Last week, Jesus said, If your eye offends you pluck it out and if your hand offends you, cut it off. And I said that I think he was speaking rhetorically, not literally. Well, this week, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And I’m sorry to tell you, but this time I think he means it.
I’m sorry because of all the things that Jesus says, this one is absolutely the most difficult. “Love your neighbour” - that’s easy. Once we figure out who our neighbour is, we can love them. “Welcome the stranger” - that’s not so hard, either. But “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” To love our enemies is to love the one who wants us dead, either literally or metaphorically. The enemy is the one who desires our non-being. I don’t mean that they necessarily wish we were dead, but they want us not to be anymore, so that they can be fulfilled. Your enemy is the one who takes pleasure in diminishing you, who breaks you down in order to build themself up, who stands in your way because your failure gives them joy. Throughout our lives, we encounter people whose sense of self is affirmed when they take away ours. And Jesus calls us to love them - to love our enemies.
And not only our enemies. We are to love those who desire the non-being of those whom we love. We are to love the enemies of our friends, we are to love the enemies of the poor, we are to love the enemies of our children. Douglas Garland, who killed little Nathan O’Brien, comes to mind. We are to love those who prey on the vulnerable in order to raise themselves up. To love and pray for those who hurt seniors, and babies. Take a second and call to mind the face of someone who has tried to “get rid” of you, or tried to exclude you, or tried to hurt you. It may be that you can find it in your heart to love them. But now call to mind the face of someone who has done those things to someone you care about. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How can Jesus ask this of us? How exactly are we supposed to do this? And why?
To even begin to answer these questions, we need to look first at what is meant by “love.” There are, of course, all kinds of ideas of what love is, and what kinds of love there are, and there’s the classical Greek division of eros, agape, and philia. But I want to look at what Paul Tillich, the German American Lutheran theologian from the 20th century, said about love. To begin with, Tillich said that love is not a feeling. Love is not the sentimental Valentine’s Day emotion created by cards with hearts on them or chocolate or flowers. Instead, love is how we act. (He actually said that love is also a state of being, which is why we say God is love, but I’m not going to get into that.) Love is an action. Specifically, love is acting for the other’s being. That is, love is acting so that the recipient of our love is affirmed in who they are, so that the Other feels recognized as a person, and valued, and that they are worthy of consideration and that God did not make a mistake when creating them. When we love someone, we act so that they know that they are an indispensable and irreplaceable part of the universe.
Tillich suggested that there are three ways that we love. Three ways to act so that the Other is affirmed. The first is to listen. When we listen to someone, truly listen, taking in everything they say, putting our own thoughts on hold, listening so that we can hear not only what they’re saying but everything behind their words - deep listening, you might say - when we do that, we are affirming their being. This is what’s behind Jesus’ command to pray for those who persecute us. In order to pray for someone, we must first listen to them. Listen to what they want to pray for, to what they consider important in their lives, to what they value, to what they fear. True prayer, which is to say not vengeful prayer, or praying, “Dear God, please make those who disagree with me come to see my way of thinking and change their minds,” true prayer means praying that the being of the Other is affirmed by God. And to do that, we have to listen.
Next, Tillich says that love is giving. It’s giving the energy and time and resources we put towards our own selves to the one we love, so that they can be more who they are created to be. It is orienting our lives toward the Other, so that they will thrive. Not necessarily so that they’ll exist - love doesn’t mean seeking to prolong our loved one’s life for as long as possible, simply for their existence. Existence is not the same as being. We can exist without being, if we have so descended into evil that we’ve lost ourselves, and we can be without existing, as we see in the resurrection. When we love, we give of ourselves so that the other can be.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we always do whatever the Other wants. Tillich served as an Army Chaplain in the German Army in WWI and was a prisoner of war, and he lived through WWII, and, during his time as the Chancellor of the University of Frankfurt, was critical of Hitler and lost his job and had to flee the country because of it. Tillich struggled with what it means to love your enemy when that enemy is literally trying to kill you and millions of people. And so when Tillich talks about giving as one of the ways we act in love, he also said that the act of giving can include the acts of, as he said, “resisting,” “restraining,” and “depriving.” It can be an act of love to resist the harmful actions of the one we love, to restrain them from hurting others, and to deprive them of the power to destroy. When we do not resist or restrain the evil of the one we love, when we give them the power or even allow them to hurt their enemies, it’s like giving sugar to someone with diabetes. They may want it, they may say they need it, but it will kill them. And so we resist when the “enemies” we are called to love try to hurt others. Always with humility, of course, and with an awareness that we are tempted in our own ways to want to assert our own being at the cost of the being of others, but nevertheless, we can resist and restrain and deprive. As an act of love.
And finally, Tillich said that love includes the act of forgiving. Forgiveness is the acknowledgment that although the Other has sought to disrupt our being, to diminish us, to cause us pain for their own pleasure, we nevertheless commit ourselves to their Being. In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, or debts, or sins, as we forgive those who trespass or sin against us.” We are trusting God to commit God’s self to our being––to forgive us––despite our wrongs, as we commit ourselves to Others. Forgiveness is not pretending that the enemy has not tried to hurt us. It is acknowledging that they have, and then moving forward to say that we will not act as they have. On June 17, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina, a white man, baptized Lutheran, sat in a Bible Study with the people of Mother Emanuel Church, and then, in a premeditated act, took out a gun and killed nine of them, including the pastor, because they were black. Two days later, at his bond hearing, the family members of those who were killed spoke to him, and told him that he had taken the most precious things in their lives from them, but they forgave him, and they prayed for God’s mercy on his soul.
We do this these things––we love––because, as it turns out, our being is dependent on the Other’s. We do not live in isolation. We are all in relationship with one another, whether we realize it or not. God created the first person, and then God created a second for the first to be in relationship with, because we cannot be by ourselves. This was something the people of Israel knew very well, and something that was foundational for Jesus. When God made a covenant with the people, it was with the people of Israel, with the entire community. Our reading from Leviticus this morning speaks to this––we are to ensure the survival of all those in our community, by leaving the extras on the field after it’s been harvested, or the extras of the vineyard for others to come and gather. The entirety of the Law in the Old Testament is based on what is good for the whole community, so that one individual’s profit does not come at the expense of another. God created us to be interdependent.
This means then that the being of each of us is dependent on the being of the Other. I cannot be if my enemy, as a person, cannot be. This is why we love them, why we work for their being, by listening to them, and giving to them, and forgiving them. And this is why we resist our enemy when they act to destroy us. Because if we are destroyed or diminished, they are too. And if they are destroyed or diminished, if they lose who God has made them to be, we lose, too. We love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us both to protect them and to protect ourselves.
This is why God “makes the sun rise on both the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Not because God is impartial, or ambivalent, or finds our hurts to be insignificant in the bigger picture. God does this because God understands that we all must thrive and be who we are meant to be together, or none us can be. God calls us over and over to love our enemies and to commit ourselves to their being, even if it kills us, literally, because God grants us being after we cease to exist, in our resurrection. God calls us to love in this way so that we might not only act in love, but actually be love, as God is love, as a true and eternal affirmation of who we are. To be perfect as God is perfect, to be love as God is love.
This is the hardest thing Jesus calls us to do. And honestly, we can’t always do it. Sometimes it is too difficult, and we are human, and we are limited in what we can do. But even in those moments when we can’t pray for those who persecute us or those we love, when we can’t love our enemy––affirm them in their being or forgive them––we can, at the very least, entrust them to God. We can say, “God, I can’t do this. You do it.”
We know that when we do not love our enemy, when we don’t pray for those who persecute us, we are making ourselves into enemies. We are making ourselves into those who desire the non-being of others, and thus of ourselves. We make ourselves into people who are desperately in need of love, and forgiveness, and prayer. But, when all is said and done, our God is love, and God acts in love towards all of us. God listens to us, and freely gives to us, and forgives us. God affirms that we are all worthy of being, and commits God’s self so that we all might be. Thanks be to God. Amen.