WIDENING THE CIRCLE[1]

MATTHEW 5:43-48

JUNE 21, 2015

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

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            A  group of four to eight year-olds was asked the question, "What does love mean?" Here are a few of the answers.

            Rebecca, age eight, said, When my grandmother got arthritis, she couldn't bend over and paint her toenails anymore. So my grandfather does it for her all the time, even when his hands got arthritis too. That's love."

            Jessica, also age eight, said, You really shouldn't say 'I love you' unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget."

            Mary Ann, age four, said, Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day."

            Then there was Nikka, aged six who must have come across our passage for today. She said, If you want to learn to love better you should start with a friend who you hate.

            Take out your bible and turn to what may very well be the most famous section of Jesussermon on the mount.  Matthew 5:43

 

            You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 

 

            By the way the Old Testament does not contain the second half of that statement.  It contains the words, You shall love your neighbor,but not the words the words, and hate your enemy. What Jesus does here is summarize some of the Old Testament teachings in relation to enemies. So the phrase, You shall love your neighbor,those words are found in Leviticus, but the part about hating your enemy,well thats a summary of some Old Testament passages.  Lets continue

 

            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; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as our heavenly Father is perfect.

 

            Before we get into some of the specifics of Jesusfourth love directive loving our enemies I want to say something about that last line, Be perfect, therefore, as our heavenly Father is perfect.

            C.S. Lewis clarifies the meaning.  Listen to his words. He writes, 

 

            I find a good many people bothered by... our Lord's words, Be ye perfect.Some people... think this means Unless you are perfect, I will not help you; and as we cannot be perfect, then ... our position is hopeless. But I... think he meant The only help I will give is help to become perfect. You may want something less: but I will give you nothing less.’”

            Lewis also wrote: The command be ye perfectis not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command.

 

            We may want to settle for comfort, but Jesus is committed to nothing less than our being made perfect, which requires our being dependent on Jesus' example and the Spirits energies, never independent of them. He knows what we are capable of apart from him, which is truly ugly, and what we are capable of with him, which is nothing less than amazing. The words You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,is as much a promise as it is a command. This is where we are headed.

            OK, back to the fourth love directive.  The past three Sundays we have looked at loving God, loving our neighbors, and loving ourselves.  Today we turn to loving our enemies and let's begin by understanding the meaning of it.

            The New Testament was written in Greek and the Greeks had four main words for love.  They are storge which is the type of love we celebrate on Fathers Day and Mothers day. Its the love a parent for a child and child for a parent.  Thats not the word used here. The second word used for love by the Greeks is eros which refers to romantic love. Its love with a little passion mixed in for the object of ones desire.  Thats not the word used here. A third word used by love by the Greeks was philia which captures the love between friends.  We get the word Philadelphiafrom it, the city of brotherly, and I suppose sisterly love.  Thats not the word used here.

            The word used here is the word agape. It is not something of the heart, it is something of the will. Jesus is not asking us to love our enemies in the same way we love our parents or our children or our significant other or our BFFs.  Jesus tells us to act loving toward our enemies, not necessarily to feel loving toward our enemies.

            He then goes on to suggest a specific act of love we can employ with our enemies.  He tells us to pray for them.  When we fill out our prayer list, he tells us to have a few enemies on our list, not as a hit list like Arya in The Game of Thrones, but as part of our prayer list.

            In September 1994 Cindy Hartman of Conway, Arkansas, walked into her house to answer the phone and was confronted by a burglar. He ripped the phone cord out of the wall and ordered her into a closet. Hartman dropped to her knees and asked the burglar if she could pray for him. "I want you to know that God loves you and I forgive you,'' she said.

            The burglar apologized for what he had done. Then he yelled out the door to a woman in a pickup truck: "We've got to unload all of this. This is a Christian home and a Christian family. We can't do this to them."

            As Hartman remained on her knees, the burglar returned the furniture he had taken from her home. Then he took the bullets out of his gun, handed the gun to Hartman, and walked out the door.

            Praying for our enemies can be incredibly disarming to our enemies, nonetheless I recommend calling 911 before dropping on ones knees if one can.

            Second thing, I want to say today is, note how big Jesus draws our circle of love.

            For the majority of humans love has its own, carefully monitored comfort zone. That is to say, we like this kind of people but not that kind, this color of people but not that color of people, people from this part of the country but not people from that part of the country, people who share our politics and our bad habits and not those who do not share our politics and have other bad habits, people who are Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus, and not necessarily people who are not Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus. Im reminded of the insights of Anne Lamont, that quirky Christian novelist.  She zings us with her insight when she states, "You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

            It wasnt much different in Jesusday. When Moses originally stated, You shall love your neighbor as yourself,the immediate question was What does that mean?  Who exactly is my neighbor? Surely not the pagans who worship many false gods? Surely not our distant cousins the Samaritans who worship on the wrong mountain and accept only part of the Bible? Surely not fellow Jews who are lax about the law and my schools interpretation of the law?" Surely not.... surely not... surely not... and we can fill in our own prejudices here.

            Soon the circle is small enough to be manageable, and we can feel quite good about our ability to maintain at least civility, if not love, in the smaller circle. Jesus, however, expands the circle.  He expands it, even to our enemies.

            Our nation did a very honorable thing in December of 2004.  Maybe you recall the tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004.  Now, prior to that tsunami, only fifteen percent of Indonesia, a Muslim country, had a favorable view of the United States.  Only fifteen percent. After the tsunami aid poured in from the United States and other Western nations. By January 2006 many of those unfavorable views among Muslims in Indonesia changed. By January 2006 forty-four percent of Indonesians had a favorable view of Americans. In other words, good feeling toward the United States tripled in the space of thirteen months. Moreover, the number of Indonesians who had a very unfavorableview of the United States dropped from forty-eight percent prior to the tsunami to just thirteen percent. 

            Now the Christian message is not about getting people to love America, but to get people to love God, but the same lesson applies: expanding our circle of love has power to change our enemies and us.      

            The third and last thing I want to note is the reason for it.  That is to say, we do it, we love our enemies, because doing so marks us as sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father.

            Look with me at verses forty-four and forty-five. 

 

            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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

 

            Note a couple of things.  First, note how God is positively promiscuous with his blessings. God gives sun and rain to the good and the evil, and to the just and the unjust.  In other words, in God there is universal benevolence even towards people who routinely break Gods law and Gods heart.

            Second, note how on this Fathers Day, Jesus wants us to bear a family resemblance to Our Heavenly Father.  Act like God acts. Carry forth the family legacy. Be benevolent to everyone, even ones enemies.

            Or to paraphrase six-year old Nikka, If we want to improve the way we love, if we want to love like God, then start with someone we hate.

            Amen.


[1] Many thanks to Paul Thrailkills sermon Loving Like God Loves for much of the material in this message.