Mercy, Enemies, and Peace
A sermon on Luke 6:27-38.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Christian Cacciamani on Unsplash]
Last week we heard the first part of Jesus’ “sermon on the plain,” and it was pretty challenging:
A “woe” for every blessing;
And when that makes us anxious, an exhortation to trust God instead of trying to grasp onto security;
Which ultimately works out to a call to join in God’s rebalancing work, even if that means we lose some of our advantages when the playing field gets leveled.
This week, the challenges to self-protective individualism get even more extreme.
“Love your enemies” is familiar enough to perhaps lose some of its shock value, but then Jesus details that he is talking about action, not just kindly feelings:
We are to DO good, not only to the people who deserve it, but even to the people who HATE us;
And if someone curses us – actively willing harm into our lives, we are to pray for them;
And if someone physically assaults us, we are not to hit back, but rather let them hit us again, on the un-injured side (?);
And if someone pursues us with requests, or even directly steals from us, we are to give to them freely… even beyond what they demand.
And in all of this, Jesus’ command is that we act with no thought of self-interest, or the reward we will gain, “expecting nothing in return.”
Wow! I mean… has he met humanity?!
We are NOT wired this way. From a baby’s first cry, we come into this world with an instinct to seek out, first and foremost, what weneed. And try to take a toy from a toddler to see just how unnatural it is freely give.
Not to mention… has Jesus checked out our enemies?! Because they are bad news. If we let them run rough-shod over us and over others, they could send the world into chaos, evil, and death.
In other words, if Jesus is preaching this sermon as a to-do list for his followers, we are in trouble.
We can’t do it!
And if we did, the consequences would be dire.
But what if Jesus is not delivering an ethical to-do list focused on our moral perfection?
Reading this gospel as a to-do list means we are reading it in a transactional way:
“If you want me to be pleased with you, this is what I expect from you.”
We perform to earn God’s favor. It’s the essential formula of works-based righteousness, a righteousness that depends on our actions, rather than God’s grace.
But we have another option. We can read Jesus’s teachings about the life of faith NOT as a divine-human transaction, but rather as a means of transformation… as a description of God’s way of changing us and the world.
To explain what I mean, I am going to borrow from the novel, musical, and movie Les Miserable.
For those who might not have seen any of the adaptations of this classic story, it follows the life of Jean Valjean – a poor man who is imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his sister’s sickly child. After 19 years of hard labor, he is released from prison, but he seems destined to return because no one wants to employ a former convict, and theft seems to be his only way to feed himself.
Providentially, a local bishop takes him in for a night, giving him food and a warm bed. Unfortunately, Jean Valjean has been conditioned by his deprivations, so he steals the household silver and seeks to escape.
He is caught and brought back to the bishop’s house by the authorities, so that the bishop can confirm the theft… but apparently the bishop has read the sermon on the plain.
“If anyone takes aware your goods, do not ask for them again.”
The bishop declares that Jean Valjean did not steal the silver. It was a gift. And then he goes a step farther.
“If anyone takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”
The bishop hands Jean Valjean the heavy silver candlesticks, gently rebuking him for leaving behind the most valuable items. These are gifts as well.
It is a stunning act of mercy, and it is the turning point in Jean Valjean’s life, a point which the bishop makes in his parting words to his erstwhile guest after the police have left.
When the thief asks his benefactor why he is offering such grace to a man who abused his hospitality, this bishop’s answer exemplifies an understanding of the gospel’s transformative purpose:
“Jean Valjean my brother,” the bishop says, “you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I've ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.”
The bishop is not following Jesus’s instructions in order to win God’s favor… he is doing so to win his enemy’s soul.
He is offering unmerited grace because only such grace can free another person from the devastating control of fear and hatred, so that they can be changed.
He is offering mercy because he understands that mercy is God’s way of changing the world: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
But this brings us back to the question about whether Jesus has any clue about our enemies.
In the fictional worlds of French novels and musical theater, an act of incredible, self-giving mercy can transform a man destined for a life of criminality into a leader who devotes the rest of his life to caring for others.
But does that happen in real life?
Perhaps it does with those, like Jean Valjean, who are originally driven by desperation and the lack of any other options. When mercy offers them another option, they will gratefully take it.
But there is real greed in the world. And real addiction to violence, and power.
And there is far too much evidence that acts of self-sacrificing mercy do not always ransom an enemy’s soul.
Far too often abused women have been told that their witness of silent suffering will soften their abuser’s hearts, only to learn too late that their forgiveness only empowered more abuse.
Far too often victims of racism have been told to be more polite and to play by the rules in seeking justice, only to discover that such pacifism only reinforces patterns of silence and stasis.
On an individual level, acts of extravagant mercy may sometimes result in personal conviction and transformation, but that almost never happens on a societal level.
So how do we avoid the trap of an ethic of mercy that – far from transforming the world – empowers abuse and victimization and inequality?
In pondering that question, I was reminded this week of a unique take I heard several years on Jesus’s exhortation to “love your enemies”
In a keynote address on the church’s call to justice work, the Rev. Dr. Traci West, from Drew University, offered this unforgettable quote:
“You cannot love your enemies if you don’t have any.”
Her point was that loving our enemies is NOT about smiling and singing kumbaya.
It’s not about making our enemies our friends, or excusing damaging actions, or letting people who do harm continue to do harm because that’s what is the “loving” thing to do.
It’s not! The loving thing to do is to stop the harm.
But to stop it without duplicating its strategies. Without using hatred, and cursing, and violence, and theft as our tools.
Loving our enemies is about recognizing evil actions as evil but changing the way that we fight them so that we are fighting the harm, rather than the person… a person who is still in need of mercy even though they are our enemy.
Jesus tells us to “be merciful, just as God is merciful.”
And God’s mercy is a mercy that comes among us, speaking to us on “a level place” about the kind of love and mercy that transforms us.
God doesn’t wield power as a means of coercive change. God doesn’t force us to change through threat or manipulation.
God shows us a better way and invites us into the grace that equips us to change the world the loving way…
By making us instruments of God’s peace.
Thanks be to God.
 For a summary of the Justice Gathering event where the keynote address was delivered, see: https://dioceseofnewark.org/content/report-lutheran-episcopal-advocacy-ministry-new-jerseys-justice-gathering-2017#:~:text=On%20Saturday%2C%20September%2016%2C%202017%2C%20the%20Lutheran%20Episcopal,gathered%20together%20to%20listen%2C%20learn%2C%20collaborate%2C%20and%20worship.