Those of us who live in the United States live in a representative republic, though many think it’s a democracy. At least, at the federal level we’re a representative republic. At the local state levels, we tend towards democracy, though a representative democracy. The United Methodist Church is conceived as a representative republic too, in a way, with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. I grew up thinking that this is the best form of government. I think it still is, outside of God’s rule and Kingdom. Over the last 30 years or so, I realize that our system can give the appearances of creating winners and losers. Winners seem to take all and the losers are expected to accept the decision and wait until the next vote! But as a mature adult, I see all the people who were on the losing side, and I worry that their voices are not heard, though often the winners don’t seem to care. The real issue though is a system that does or does not do these things, but that we as a people have come to see the system working in this way – through the perspective of winners and losers. The system itself doesn’t do this – we do it to ourselves.
Both our culture and our church have become increasingly divided; we demonize the “other” and cease listening to one another. In the CEB, verse 27 begins, “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies.” Jesus challenges the crowd to hear. Then he says the shocking phrase, “Love your enemies.” What?! He doesn’t just tell us to listen to them. We are to love them! I can just imagine how the people around him that day must have looked at one another in amazement, shaking their heads at the absurdity of it all. Some must have decided that they were not “willing to hear” and walked away with their heads full of questions. Others began to work on the bargain. Which enemy might they “love” without risking their own position? Others tried to imagine how they could love their enemies. Our imaginations can help us to see all the people who were there that day listening to Jesus. Their responses were not all the same.
But Jesus does not seem to be asking us to agree. Instead, Jesus asks us to love one another. He is talking about the kingdom of God, where love is the rule, not an eye for an eye. Verses 32-36 contain examples of ways we should be generous and loving, expecting nothing in return. In fact, Jesus tells us (if we are willing to hear), “If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended?” We are to “Be compassionate just as [God] is compassionate.” Everything about this way of being in the world goes against the ways of the world. It is so counter-cultural that we may not be willing to hear.
Imagine how the crowd was questioning this message! If I love my enemy, I will let down my guard, and the enemy may win. If I love my enemy, that enemy may threaten the well-being of my community or my family. If I am not a “winner,” will others suffer too? If I give my coat away, I may be cold. Who will give me a coat when I need it? If I lend money to someone who has no job and no prospect of paying me back, how will I support myself in my retirement? Part of the challenge of this teaching is that we are beset by competing values. If I turn my other cheek after being struck, how badly will I be wounded? Will my wound threaten those who depend on me? Will I lose my position in society because I am shamed? If I give my coat away, how can I pass it on to my child who may be cold? In fact, Jesus asks us to give without expectation of any reward in return. How does this work? Will others be vulnerable because of my sacrifice?
Are we willing to hear? Jesus asks us to “be compassionate just as [God] is compassionate.” The United Methodist Church asserts: “The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced” [2016 Book of Discipline ¶130]. So how do we convince the world of the reality of this gospel that Jesus preached? We must focus on compassion and love. Love begins with seeing and hearing those who are different from you. That means that those who voted on the other side should be heard and seen. In the hearing and seeing is the opportunity to love. With hearing and seeing comes understanding and compassion. Compassion is to feel or join in the passion with the other. Can we hear and see those with whom we differ? In hearing and seeing them, can we join in their pain? Can we extend love (not control)? Perhaps most importantly, we extend compassionate love, not in order to get something back (like agreement on an issue or gaining power for a political point of view), but simply because that is the gospel message. “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies.” We must also demonstrate a change in ourselves – one that surrenders our personal notion of our identity for the identity that God has for us. Our identities are incapable of this kind of forgiveness – God’s identity for us is definitely capable.
Unforgiveness is a powerful poison. When we allow divisions to grow among our own family and relationships – and I mean even within the church, we’re in a position to do severe damage to God’s kingdom. Visitors to the church pick up on that kind of stuff. This is why scripture teaches us that being peacemakers and offering forgiveness to one another is key. Yesterday I was reminded of a similar theme from the musical Les Miserables. Jean val Jean spends 20 years suffering for a petty crime, and Inspector Javert seems relentless in his pursuit of val Jean after his escape, hanging onto that anger and hatred. Grace extended to val Jean after his imprisonment changes his life completely, so much so that he even forgives Javert.
As an example, we can allow the grace that we’ve been extended to change us for the better – the grace that God has extended to us – enabling us to change and begin to love as He loves, or, we can stay trapped in unforgiveness.
Now, if we are to convince the world of the reality of the gospel, we must live the way of love every day and in all parts of our lives. Which type of life exemplifies that more? A life changed by grace, or a life trapped in anger? This change in lifestyle requires us to see all the people, with their differences and their passions. The way of love, the gospel, is at the heart of our mission in the world. If we act the way children of God act, love is at the center.