Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies.” I can imagine a long pause after that before he says, “And to you who are still listening: do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.” Because the sayings in today’s passage are not among Jesus’ most popular, but they may be among his most important.
As I was looking at them last week I was reminded of a TED Talk from 2008 by Karen Armstrong, a British scholar who has written more than 20 books on faith and the major world religions.[i] As she puts it, the people at TED led her very gently from her “book-lined study into the 21st century” and onto a stage where the little talk she shared with an audience went “viral.” I want to share the first few paragraphs of that talk with you, and maybe you can see why it was so popular. I won’t do the British accent, but see if you can picture Karen Armstrong, a former nun, standing uncomfortably under the spotlight and saying:
Well, this is such an honor. I’m intensely grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today. And I’m also rather surprised, because when I look back on my life the last thing I ever wanted to do was write, or be in any way involved in religion.
After I left my convent, I’d finished with religion, frankly. I thought that was it. And for 13 years I kept clear of it. I wanted to be an English literature professor. And I certainly didn’t even want to be a writer, particularly. But then I suffered a series of career catastrophes, one after the other, and finally found myself in television (laughter). I said that to Bill Moyers once and he said, “Oh, we take anybody!”
And I was doing some rather controversial religious programs. This went down very well in the U.K., where religion is extremely unpopular. And so, for the only time in my life, I was in the mainstream. But I got sent to Jerusalem to make a film about early Christianity. And there, for the first time, I encountered the other religious traditions: Judaism and Islam, the sister religions of Christianity. And I found I knew nothing about these faiths at all—despite my own intensely religious background, I’d seen Judaism only as a kind of prelude to Christianity, and I knew nothing about Islam at all.
But in that city, that tortured city, where you see the three faiths jostling so uneasily together, you also become aware of the profound connection between them. And it has been the study of other religious traditions that brought me back to a sense of what religion can be, and actually enabled me to look at my own faith in a different light.
And I found some astonishing things in the course of my study that had never occurred to me. Frankly, in the days when I thought I’d had it with religion, I just found the whole thing absolutely [unbelievable]. These doctrines seemed unproven, abstract. And to my astonishment, when I began seriously studying other traditions, I began to realize that belief—which we make such a fuss about today—is only a very recent religious enthusiasm that surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century. The word “belief” itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus to mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions. Originally, when someone said, “I believe,” it did not mean, “I accept certain creedal articles of faith.” Rather it meant: “I commit myself. I engage myself.” Indeed, some of the world traditions think very little of religious orthodoxy. In the Quran, religious opinion is dismissed as “zanna”: self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other, but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian (laughter).
So if religion is not about believing things, what is it about? What I’ve found, across the board, is that religion is about behaving differently. Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something. You behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion. And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.
Now, [the most important of these practices is] compassion. And it is an arresting fact that right across the board, in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion—the ability to feel with the other—is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call “God” or the “Divine.” It is compassion, says the Buddha, which brings you to Nirvana. Why? Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there. And once we get rid of ego, then we’re ready to see the Divine.[ii]
I’m going to stop quoting Karen Armstrong for a moment and go back to quoting Jesus. He told his followers to love their enemies, and just as a reminder he didn’t mean that we should have warm, cozy feelings for our enemies: he meant that we should act in their best interests, no matter what. “Love your enemies,” he said, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.” He didn’t say it quite this way, but he seems to imply that if you do this (and please pardon my use of a theological term) you will surprise the hell out of your enemies. Love will be the last thing they expect; it will catch them completely off guard, it will “mess with their heads,” so to speak. So, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.” Finally, Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
This is the Golden Rule, but as Karen Armstrong points out it was around long before Jesus. Five centuries before Christ, when the disciples of Confucius asked him what one thing they could do all day, every day, he said: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” He insisted that if they could practice that one simple rule consistently it would lead them into a transcendent value he called ren—a kind of human-heartedness that would be a transcendent experience in itself. Five centuries later the famous Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, was challenged by a pagan to recite the whole of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg. “If you do it I will convert to Judaism,” the pagan swore. Hillel did it. He stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study it.”
Karen Armstrong says,
“Go and study it” was what he meant. He said, “In your exegesis, you must make it clear that every single verse of the Torah is a commentary, a gloss upon the Golden Rule.” The great Rabbi Meir said that any interpretation of Scripture which led to hatred and disdain, or contempt of other people—any people whatsoever—was illegitimate. Saint Augustine made exactly the same point. Scripture, he says, “teaches nothing but [love], and we must not leave an interpretation of Scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.”
But now look at our world. We are living in a world where religion has been hijacked. Where terrorists cite Quranic verses to justify their atrocities. Where instead of heeding Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” and “Don’t judge others,” we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using Scripture as a way of arguing with other people, putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of human ego, human greed. We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things.[iii]
But, as Armstrong says so powerfully, compassion is a way of “dethroning” the ego. Compassion means to “feel with” another person, and that’s why it’s different from pity, which is feeling for another person, or mercy, which is letting someone off the hook. As she says elsewhere, compassion is an act of the imagination: it is a matter of putting ourselves in another person’s place, feeling another person’s pain, and then acting in a compassionate way toward that person.
When I’m talking with young people about what it means to become a Christian I sometimes say, “Imagine that somewhere inside you is a throne room, and in that room there is a glittering golden throne, and then imagine that you are sitting on that throne, wearing a crown, holding a scepter, and ruling over your life.” If you look at their faces in that moment you can tell that they enjoy that idea very much. “But then,” I say, “imagine that Jesus walks into the room, and as soon as you see him you feel unworthy, you slide down off the throne and invite him to sit there instead. And suppose that he does, and from that moment on he is the one ruling over your life. That’s what it means to become a Christian: it means that Jesus is Lord.” And they often look a little disappointed, as if they don’t want to give up ruling over their lives, so I tell them, “Don’t worry! Jesus loves you. He wants the best for your life. The things he tells you to do will make your life so much better than you could ever make it on your own.” But they don’t always seem sure, especially when they come to a passage like this one. “Love my enemies?” they ask. “Is that supposed to make my life better?”
Yes. Absolutely. One hundred percent. But, as Karen Armstrong suggests, it takes an act of imagination. When you begin to feel with your enemy you dethrone your ego, and dethroning your ego is one of the very best things you can do. Because your ego is so fragile, so vulnerable. All it wants to do is defend itself. For example: if someone criticizes one of your posts on social media your ego will spend hours, days, trying to come up with just the right retort so you can put that critic in his place. “Oh, yeah?” you say, “Well, you’re stupid!” That’s the ego speaking, and the ego will always try to defend itself. But what if you did, just for a moment, put yourself in the place of your critic? What if you asked, “What kind of pain is that person feeling to make him say such hurtful things?” Do you think then you might respond in a different way?
We used to have a neighbor here at church I had trouble loving. He didn’t like it that we had a ministry to the homeless because he didn’t like it when homeless people congregated on the sidewalk just across the street from his beautiful house. He didn’t like it that we had church on Sunday, because our members and friends would park their cars everywhere and he sometimes couldn’t find a place for his own car. He didn’t like it that we had activities on Wednesday night, and especially choir practice, because those singers would sometimes come out of the building at 9:00 at night, still singing. He came to my office on more than one occasion and poured out his long litany of complaint, and he was not civil about it.
He was nasty.
After one of those visits I did this: I went to a specialty shop just a few miles from here and bought a wine and cheese gift basket and took it to his house. It was a nice one; expensive. He came to the front door, took one look and said, “What are you trying to do, buy me off?” “No,” I said with a smile. “I’m just trying to be a good neighbor in a great neighborhood!” He took the basket, and I didn’t hear from him again, and not long after that he moved away. But as I look at this passage today I realize I was trying to buy him off. I just wanted him to stop complaining, wanted him to stop bothering me. I didn’t take time to put myself in his shoes, to feel his pain, to imagine what was making him so unhappy. I found a way to shut him up but I did not love my enemy, and I think Jesus would say that because I didn’t, I missed a blessing.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” he aks, “For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But you—love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:32-35).
This is the truth about God, and it’s a truth we learn from Jesus. When we were hateful toward him, spiteful, willing to take whatever he gave us without so much as a thank you, he loved us anyway. As the Apostle Paul says, “God has proven his love for us, in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). We probably won’t have to go that far for our enemies, we probably won’t have to die for them, but if we can learn to love them in the way Jesus has loved us we may prove that we, too, are children of the Heavenly Father.