How do we love those who have hurt us badly?
A sermon on Luke 6:27-38 by Nathan Nettleton, 19 February 1995
Love for enemies is a response to God's love for us, but in cases of huge hurt it is a community issue.
These words of scripture, and the instructions from Jesus that they contain, have been, for some people, the most liberating message they have ever heard, and for other people, they have become the most oppressive and damning message possible. I don't like to preach on this passage because I feel like I am walking on eggshells when I do. Every congregation has people who are fragile at various points in their lives, and this passage can come like a vicious stomp.
Many of you will know how touchy this passage can be because you will have seen Bob's reaction to it before. I could see your eyes glaze over when it was read Bob, but I want you to stay with me, because I have tried to keep you and a few others in mind as I prepared this sermon. I think I have discovered what this can mean for where you are at, and I hope I can help you to see a light in the darkness of this passage.
The problem line of course, is when Jesus says, Love your enemies, and then he goes on to explain what that means by saying, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you. And if that wasn't problem enough he goes on to talk about turning the other cheek when you get hit.
They are words that are hard whoever you are. By definition, loving your enemies is difficult. But to some people these words are like a kick in the teeth, either because of the people that come to mind when they hear them or because of the context in which the words were quoted at them. There are people who hear these words as Love your rapist, or Do good to those who sexually absed you when you were a child; bless those who screwed up your life so badly that every relationship you have ever had has been a painful struggle; pray for those who murdered your mother in front of your three year old eyes.
There are women and children who have fled from their homes to escape the drunken rampages of a perpetually violent man, who have been told by their churches, for God sake, to turn the other cheek and go back and love him. And some of those women and children are now dead because of that callous and gutless misuse of this passage.
These words of Jesus are not addressed to individual people who have been the victims of cruel abuse. These words are addressed to those who have power, those who have the power to take effective action for good or harm over a person who has wronged them. The reason I am convinced that this is true is that the words are meaningless if directed to those who do not have any power in a situation.
Put yourself back in time for a minute to when you were six years old. You are a small child in a big school and you have got yourself caught in the wrong end of the playground, and you are now surrounded by a gang of twelve year old bullies. There is about five of them and they are all twice your size. They are standing in a circle around you taking it in turns to hit you. You are terrified and crying but still they go on. What are your choices??? What would it mean if someone were to tell you to turn the other cheek???
It wouldn't mean a thing, because there isn't anything else you can do. Turning the other cheek is only a meaningful instruction if you can choose it as an alternative to beating the stuffing out of someone. It is no use trying to teach someone to turn the other cheek until they have learned to fight. Jesus was directing his words to those who could strike back and destroy those who had cursed them. He is saying, Next time you are about to exercise your right of retaliation to destroy someone who has offended you, stop and think, maybe this time you could let it be like water of a ducks back. There is a huge difference between those for whom the water of a ducks back approach is a basic survival skill in a threatening and abusive world, and those for whom it is a choice from a position of personal power. Jesus is addressing his words to the latter.
Not only do I think that Jesus is not speaking to the powerless here, I am also fairly convinced that he is not speaking primarily to individuals, especially when the hurt the enemy has inflicted has caused lasting damage. Jesus was speaking to a group, to the community of God's people. As a group we are required to love enemies and turn the other cheek. Which means that if you think that someone in the community is in a situation where the other cheek needs to be turned, then maybe it's your turn to go in and be hit. Maybe the other cheek is yours this time.
Some of these direction that Jesus gives in this sermon are basically impossible if you read them individually. If you turn the other cheek everytime and give your shirt to everyone who asks for your coat you will be battered and cold and naked in no time at all, but if a community handles the situation together it may actually be possible to live this stuff out.
That way, if the instruction to love your enemies does mean do good to those who abused Bob when he was a little fellow, it isn't up to Bob to do it, it's up to the rest of us. Perhaps to visit them in jail to try to show them that the love of God in Christ may even reach vile bastards like them. But don't go asking it of Bob. God is not that cruel. It would only be if the healing of the wounds was sufficiently complete that someone could face the enemy without feeling powerless that God would ever suggest that they might be involved in the actions of showing love to such an enemy.
Loving those who do evil to us is a community responsibility and is one of the great expressons of the freedom we have in Christ. We are free to love in the face of hate, we are free to turn cursing into blessing. It is not a rule for the innocent victims who have no choice but to submit to the abuse. That would not be an expression of freedom at all, it would be proof that the rest of us didn't have the guts or the love to get them out of there.
I don't want to leave this passage without having said anything positive about it. The real point of this passage is that God's love for us is overwhelmingly generous, and all we are expected to do is respond in kind. God treats us far better than we deserve. It would be very easy to stand up here and make a big bad list of all the ways in which we have insulted God, damaged God's creation, and contributed to the pain and hostility within God's world. Everyone of us has caused more than our fair share of hurt and misery to ourselves and to others and consequentially we have caused hurt and grief to God, but God's response to us continues to be extravagently generous and loving and forgiving. God continues to turn the other cheek, to give more than we ask for, and to reach out to us in love no matter how unfaithful we have been. And if you find that hard to believe, just look at the stories of Jesus. He didn't owe you anything, but he accepted being tortured to death rather than compromise his message of god's overflowing love for you.
So essentially what Jesus is saying here is that he wants you to learn from God's example, and treat others the way God treats you. Just as God has the power to wipe you out, but chooses to love you instead, so you have the power to withhold love and hope from others, but God says Love.
And ultimately it is these words that really sort out the sheep from the goats. It is these instructions that sought out those whose response to God is genuine from those who are fakes. If you really want to test the faith of a church, walk in and name their enemies and see what happens. Walk in to a militantly fundamentalist church and talk about loving the marxists or the abortionists and see what happens. Walk into a left-leaning radical socially active church and talk about loving Jeff Kennett and Fred Nile and see what happens.
Pat Robinson, an American TV evangelist and a leader of the so-called Moral Majority called, a few years ago, for Christians to pray for the death of their enemies. I reckon any remaining doubts that the man was a fraud were removed at that moment. he betrayed himself as one who would not respond to the overflowing love of God, by loving those who opposed him. He betrayed himself as one who was driven by lusts for power and fame and victory, and certainly not by a willing ness to follow the one who went to the cross rather than strike back.
As we come to this table, to eat together in celebration of the one who has loved us unconditionally and unreservedly, we come to commit ourselves to follow in the ways of Jesus, to love above and beyond the call of duty. We come as a people who have known pain, who have been hurt, but who have begun to discover the cleansing healing love of God, and who are responding by learning to love as we are loved. We come celebrating the fact that for us the tide has turned, that the pain and hurt are being washed away and the love of Christ flowing into us in its place.