Friday, February 7, 2020

Loving Our Enemies

In case you were wondering, the words President Donald Trump said he wasn’t sure he agreed with at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast are from Matthew 5:43-48:

[Jesus said] “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” 

I’m not writing to point out what a bad Christian Donald Trump is. He is a bad Christian, but so am I, and so are all the Christians I know, faithful and lapsed alike. The Sermon on the Mount, which St. Augustine described as “a perfect standard of the Christian life,” includes some pretty challenging stuff.  Loving your enemies is hard enough, but there’s also instructions to turn the other cheek, not to get angry with your brother, and to rejoice while being persecuted, among others. God knows I fall short on something found in these passages on a weekly basis. I don’t know anyone who manages to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect. We are all bad Christians. 

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to try.  The Sermon on the Mount doesn’t end with Jesus nudging Peter and saying, “Ha! I really had you going there! Just kidding!” Yeah, loving our enemies is tough. Watching some of my brothers and sisters in Christ cheer the president on as he brushed aside Jesus’ call to love our enemies made my blood boil, and it’s taking all my willpower not to shout, “You fools!” at them, thereby putting myself in danger of the fire of hell. (Matthew 5:22)  So I get why the president would find the notion of loving one’s enemies unappealing, and even absurd.

 One of those pastors should pull him aside, though, and tell him Jesus wasn’t joking. Jesus lived that way, and yes, he expects us to live that way too. After all, Jesus called on God to forgive those who crucified him as he was dying on the cross — pretty much the ultimate in loving your enemies. If he can do that, surely we can at least try to speak with compassion instead of shouting angrily, to speak words of forgiveness and reconciliation instead of vengeance, to pray for those who have hurt us instead of trying to hurt them back.

I have no doubt Jesus knew perfectly well his followers would not live up to the standard he laid out in the Sermon on the Mount — the human inability to turn aside from sin is, after all, why he died on the cross — but that doesn’t give us permission to laugh and do the exact opposite.  Our failure should leave us grief-stricken, not triumphant, and when we see someone acting in ways contrary to Jesus’ teachings, we should correct, not applaud. 

Being perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect, may be out of reach, but it should always be our goal. We may struggle to love our enemies, but that doesn’t mean we should feel free to hate them.  We don’t get to dismiss the words of the Gospel just because it’s hard to live up to them. Instead, they should remind us that we are bad Christians, and prod us to try to do better living into them, through the grace of God.