Blessed are…the enemy-lovers
Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Remember our theme in this sermon series? It’s this: the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to people who ‘get it’. They are the people of the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit; the mourners; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; the persecuted.
The persecuted. Many people are being persecuted today, for their faith, for political reasons, for their sexuality. Christians are leaving Middle Eastern countries today because it’s just so difficult to live there; there are places in which Christians don’t have full civil rights. We really aren’t persecuted for their faith here in Australia; none of us is liable to personal harm or even lack of professional advancement purely because we belong to a church.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’. This is surely the hardest beatitude. How can people who are persecuted be ‘blessed’ in any way, shape or form? What sense could it make to say that?
Let’s look at how those who were being persecuted for their faith might have responded to what Jesus is saying here.
We need to remember again that Jesus lived in a different time and place to us. His culture was based on ‘honour’ and ‘shame’. A person with honour could hold his head up anywhere, and be highly regarded. A person without honour felt a sense of shame, and could not command any respect at all. Think of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee prays with a sense of honour:
God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.
The tax-collector takes the place of the shameful: he stands far off, beats his breast and says,
God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
If we look at those who are persecuted in such a society, we see they know what shame is; they have no honour. The people who persecute them have honour; but they have none in their eyes.
How might you feel in that situation? People like us, people used to notions of universal human rights, might well feel aggrieved and angered if we were persecuted. People in other times and places might just accept it as their lot in life. They may even think they deserve it.
But however we might feel about persecution, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake’. To them, Jesus says these words:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…
Our Old Testament reading, Leviticus 19, says:
…you shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Leviticus doesn’t say, ‘hate your enemy’; but the whole flavour of this passage is for love to be given to people in your own community—neighbours, the poor, even the foreigner living there. But not for enemies.
Why should we love our enemies? And why on earth does Jesus say this to the people of the Beatitudes, including those who are persecuted?
Jesus is giving a great dignity to the persecuted. He isn’t treating them as worthless people, covered in shame. They are people who can turn their inner lives around. They can love others, including their persecutors. They can make a difference. They have the inner freedom to pray for those who persecute them, so that they may be children of our Father in heaven. Like the peacemakers, they are children of God—and remember, to be a child of God is to be like God, who is The Peacemaker and The Lover of enemies.
If you want an example of someone praying for their persecutors, listen to this:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Jesus didn’t say that because someone had trodden on a toe. He was nailed to a cross, a condemned man, when he spoke these words of forgiveness, compassion and love on behalf of his persecutors. He is not asking us to do something he hasn’t already done.
Jesus gives genuine dignity to the persecuted ones. Part of their dignity is this: Jesus was also persecuted. They are partners in persecution with Jesus. He stands with them and calls them his sisters and brothers.
Of course, Jesus identifies with all the people of the Beatitudes because he is the Example of a life lived by the Beatitudes.
He is the poor in spirit: ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ (2 Corinthians 8.9)
He is the mourner: ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’, who wept at his friend’s grave (Isaiah 53.3).
Jesus is the meek one, the one who seeks above all for God’s justice, the merciful one, the pure in heart, the peacemaker, the persecuted one.
Jesus is the Beatitudes person, and he is not ashamed. He has the dignity of a human being in the image of God. Jesus gives dignity to every person who lives by the Beatitudes or who is put in a position where they must experience the poverty of spirit, the mourning or the persecution of which the Beatitudes speak.
But Jesus also talks here about turning the other cheek. Doesn’t that mean that persecuted people should just take it and ask for more? No, it doesn’t.
When Jesus speaks about turning the other cheek, or about giving all your clothes to a soldier who demands one item of clothing, he is also giving dignity to downtrodden people.
‘Turn the other cheek’ doesn’t mean ‘let people walk all over you’.
What it does mean is this: When a person was slapped—as an insult—on the right cheek, if he turned the other cheek he made it impossible for his oppressor to do it again. And if one of the occupying Roman soldiers told someone to give him their shirt, and he gave his other clothes and stood before him naked, he was being obedient on the surface; but in reality the soldier was losing face.
That’s what Jesus means. Not be passive; not let people walk all over you; but find creative ways of standing tall and keeping your human dignity.
That’s not ‘tough love’, but it is ‘creative’ love. Creative love may not always be ‘nice’. But it is love.
What about us?
We can go to church, preach the Good News, say we’re a Christian anywhere we wish. We may be ignored, ridiculed or shouted down, but this is not persecution. It’s the consequence of living in a free country.
Perhaps we can listen to Jesus in partnership with people who are persecuted. Jesus gives them dignity; our part is to also give dignity to those who are persecuted—to listen to them, to hunger and thirst for the righteousness they cry out for as fellow human beings in God’s image.
You may not be persecuted, but do you have enemies? Perhaps you do, though I suspect that our enemies are more likely to be people we don’t get along with or who are just plain difficult for everyone.
There’s one enemy many if not all of us have: I see mine every time I look in the mirror. I am my own enemy whenever I put stumbling blocks in my own way. I may feel that I am not good enough to do something; I may feel a sense of pride that gets in my own way. Either way, I stop myself living with the self-respect that Jesus offers me.
Can I love my enemy, if my enemy is me? It’s become a truism that to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, we must first have a healthy love for ourself.
I think it is true here too: I must have a healthy love of myself if I am to come anywhere near loving my enemy.
What have we found about how the persecuted ones might hear Jesus’ words? They find in them a sense of dignity, because Jesus shares their position. Jesus gives them dignity because they can be set free from a sense of shame. Whatever others may do, Jesus treats them as free people!
Yet there are many people who are not persecuted for righteousness’ sake who lack a sense of dignity. Perhaps they were sensitised by being bullied or abused as children. Like those who are persecuted, they—we—need a sense of our own dignity. If someone is persecuted for Jesus’ sake, it seems very reasonable that they might look to Jesus for validation.
It’s the same task for those who us who are not persecuted, whose worst enemy may in fact be ourselves. We need to look to Jesus our life, our strength, our hope. We may need to be reminded that Jesus treats us as free people, not as those who are the victims of whatever has happened to us before now.
We Christians don’t find our true selves in our achievements, even if they are good. We don’t find our true selves in what others think of us, even if they look up to us. We find our true selves as we love our enemies, as we pray for the persecuted and support those who work for their freedom.
We find our true selves in Jesus—the one who is the example of a life flowing out of the Beatitudes, and who invites us to find our dignity in him and to join his way.