Love is more than a transaction, a deal we seek to make with God, neighbour and life. And let’s admit it – loving those we belong to (family, friends, faith community) is hard enough, but loving those who can’t or won’t love us back is advanced spirituality! The gospel does not describe love as a feeling but rather as behaviour, the ethic that informs how and what we do, how we relate to those around us. (RCL Genesis 45:3-11,15; Psalm 37:1-11,40-41; 1 Corinthians 15:35-50; and Luke 6:27-38.)
Some of us may have just celebrated Valentine’s Day, or at least been aware that many now mark the day in some way, so we will have had “love” on our minds to some extent. And whenever we reflect on love – romantic or otherwise – many of us will have to admit that despite our advanced philosophies and theologies on love and human relationships we struggle to truly, deeply, madly love those we are bound to. No one can delight us or drive us to madness quicker than our loved ones and often we find that we give not only our best to those we are bound to in love but also our worst. In our personal relationships such as with spouses, children, fellow members of faith communities the nature of our relationships and how we express love has social contracts or covenants that describe how we are meant to treat each other. (The Ten Commandments, Marriage vows, clergy vows, contracts of employment, safe church guidelines, and the law of the land.) At this level relationship is transactional. “I will seek to treat you this way and I expect that you will treat me in like fashion.”
But the gospel takes us to a whole new and less contained level of loving and living. The new guidelines on how to love do not assume that those we are called to love can or will want to “pay us back” or even appreciate what we give or do. We are to love with great and even foolish generosity because that is how we are loved by God (think of the parables of the prodigal son and the one lost sheep). The instruction to love our enemies, to do good to those that hate us, and to bless those who abuse us is so outrageous that if we really listen then we are thrown out of our right or usual mind. And maybe that is in part the purpose of this confounding teaching – to set such an impossible standard that our mind or ego is unseated and we are somersaulted into another way of seeing how life works and how we are to live with others.
But let us go back to our discipline of considering “what is behind the text”. Jesus is talking to those of the Jewish faith and they would all know the Leviticus teachings on loving God and neighbour, even the alien who dwells in your community. Now Jesus is telling them to love their enemies – a very large step further. It is a little like the “You have heard it said ... but I say ...” sayings in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is taking the essence of a known teaching and magnifying it so much that it cannot be contained in the tradition any longer without expanding and breaking free. Also of course the people of Jesus’ day are a people who are oppressed and ruled over within their own land. They would probably have said that they do enough turning of the other cheek, allowing their shirts as well as their coats to be taken, giving up hope of having what has been taken returned to them! Is Jesus really suggesting that they simply cheerfully put up with what is being done to them? I cannot image so. What if Jesus is teaching that even when there seems to be very little power in a situation that there is agency in how we engage – that by entering into an otherwise unfair relationship in a ridiculously loving and consensual attitude that the situation is changed and radically charged with the power of God’s love?
And when we look “within the text” itself then we will notice how this provocative teaching flows directly out of the Beatitudes which are all about seeing the world, including very much the broken crazy world, in an utterly different way. An attitude to life that sees blessing in mourning and persecution just might lead us to love our enemies and see freedom in turning our other cheek. And the following teaching is about how judgement is a two edged sword that invariably cuts us more than it harms others. With these two punctuation marks or book ends we might consider how indeed loving our enemies and those experiences we would not wish for help us be opened up to receive the wildly extravagant love of God and then let that flow through us out into our world including those people we might call enemies and those situations we might call curses.
Then here we, and our broken, bruised and brutalising world, sitting “in front of the text”. How does this wild and provocative teaching impact us? How is loving our enemies good news for us?
Well first of all maybe we should consider that in this gospel teaching, at least, love is not primarily a feeling but about action, about what we do and how we conduct ourselves. Therefore we are not primarily being asked to have nice feelings about our enemies. We are being commanded to treat them well – outrageously well. This means of course that loving our enemies is certainly good news for our enemies – instead of being punished or resisted they are treated to our best and most inclusive behaviour. Such compassionate and kind behaviour may “convert” our enemies and may lead to a shared respect and enjoyment of one another. Or it may not.
Maybe this commandment is good news for us in that when we are in life situations where we have no or little power over our circumstances – when we are hated, cursed, abused by our enemies – that we can find the life giving flow in the situation by doing right by our enemies, doing good to those who wish us no good, and praying for love to be present in the situation. Maybe when we have no other power we are most ready to surrender to the flow of God’s love through us to others and in this way we are emptied and filled, taken by surprise and moved to a place beyond what we knew existed. When we are able to go beyond being disappointed and frightened that life is not always rational or fair, predictable or controllable, contained or safe, we may find ourselves flung into a broader, deeper, more eternal love than we ever knew existed.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, teach me how to fall into such a deep unfathomable love that I can love my enemies too.
Lent is fast approaching and you may like to look at the course I have prepared this year:
"Lent Year C: The Path of Descent." Tap on the button.