March 10, 2019
Who is my neighbor? – My enemy, my neighbor – J. Barry Vaughn – March 10, 2019
In Lent, the Christ Church clergy and staff will be preaching on the topic, “Who is my neighbor?”
For centuries the service of Holy Communion in Anglican churches began either with a recitation of the Ten Commandments or with the so-called “Summary of the Law:” “This is the first and great commandment: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, thy soul, and thy mind, and the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The “summary of the law” is found in all three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In each gospel a Pharisee, described as a lawyer (that is, an expert in the Law or Torah) or a scribe, asks Jesus what is the “first” or “great” commandment. In Luke, the Pharisee goes further and asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” and in reply, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.
When Jesus stated that the Law or Torah could be summed up in two commandments, love God and love your neighbor, he was quoting the Old Testament, although the two commandments are not found together there.
In other words, Jesus’ answer was not at all controversial. They remain uncontroversial, although in the ancient world most Jews and Christians would have believed that if you love God with all your heart, mind, and soul, then you will love your neighbor. Today most people believe that if you love your neighbor as yourself, then you are also loving God.
But Jesus went beyond the Torah by also telling us to love our enemies. “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5.44. Luke 6.27 says “…do good to those who hate you.”)
Most of us can go along with the idea of loving our neighbors. In one form or another, most of the great religions of the world teach this. But a lot of us might secretly think that Matthew and Luke took the teaching of Jesus a little too far in telling us to love our enemies.
I would argue, though, that loving our enemies is really an extension of loving our neighbors, because our enemies ARE our neighbors. Sixty percent of violent crimes are committed by friends or family members, and sixty percent of those crimes took place in the home. Apparently, it can be as difficult to love our neighbors as it is to love our enemies!
But at the end of the day, I believe that there is really no difference between loving our neighbor and loving our enemy.
Consider these three words: LOVE, YOUR, and ENEMIES.
First, of all “Love your enemies”. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “It’s significant that Jesus does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them.”
Also, Jesus did not say, “Do not be angry with your enemies”. Jesus both felt and displayed anger. Concealing and denying our anger is not the route to spiritual vitality; it is a short-cut to emotional illness. Jesus used the word agape, divine love, the love that is born of will, not desire. The word is translated in the King James’ version as “charity”. One might paraphrase Jesus’ statement here as “Behave well toward those who behave badly toward you”. You can be angry your enemies and you don’t have to like them, but you do have to modify your behavior.
Jesus said, “Do good to those who hate you”, but at first, we may not be able to do more than do nothing to those who hate us. That’s OK. Be patient and gentle with yourself; God is.
Secondly, Jesus said “Love your enemies”. It’s easier to love and forgive somebody else’s enemies than our own enemies. I’m sympathetic to the person who said, “I love humankind; it’s my neighbor I can’t stand”. It is much easier to become concerned with the problems of people on the other side of the world than it is to do something constructive in our own communities. To be obedient to Jesus’ command, we need to do a little personal inventory: Whom have I offended? Who has offended me? What can I do about it?
Thirdly, Jesus said, “Love your enemies“. Jesus was eminently realistic. He did not say, “Do not have enemies”. He recognized that we will have enemies. To follow Jesus is to walk the way of the Cross, because the Cross is the way the world deals with Jesus and his disciples.
It sounds difficult, because it is difficult. But it might be fun and exciting, too. What would happen if we smiled at and shook the hand of that person in our office who is trying to get our job? At the very least, it might leave them confused and suspicious! How might things be different if we did not tailgate the person who cut us off in rush hour traffic? We might not get home in the evening ready to eat glass.
But I don’t want to mislead you; Jesus told us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, return blessing for cursing, not because it works but because that’s the way God is. “If Jesus had put suggested turning the other cheek when someone strikes you as a useful tactic for bringing out the best in other people, then Jesus he could be accused naivete. But the basis for the ethics of [Jesus] is not what works but rather the way God is. Cheek-turning is not advocated as what works (it usually does not), but advocated because this is the way God is — God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.” (Willimon and Hauerwas, Resident Aliens, p. 85.)
I don’t know about you, but all this leaves me feeling uneasy, because much of the time I’m a failure at loving my friends and family, much less my enemies.
Has Jesus given us an impossible task? Maybe. But I think the trick is to aim at loving our enemies, really try to do that, and at the same time to know that we will fail. And to realize that God sends sun and rain on the just and unjust, gives life and health to those we love and those we despise, that you and I and all of us need God’s mercy as much as anyone in the whole creation.
Perhaps W.H. Auden said it best,
O stand, stand at the window
as the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.
All of us have crooked hearts, but God knows that. It is with the crooked love of a crooked heart that God asks us to love our enemies. But we might find in trying to love that we succeed in loving. And we will find, in the end, that loving our enemies is not an accomplishment, it is God’s gift, for only by the grace of God are we able to love at all.