believe that heaven is hell, and hell heaven … the greater the lie, the more readily it will be believed”.

Huge damage is done by those who on the political far right or left or on the religious fringes pour out invective against minorities and are believed by soft minds. By saying that we should love our enemies, Jesus isn’t saying that we should let people walk all over us. We need instead to be tough minded, in the sense that we have a realistic view of the world,  that we are incisive in our thinking about moral dilemmas and the plight that many people are in, and clear in our judgement about what really matters.

But equally vital is the need to have tender hearts. Hard hearts never truly love; hard hearts fail the test of compassions; hard hearts don’t see people as people, but as statistics, as objects, or as cogs in the machine.

The moving story of rich Dives who never even greeted poor emaciated Lazarus who daily sat near his front gate, is a salutary warning about blind hardhearted indifference.

We need, instead, the tenderness of the Samaritan who rescued the Jew who was bleeding by the roadside; the tenderness that can see beyond the labels, the stereotypes, the racial or cultural divides, to give value to every person, for each is a child of God.

Tough minds allied to tender hearts are a good prescription for giving us the tools we need if we are to love our enemies.

But what of those who create the stereotypes and who seek to harden prejudice? What of those who poison a situation with lies, misinformation, or even violence? What are we to do in the face of hatred and evil? Can any of us be strong enough then to love our enemies?

Here we look to a third source of help and the greatest of them all: to the example of Christ himself.

Jesus’ own attitude has often been summed up in the phrase: “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” and there are many Gospel examples of him doing just that.

In the passage we heard as today’s Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount, he takes us beyond the prescription of “an eye for an eye,” which was designed to provide justice without seeking revenge.

Though it seems draconian to us, it a least prohibited people taking the law into their own hands and engaging in family feuds.

Instead Jesus gives us four brief illustrations of his arguments for passive resistance.

If someone threatens you with injury, by hitting you in the face, by taking you to court, by conscripting you to service, or by demanding money from you, don’t retaliate, don’t seek revenge; instead, offer the other cheek, and give more than has been demanded of you.

Jesus did it himself. The words of the prophet Isaiah sum it up for us: “I gave my back to those who struck me … I did not hide my face from insult and spitting”.

Through the whole grisly, violent business of his arrest, trials, tormenting and crucifixion, Jesus didn’t respond in kind.

In the garden of Gethsemane, when his friends tried to prevent his arrest, h e called out, “Put your sword away”, words which have echoed down the centuries to make us think twice and more than twice before meeting violence with violence.

That includes the many who find it impossible to embrace pacifism in every circumstance, but who know that it’s right that they should wrestle and wrestle with the creative tension that Christ’s own example puts before us.

We believe in a God for whom truth and justice are vital. But the nature of that truth and justice has been revealed to us finally and supremely through a life of total love. Only such a love can break through the spirals of enmity that separate families, communities and nations.

John Newton who, as a slave trader, had contributed to the enmity that blighted the world of his day, came to repent of his folly and worked to repair some of the damage that had done.

One of his hymns has lines that remind us of the ultimate secret to loving our enemies:

“One there is above all others, well deserves the name of friend,
His is love, beyond a brother’s, costly, free, and knows no end:
They who once his kindness prove,  find it, everlasting love.”

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