The Lectionary has put together on one Sunday three Scripture readings from three very different, widely-separated parts of Israel’s history. The three contain one common element: they all have something to do with enemies. Specifically, they tell us how to react to our enemies, whoever they might be.
Enemies. Today we’ll look at the three lessons, one at a time. What does the Bible have to tell us . . . about enemies?
The first lesson was from the Psalms: verse one to eleven of Psalm 37. The specific word “enemy” is not used in this section of the Psalm, but it is in later verses, and it is defined there: the “enemies” in this passage are those who live in opposition to righteous living, who do not follow God’s law; the enemies are the wicked. And that phrase, “the wicked,” is found repeatedly in the passage we read. The enemies are “the wicked.”
“Do no fret because of the wicked,” the Psalm begins. “Do not fret over those who prosper while carrying out evil devices,” it continues later. “Do not fret,” once again in verse 8; “it leads only to evil.” “Fret” is not a word we find very often in the Bible, or in daily conversation. When we hear it, we think about some sort of worry, or anxiety, or being upset.
But the “fret” we find here, explain commentaries on that Hebrew word, is not the kind of “fretting” we do when a family member is not home when expected, or when we have to get up and make an important speech before a roomful of people This is a special kind of “fret,” of upset, which is spelled out in the second half of verse 1: “do not be envious of wrongdoers.” This “fret” refers to the passion of jealousy, of wanting what they’ve got, of grumbling over their prosperity, of resenting or competing in some way. “Do not fret over those who prosper in their way”—do not be envious of their success. Do not get upset that they have prospered through their wrongdoing.
When it comes to enemies in Psalm 37, the message is: don’t worry about the fact that your enemy, the wicked, seem to be succeeding, seem to be doing well. Don’t worry about the rewards or lack of punishment coming their way. “Do not fret over them—it leads only to evil.”
Instead, the Psalm instructs, instead of putting your energy into worrying about them and what they’re getting, concentrate on trusting in the Lord yourself. “Trust in the Lord, and do good, so you will live in the land and enjoy security,” reads verse 3—stop thinking about them. “Take delight in the Lord, and God will give you the desires of your heart,” says verse 4. And if you are doing okay, what’s the difference what somebody else is getting or not getting?
The success of the wicked will not last, the Psalm assures us. They will fade, they will wither, they will be no more. In the meantime, don’t concentrate on them, but on yourself; make sure you’re committing your way to the Lord, waiting patiently for God, trusting in God. “Do not fret because of the wicked.”
Jesus told a parable, which we’ve considered before, which carries the same message: A certain landowner went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. An agreement was struck with the laborers that they would receive one denarius for their day’s work. And so they set about their work. Late in the morning, the landowner found some more workers and sent them to the vineyard, and then again in the early afternoon, and then he sent one more crew in the late afternoon, just an hour before quitting time.
At the end of the day, he went to those one-hour workers, the last hired, first . . . and he paid them one denarius. He also paid one denarius to the early afternoon hirees, and one denarius to the late morning hirees, and even one denarius to the first group hired, the ones who had been working all day. And they grumbled: these people didn’t work as hard as us; how come they get just as much money? And the landowner said to them, “Didn’t we agree that you would work for me for the day and I would pay you one denarius? And isn’t that what happened, just like we agreed? You got what you deserved; what do you care what I choose to give them?”
Do your work; accept your reward; and don’t worry about them. Don’t fret. That arrangement is between them and me.
God will take care of the arrangements between God and the wicked, the enemy; that is not our concern. Our concern is to trust in God ourselves, watch out for ourselves, and not be jealous of them. We are not to be like children who cry because “she got three cookies and I only got two.” Isn’t it better to enjoy the two we have?
Do not fret over your enemies.
Our second story was from the book of Genesis, and the “enemies” there present a somewhat different case. The enemies there are Joseph’s brothers, and they have been his personal enemies. Like the enemies in the Psalm, they have been wicked, but in this case they have been wicked specifically against him; they have wronged him.
When Joseph had been a young man, they had kidnapped him, if effect, and sold him into slavery in Egypt, telling his father that wild animals had killed him. Through a combination of events, including a God-given talent for interpreting dreams, Joseph had eventually risen to a position of great power in Egypt, during a time of great famine. He was in charge of handing out the food. And one day, who should present themselves before him, begging for food . . . but those brothers who had sold him into slavery? His oppressors. His enemies. The enemies in this case are people who had wronged him personally, not just been wicked “over there” somewhere. They had hurt him.
His brothers don’t’ recognize him at first, the story tells us (it has been many years), until he reveals his identity to them, in the passage we heard this morning. “I am Joseph, your brother. I am still alive.” And the brothers are, says the story, “distressed.” I’ll bet they were.
You’ve sold your brother into a life of slavery, and now, years later, all of a sudden you stand face to face with him as he wields great power, the second most powerful man in all Egypt, who can have people punished or tortured or executed for absolutely no reason at all if he wants. And with you he has a great reason. I bet they were . . . “distressed.”
So how does Joseph, Joseph the powerful, Joseph the wronged, treat his enemies in their distress? He calms them. He says, “Don’t be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here. I won’t hurt you; in fact, I will provide for you. I’ve decided it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
Whew! How do they spell relief? Joseph doesn’t act against his enemies, even though he has every right to; Joseph instead forgives them.
His reasoning, in this case, is that he and his brothers had all been part of a master plan designed by God to bring him to Egypt so he could save that country and his own family from starving to death in the famine; it wasn’t his brothers’ doing, but God’s.
I’m sure it didn’t hurt that things had turned out well; it’s probably a little easier to be generous and forgiving when you’re set up in style with Pharaoh as your doting father-in-law. Things had turned out fine.
But isn’t that what Psalm 37 promised, after all? “Trust in the Lord, and you will enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and you will receive the desires of your heart.” As for your enemies, they will eventually be brought low. Joseph has trusted in God, rather than spending years nurturing his anger and plotting his revenge, and things have worked out. So when his enemies do finally appear before him, having been brought low, begging for food, any anger or desire for revenge has faded. And Joseph can forgive. He can be content not to injure them back, and he can forgive them. He does not retaliate against his enemies.
So our first lesson, from the Psalms, says don’t focus on your enemies’ current prosperity. And the second lesson recommends not retaliating against them, not hurting back, but forgiving. Now in our third lesson, we find Jesus addressing the subject of enemies.
Once again we need to begin by defining what is meant here by the word “enemy.” Once again, it is somewhat different. In this passage, in Luke 6, “enemy” is defined in verse 22: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and exclude you and revile you, on account of the Son of Man.” The “enemies” are those haters, those excluders, those insulters, who are doing it because of your loyalty to Christ, to the Son of Man. The “enemies” are those who hate or denounce or reject Christians.
That phrase about “turning the other cheek” which is so often quoted has to do with a very specific act common in Luke’s time: to strike someone on the cheek was to insult them, and to insult them because of their religious beliefs. Enemies, here, are those who insult you because of your allegiance to Christ.
The people of Jesus’ time had standard practices for how to deal with that kind of enemy, one who insults you because of your faith. We find their approach written down, several places, including the writings of a man named Lysias: “I consider it established that one should do harm to one’s enemies and be of service to one’s friends.” A religious community called the Essenes of Qumran, the ones who copied and stored the Dead Sea Scrolls, instructed their people to bless their own members, as “children of light,” and curse those who did not join them, or defected, as “children of darkness.” People knew how they were supposed to deal with those who insulted their faith.
Now things were starting to change, it appears; some writings of Jesus’ time show that people had started to discover the advantage of trying to turn enemies into friends. But they still weren’t’ prepared, I’m sure, to hear what Jesus had to say about enemies.
Some of it sounds familiar. “Do not judge; do not condemn,” says verse 37. Not unlike our Psalm: don’t worry about their prosperity, just worry about yourself. “Forgive,” continues the verse. We’ve seen forgiveness, too, from Joseph.
But then Jesus goes on. And he carries the idea of not hurting or forgiving one’s enemies further. Much further. “Love your enemies,” begins verse 27. “Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.” This is not just ignoring your enemies’ prosperity, or just refraining from striking back. This is active, overt goodness toward those who are insulting you because of your faith. This is a positive step toward them, for their benefit. Do good to them. Bless them. And it’s not just a suggestion or an option of a piece of advice. This is a command to the disciples. The imperative. Love them. Do good. Bless.
This section, about love, is considered to be the center of Jesus’ message in this long sermon in the Gospel of Luke. “The heart of the message,” writes Joseph Fitzmyer, “is the love which must dominate the life of the Christian disciple. It is love of one’s neighbor, and even of one’s enemy.” Even the not judging part, later on, is another application of this love instruction: Rather than criticizing and finding fault with one’s neighbor, one should be generous toward them, merciful toward them, forgiving of any faults. Jesus is speaking of love. Even regarding enemies!
What could be the reasoning behind this instruction? Wasn’t Jesus there to bring The Truth? To set things straight? To teach a true faith in God? Then why would he insist on blessing those who insult that faith and work against it? How could he encourage people, on the one hand, to believe, and on the other reward those who ridicule belief? How could this be? How could it even be thought possible? Why?!?
The answer, we find, is in verses 35 and 36. “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend expecting nothing in return, and you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, as your Father is merciful.” The reason we are to love and do good and bless and pray for those who are insulting the faith, is because we are to imitate God’s love—and that’s what God does.
God pays full wages to those who show up for work at the last second, as well as those who have been there all along. God takes a wicked action like selling a brother into slavery and uses it to save those who did the selling from starvation. Love your enemies and do good, and you will be children of God, acting like God. Be merciful, as God is merciful.
God’s love is the love found in another of Jesus’ parables: A son demands his inheritance from his father while his father is still alive, blows the family fortune on his own brief pleasure, ruins the family name, comes home in shame . . . and the father runs down the road to welcome him back into the family. The other son storms out of the house, criticizing his father for the welcome-home party, accusing him of favoritism, grumbling over his brother’s not getting the punishment he deserved, fretting,
envious . . . and the father rushes out of the house begging him to come back in to the party.
That, Jesus said, is how God loves: even when our actions are an insult to the faith we claim to have. And that, Jesus said, is how you should love, as children of God, loving even those who are insulting the faith. Love the enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
There will be a reward, the passage concludes; things will work out well, as they did for Joseph. But that is not the motivation; expect nothing in return, says verse 35, and love anyway.
So don’t fret about the enemy, envying any temporary prosperity; just focus on your own actions. And try not to nurse your anger along, sustaining it, but to refrain from hitting back, and to forgive. But then comes even more: Love that enemy as God does, as befits children of God.
The rebuttal to this message is obvious, and often stated: I’ve heard it in the churches I’ve served: “You can’t tell me that if someone hits you, you don’t want to hit them back? That’s just not natural. That’s not human. Tell me you don’t feel like hitting them back.”
And they’re right; we do feel like hitting back. But Jesus isn’t calling us to do what we feel like at the moment; Jesus isn’t calling us to do what’s “natural” or what’s “human nature.” Jesus is calling us to overcome that initial gut-level response, and to imitate God, as a child of God.
Let’s pray: God, help us . . . to imitate your love, the love Jesus showed—to encourage everyone by our actions, even current enemies of our faith, to want to be part of this loving faith. Amen.