Sermon of the Week
Neighbors and Enemies
Keywords: Pray for Enemies, Lex Talonis, Eye for an Eye, Didache, Anselm, Sermon on the Mount.
A few weeks ago, I started receiving a lot of requests for help with prayer.
Specifically, people wanted to talk about praying for our enemies.
Last week, we talked a bit about Karl Barth’s argument
that our task in this hour is to engage God
with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other…
and so it is maybe timely that the lectionary takes us through
the Sermon on the Mount these days,
and, in particular, some of these hard sayings of Jesus.
They’re hard, because they’re not really possible.
Be Perfect, as your Heavenly Father is Perfect… teaches Jesus.
When we, each of us, know just how imperfect we can often be.
We’ve jumped forward a little bit,
but since our reading last week,
which, you may recall,
was about being Salt, to give flavor and texture and grit and goodness to the world,
and it was about being Light, bearing God out into dark places,
so that God’s compassion and love may shine,
and focusing on God’s ideal for our faithful practice:
feeding the hungry, helping the homeless.
Last week, we heard, that in doing this,
it will be like having water given to us, and to the world,
when we’ve been parched.
It will make our bones strong.
That was last week.
Jesus also said, then, that he’s not really come to make our life easier, per se,
if by that we think that we get some sort of “free pass” from God’s law.
Not one iota, says Jesus.
God still has expectations for us,
because God is striving for that still perfect world, right
one where the poor and the homeless will no longer struggle
where lion and lamb shall graze together
where human beings will live in harmony with each other…
And then Jesus offers six examples.
These are often called “antitheses,”
because Jesus starts each one “you have heard it said that…”
and then he outlines conventional wisdom,
the understanding, at that time, of a piece of the ancient law of Moses.
And then Jesus turns them upside down.
You’ve heard it said: don’t murder.
Great. But don’t be angry, either.
Adultery, no good. Don’t do that.
But don’t look lustfully at another person, either.
Divorce. Swearing Oaths.
Be careful how you posture yourself,
as if you feel confident that you’re in the right
when we all know we fail to keep our word in some respects,
that we participate, consciously or even unwillingly,
in imperfect care and love for one another.
There’s a whole sermon or two for these antitheses,
and I don’t want to get too off track,
but the main point here is that there really isn’t a way to perfectly follow any of this.
I was lost at the angry part.
I read a sermon from an acquaintance of mine on this passage[i]
that talked in familiar and exquisite detail
about being a parent of young children
and the anger that her kids’ toys caused within her
mainly noise they generated.
So she shared a confession that she was “a bad parent,”
because before she gave those toys to her kids for the first time
she removed all the batteries before they knew what they could do…
except for those toys with batteries that are not replaceable
(she mentioned something about a Bob the Builder handheld thing
that would repeat “Can we Fix it?” and “I can Dig it” over and over and over again)
or, worse, toys that made noise but had no batteries
like these little ducks that you would pull behind you
and as they waddled along would go “quack quack quack quack…”
My friends Cat found these quite amusing,
often at 3 in the morning.
Her point was that being perfect feels well nigh impossible in that situation
not to mention anger
and we’re not even getting into any of the other challenging aspects
of relationships we might build with one another with integrity…
The sermon on the mount asks us to be perfect,
even as we know we will, and do, fall short.
We have a tendency to want to soften all of this,
to explain some of it away,
to render it less impactful or critical,
and maybe that was what Jesus was warning about
when he was saying not one iota…
although, let’s be clear,
we human beings have still found a way to take all of this, as it is offered,
and make it worse
like when we have heard it as some sort of critique of human intimacy
that attraction is a bad thing, human desire,
concupiscence, to use the fancy word that Augustine would have used,
lust, as it is translated here,
instead of what it is really saying
about the ways in which our acting on that natural and good human desire
sometimes can break the relationships and promises
that people have made to one another
through marriage or partnering or some other such arrangement,
and the damage that often follows in its wake.
Or we’ve heard the parts of Jesus’ sermon that we read today:
do not resist an evil doer
if anyone strikes you, turn the cheek again
are they suing you, give them your cloak,
that soldier wants you to go a mile, go two…
and someone, somewhere offered up a little smile
and said: well look at that,
if I decide to work some evil
if I strike them,
or sue them
or make them walk….what recompense are they going to have…?
Hear this: this passage is not about letting your abuser abuse you,
or letting the person doing evil getting away with it.
I don’t say that to minimize the impact of these teachings,
but, instead, to say as clearly as I can that
when we read it that way
we’ve missed the point,
and we’ve allowed those
who want to take advantage of the hurting
or to expand their own power
to make it even worse.
But a lot of this depends on where we sit, in the story.
Is the problem our desire for retaliation,
or is it for seeking after peace
for reconciliation, for mending what is broken,
for finding redress and justice?
Those are different things, are they not.
That whole “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth thing”
sounds like retribution to me, and it is.
THAT teaching, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,
rooted in a different part of Leviticus we didn’t read today,
is called the lex talonis, quite literally, the law of retaliation,[ii]
and it was meant to offer a sense of proportionality to an otherwise
freewheeling and never-ending escalation of grievances.
Someone took your tooth?
Ok, so take their tooth, but no more.
Not also their children, and their property,
and everything in the village in which they live.
It was meant to RESTRAIN a desire for vengeance,
particularly among those with more power, more weapons,
more buddies who will come along and “show them a thing or two…”
not to legitimate vengeance in the first place.
Instead, as we heard in the reading from Leviticus this morning,
it is better not even to hold a grudge against a neighbor,
much less defraud them, or keep their wages for a bit too long.
We are to love our neighbor, as it said, as you love yourself.
And there’s the rub.
That’s always been hard, and Jesus knows it.
And so he makes us think a bit about what that really means.
Its not JUST about restraining a yearning for vengeance, for retaliation,
but, ultimately, it is ALSO about seeking restoration,
of building a just society where everyone can have access
to equal protection and rights
where the hurting and those harmed by others
can have their pain honestly addressed.
It is not just about eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.
What can you do to end that cycle, asks Jesus?
To be the one who turns a cheek,
goes the extra mile,
gives you cloak as well as your coat,
knowing full well that Gandhi was right when he reportedly said
that an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind?
Be perfect, Jesus says.
Which we know we aren’t. And Jesus knows that, too.
An early Christian document from the early second century
called the Didache, or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,
has my favorite response to this.
It says “If you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord,
you will be perfect. But if you are not able, then do what you can.”[iii] (Didache §6)
Just because these are difficult teachings,
or maybe even impossible teachings for most of us,
that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of wrestling with them
trying to work them out the best we can.
And that is the case with the question about what to do with our so-called enemies.
That’s where I think I started this sermon,
if I can remember back that far,
thinking about the requests I’ve been fielding about praying for our enemies.
That’s relevant, because Jesus goes there
after talking about retribution and vengeance
and breaking the cycle:
You have heard that it was said,
‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”
It has been all over the news these past few weeks,
that some people think that this never happens, praying for our opponents,
and that it is foolish to even try.
But there’s a lot in the gospel of Jesus Christ that seems foolish
to people who are marinating in an ideology of vengeance,
of “might makes right”
of winners and losers,
of unbridled disdain for others not in our own circles.
The Bible takes a different approach.
It talks about not my circle, and your circle, but God’s great circle,
where we love our neighbors as ourselves, yes,
but also where we don’t bring ourselves to harbor hatred of those not in our own tribe
just because they’re not just like us.
And so Leviticus: deal honestly with people, not just your people.
And so Paul, to the church in Corinth: sure, I built a foundation,
but other people are building on it,
people different from me, and that’s ok
…it all belongs to you,
and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
And so Jesus: don’t just love your neighbors, but pray for your enemies.
Otherwise, you’ll be in danger of becoming JUST like them,
returning evil for evil,
instead of becoming something different, something more:
instead of becoming brothers and sisters in the realm of God.
I don’t like to use the word enemies very much.
I caution myself against it.
There have been people who have made me into their enemy,
I’m sure of it,
and have treated me as such,
but I try to avoid it.
And I have all sorts of stories that I’ve read
that I’m not sharing today,
but they’re MOVING stories of generosity to those who have done awful things,
stories about George Washington treating enemy soldiers humanely in battle,[iv]
of people in gang riddled Chicago refusing to let gun violence suck them into more
and letting it ruin even more lives,[v]
stories like that,
about how all this dynamic works in our real lives,
and there’s no glossing over anything here.
When we’ve been deeply hurt.
When a soldier is shooting at you.
When someone you love has been taken from you.
When a part of you is gone.
The one who causes that can be an enemy.
But when we pray for that person,
we REFUSE to let them take away from us our common humanity,
the affirmation that I am a person, and you, for everything you are doing to me,
you are a person too.
I’ve been proud to be part of a society that affirms this,
even for the most hardened criminals,
we seek a basic, humane treatment of them during their incarceration:
three square meals, exercise, fresh light, a cell that is free from rodents.
Why do we do that?
Why not just throw them into a dank pit
and leave them there until we stop hearing from them?
Because, if we did that, we’d lose something within us.
And we’d be exercising the ultimate vengeance that is really only God’s to give.
And so we hold back,
and we demand that we will uphold the dignity of others
which isn’t to say that we let them do awful things
but that we treat one another compassionately, even lovingly,
as we work this out the best that we can.
The news lately has been about “political enemies”
which isn’t quite the same thing as all this, right,
but which can still get us all quite worked up.
Some people are incredulous to hear that those working at loggerheads
could conceivably pray for one another.
That’s too bad, because a little prayer might help
melt some of that intractable ideology of might makes right.
I’ve been trying to help those who ask me about this
put into some words
what such a prayer that Jesus invites us to make
might look like.
I’ve offered a few words, here or there,
for better or worse.
But I do pray for all sorts of people,
my opponents included.
It isn’t as if I do this perfectly myself.
But I know it’s required of me, and good for me, and I try to do it, the best I can.
To conclude, I wanted to share with you this prayer
I stumbled upon over the weekend.[vi]
It is attributed to Anselm of Canterbury,
who lived between 1033 and 1109.
Maybe it will help us consider what a such a prayer might look like.
The title is Prayer for Enemies:
Almighty and tender Lord Jesus Christ,
Just as I have asked you to love my friends,
so I ask the same for my enemies.
You alone, Lord, are mighty.
You alone are merciful.
Whatever you make me desire for my enemies,
give it to them, and give the same to me.
If I ever ask for them anything which is outside your perfect rule of love,
whether through ignorance, weakness or malice,
good Lord, do not give it to them
and do not give it back to me.
You who are the true light, lighten their darkness.
You who are the whole truth, correct their errors.
You who are the Incarnate Word, give life to their souls.
Tender Lord Jesus,
let me not be a stumbling block to them,
nor a rock of offense.
My sin is sufficient to me, without harming others.
I, a slave to sin, beg your mercy on my fellow slaves.
Let them be reconciled with you,
and through you reconciled to me. Amen.
Holy wisdom, perhaps
for us, these trying days,
as we seek to live out the foolishness of the Gospel
in a way that provides a wise alternate way of living
amid the tension of our days.
And so may we
pray for one another
and pray for those working against us
that God’s love might prevail
and God’s will be done
so that God’s peaceable, just world
might come to be.
May it be so.
[i] Marsha Mount Shoop, “The Problem with Perfect,” a sermon preached at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina, on February 19, 2017.
[iii] The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Edited and Revised by Michael W. Holmes. (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books, 1999), p. 257.
[iv] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, 2004) p378-379, and cited in Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of the Gospel (William B Eerdmans, 2007) p 168-169.
[v] For instance, see the story about CeaseFire in the Chicago Tribune (https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/ct-xpm-2011-02-09-ct-oped-0209-violence-20110209-story.html accessed February 15, 2020), cited in the sermon “A Whole New Morality” by the Rev. John Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago on February 20, 2011.
[vi] As attributed to him in the sermon of the Rev. Dr. Anne Bain Epling, “Love your Enemies” preached at First Presbyterian Church of Fort Wayne, Indiana, on February 9, 2020.
image file found at pixabay (no attribution required): https://pixabay.com/illustrations/woman-man-pair-abstract-love-4731210/ (accessed February 16, 2020).