If I were to tell you that I love my sister – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, have a sibling, or spouse, or partner, or best friend whom you love very much. If I were to make the revelation that I also love dill pickles – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, love dill pickles, or, if not, you love something delectable. But you would understand that I don’t love my sister the same way I love dill pickles. Right? In English we use the verb “love” in many, many different ways, our word “love” being defined by its context. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. In Greek there are four different verbs which we, in English, translate as “love.” And in the Greek, there’s also a host of other verbs that describe our relationship to pickles and the like.
So we should rightly ask, when we hear Jesus say “love your enemies,” what kind of love is this? What’s the Greek verb? It’s rather unfortunate. Jesus is talking here of love at its most, most extreme, self-sacrificial way. Jesus is using the same “love” verb that describes how he literally lays down his life in being crucified by his enemies. Why? For love. It’s imaginable how we would give up our lives, lay down our lives, expend our lives in very self-sacrificial ways for our spouse, or lover, or child, or for someone else whom we adore. That goes without saying. But what Jesus is saying here is to love our enemies in the same way. I beg to differ.
It is hard enough to love the people we love. Let’s let them be our love focus. And then we might come up with some principled strategies for coping with difficult people. I wouldn’t exactly call it “love” for the repelling people in my life, but I’d be willing to say I’m working on tolerating them, if for no other reason than I refuse to expend my energy to fight them. I’ll bet you’ve got some strategies, too, for dealing with aggravating people. But enemies are another matter. Enemies are enemies; my enemies are God’s enemies. Plain and simple. Unfortunately, that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. In very bald terms, Jesus is talking about our relationship with real enemies, and he’s talking about loving them in the most extreme way. And he gives himself as an example, how he offers up his own life in crucifixion. His enemies kill him. Why does he allow this? For the love of it.
And it gets worse. If you’re not already skeptical that “loving your enemies” is desirable, much less possible, Jesus’ last word will confirm the impossibility. Jesus concludes his teaching here by saying, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect….” Not helpful. Our therapists have been working with us for years on the very opposite: to embrace our imperfection. You win some; you lose some. In life you just have to give it your best shot. Forget perfection. Let it go. (If I were to create my own version of a “Jefferson Bible,” I would take a scissors to this whole paragraph in the Gospels.[i]) Nonetheless, this here is what Jesus calls his “Good News.” [sic] What to make of it?
Ironically, we may be rescued by Jesus’ word “perfect”: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In the Greek this is not a command, but rather a promise. In the Greek, this is future tense, not imperative tense. In the end, we will be made perfect, complete, whole, Jesus promises us. In the fullness of time, we will be perfected, if not in this life, then in the life to come.[ii] And when we are, we shall be able to love even our enemies. In the meantime – and sometimes it’s a very meantime time – we’re given several promises:
- We’re going to have enemies or, at the very least, we will have difficult people in our lives. Jesus did; we will. As Jesus reminds us, “A servant is not greater than the master.”[iii] Here Jesus is giving us a “heads up” about the inevitability of enemies or, at the very least, people whom we easily find irritating, bumbling, inexcusable. We will not be spared. We should not be surprised in life that we encounter enemies or, at the very least, very difficult people.
- What to do with them? Love them. And if that’s an unimaginable stretch, then at least turn in that direction. Pray for love. Pray that they know love; pray that you know love. Love heals. Only love heals… them and Pray for love for them. Certainly don’t curse them. Remember Saint Paul’s saying, “Bless, don’t curse.”[iv] Cursed people don’t get better. Pray for love for the unlovable people in your life. Pray that they know love; pray that you know love. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, said: “In praying for others we learn really and truly to love them. As we approach God on their behalf, we carry the thought of them into the very being of eternal Love, and so we learn to love whatever we take with us there.” If you cannot love your enemies, start by at least turning in that direction.
- You still won’t have enough of what it takes to love people, especially difficult in your life whom you’d rather banish than love. You’re powerless, or at least, you’re not powerful enough to pull it off. Saint Paul has a wonderful turn of phrase. He speaks of “God’s power made perfect in our weakness.”[v] When you find yourself powerless to move in the direction of love for someone, rather than despair or condemn yourself, claim this promise of power, God’s power at work in and through you. Saint Paul had a thing about this. Gifted, eloquent, powerful as he was, he clearly found himself coming up short with the inner resources he needed to fully and freely navigate life. His conclusion he boasts about in his Letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.”[vi] As good and gifted as you are, you do not have all that it takes to pull it off in life. Let your experiences of powerlessness be clarion calls for you to tap the source power. Let God be God. Take Jesus at his word.
- And when you still fail to love, still fail to move in the direction of love… which you probably will with some people in some contexts, what to do? The very thing we will do here together, momentarily: confess our sins. We acknowledge our failure, yet again. Another lapse. This is why Jesus is called our Savior. We need to be saved, rescued, recovered, restored… endlessly, or we’re otherwise lost, or imprisoned, or drowning in life. If you’re anything like me, you need to be saved many times every day. Jesus is our Savior. Jesus is your Call-on, your Savior.
Jesus promises us the power of love, but this conversion to love is more than a lifetime’s process. Father Benson, reminds us Jesus’ work of perfection in us is gradual. Father Benson writes, “We cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.”[vii] You are a work in progress. Be filled with love (present tense). Be-being-filled with love… which, in English grammar, is called the present perfect continuous tense. Be-being-filled with love.
Come, Lord Jesus.[viii]
[i]A reference to Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-paste theology in his “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” (1820).
[ii]“The fullness of time” is a riff on St. Paul’s writing in Galatians 4:4-7.
[iii]Matthew 10:24. See also John 13:16, 15:20.
[v]Saint Paul heard Jesus say to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
[vii]Richard Meux Benson (1824-1915) in the Cowley Evangelist, 1918, p. 53.
[viii]Saint Paul’s prayer in 1 Corinthians 16:22.
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