TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST/REFORMATION SUNAY
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you are the holy lawgiver, you are the salvation of your people. By your Spirit renew us in your covenant of love, and train us to care tenderly for all our neighbors, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:37-40.
It could not be simpler. All scripture as we have it in the law, the prophets and the apostles of the New Testament are to be interpreted through the prism of these two great commandments. If any interpretation of the scripture drives one to actions that do not reflect love, it is wrong, however carefully and painstakingly exegeted it may be.
Of course, “love is a many splendored thing.” I can use it to express my feelings for my wife just as easily as I can use it to express my appetite for rum raison ice cream. So, to be clear, love in this biblical sense derives its meaning from the narrative of Jesus’ Incarnation, faithful life, sacrificial death and glorious Resurrection. The Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus reduces the law to a life lived in faithful reliance upon God’s grace and unconditional love for one’s neighbor is not an ideal to which believers are required to live up. Nor is it just a mirror into which we need to look from time to time in order to remind ourselves that we are sinners in need of grace. There is nothing ideal, theoretical or aspirational here. The Sermon lays out the path Jesus actually walked and into which he calls his disciples to follow.
It needs to be said that the love to which Jesus calls us has little to do with affection. It is something practiced rather than felt. That means love is extended even, or rather especially, to enemies. That is more problematic than many of us like to admit. I have heard good church people say repeatedly, “I don’t hate anyone.” I wonder, though, whether we are being entirely truthful with ourselves when we make remarks like that. I also wonder whether it is fair to expect people not to experience hatred. Can you insist that genocide survivors not to hate the ones who orchestrated the murder of their families and the destruction of their homelands? Can you ask survivors of sexual abuse to feel less than hatred toward their abusers? To be sure, some people in these circumstances have reached the point where they have extinguished their hatred and are able to forgive from the heart. Some have even become reconciled with their tormentors. But that usually comes at the end of a long road of struggle. I am not sure it is fair to impose it as a rule. If hate is so alien to God’s people, why do we have so many psalms in the Bible that teach us how to express it? Do these psalms conflict with what Jesus teaches us about love for enemies? Is it possible to love people you hate?
Hate is often portrayed as the antithesis of love, but I don’t necessarily believe that to be the case. Love and hate often live in close proximity. None are capable of hurting me more than the ones I love most dearly. Nobody is able to arouse my anger like the people closest too me. Most violent crimes are committed by one family member against another. Hatred might be defined as love that has gone off the rails, love that has been betrayed, love broken down through the prism of an abusive upbringing. In its own perverse way, hatred testifies to the existence of love and our yearning for it. Without love, I doubt we would be capable of hate.
As Holocaust survivor, author and philosopher Elie Wiesel has observed, the antithesis of love is not hatred, but indifference. I may not share with our president and his supporters their xenophobic fear and hatred of refugees seeking only the opportunity to live. But if I believe that the Trump administration is responsible for a strong economy and my retirement account is doing well, I won’t make a fuss over these people that I don’t even know. So, too, I might think it’s a shame what happened to George Floyd and Briana Taylor. I might find it offensive that the president of the United States refers to African nations in terms I will not dignify in print. Still, I don’t care sufficiently to put my nest egg at risk on that account. It is not that I hate my neighbors. I just don’t care enough to love them. Boiled down to its essentials, love means giving a damn, and not just about your own family, tribe, nation or church. We know from numerous examples throughout history that racial discrimination, genocide and other crimes against humanity are carried out by the relatively few under the noses of the many who are simply indifferent.
That brings me back to the extension of love to the enemy. Let us be clear that loving one’s enemy does not mean liking, admiring or even feeling compassion for the enemy. It does not exclude harboring hatred against one’s enemy. Loving one’s enemy does not mean ignoring the enemy’s aggression, allowing the enemy to abuse oneself and others or refraining from taking the enemy to task with a sound rebuke. In my Kierkegaard’s Ghost, I have mercilessly parodied quite a number of public figures leading some to question the depth of my Christian character. Believe it or not, I take that criticism seriously. I ask myself often whether I have crossed a line in seeking to expose what I see to be the injustice and cruelty of civil leaders and the hypocrisy if religious ones. But I do not believe that love is inconsistent with speaking truth to power and, when it comes to employing satire and parody to that end, there is plenty of biblical precedent.
As tough as it must sometimes be, though, love does not lose sight of the enemy’s humanity or forget that the enemy is created in God’s image. As angry and violent as the psalmists’ cries for vengence sometimes are, they always leave the business of dealing out retributive justice in God’s hands where it belongs. Love recognizes the enemy as that one sheep out of ninety-nine the rest of us could do without, but that Jesus is determined to bring back into the flock. Love is not a matter of feeling but doing. You don’t have to feel affection for your neibhbors to feed, cloth, house, visit and heal them. As with many other difficult tasks, the hands must sometimes take the lead and wait for the heart to follow. Love recognizes that what one most hates in the other is often a reflection of what one strenuously denies about oneself. Thus, an encounter with the enemy is an invitation to self reflection and repentance. It has been said that an enemy is one whose story have not yet heard. There may be no justification for the wounds an enemy inflicts on us or upon others. But understanding the enemy’s motives, learning the life paths that brought the enemy to where they stand today and recognizing what within us evokes the enemy’s hostility gives us the handles we need for dismantling that hostility rather then falling deeper into the vortex of endless retaliation.
Here is a poem by Daniel Henderson about encounter with the enemy, illustrating both the potential for healing and the tragic consequences of passing that opportunity by.
When I before your gate
Cast sword and shield,
Quitting my ramparts of hate,
Eager to yield,
God, how your hush revealed
The fortress will,
The purpose changeless and steeled-
Now, in our wrath’s cold blaze
We strut, we guard.
There are castles and moats in your gaze-
My glance is a shard.
Aloof as the very pole,
Disdainful and proud,
I arm myself-my soul
Wears pride as its shroud!
Forever a foe to your mind,
So I shall be,
But oh, if you had been kind,
Source: Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (Vol. 33, November 1928) p. 78. Having researched my anthologies and online resources, I have not been able to find any information on poet, Daniel Henderson. I would welcome information from any source on this poet whose work caught my attention just a few months ago.