The 16th Sunday After Pentecost
We hear this gospel every year. It’s maybe, in an odd way, one of the most irritating and disturbing of all the gospels. Of all the things that Jesus asks us to do, the one that makes us most angry is to forgive people who have injured us and to love our enemies. We can recall the great wave of patriotism, but also the great wave of anger, that swept across the country when the 9-11 attack took place on our nation. And in the hearts and minds of most Americans, I’m certain, was very last of all any thought of forgiving or praying for or desiring good for those who had planned and had perpetrated the attack.
It is very difficult for us to understand because we are weaned on justice. It’s a kind of a civil religion for us. We know what our rights are. We know that we can always sue if we feel personally injured. Or we can file charges if we feel the laws have been broken to cause us harm. And we feel not only that we CAN do these things, but that we ought to do them. So when it comes to our enemies, it’s very difficult for us to imagine having any good thoughts or intentions toward them. Yet the lord has made it very clear to us that being a Christian means imitating him, it means imitating his father. We have to remember that our Lord Jesus Christ, when being nailed to the cross, did not cry out to heaven, “Father, send down thy lightening and smite these sinners.” He didn’t call down God’s wrath upon the emperor, or upon the legions, or upon the centurions, or upon the Sanhedrin that had convicted Him, or upon the high priest who had condemned Him, or Pontius Pilate who had stood aside and let Him be lynched. Instead He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We understand that our life is a life in God. Week after week I’ve mentioned that to you: That when it says we who believe in Jesus will not perish but have everlasting life, it means believe IN Jesus; it means to be within his body, to be part of him, have his life in us. Otherwise, what does Holy Communion mean if not that God’s life is in us? And what is God? St. John tells us very simply: God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him.
Maybe our trouble with idea of loving our enemies is that we have really sloppy, kind of sick, sentimental ideas about what love is. I remember when I was a kid, I’ve mentioned it before, the song “What is love? Five feet of heaven and a pony tail.” Well, folks, that is not love. Love is not even the great rush of hormonal attraction that comes upon young men and women when they find their true love for the first time. It is not the commitment that comes from obligation, nor is it all some kind of nostalgic, romantic recollection of the good old days and the wonderful times. Love is, quite simply, ultimate concern. It is caring about the ultimate and temporal disposition of the object of love.
When we say that God loves us, we mean that God wants the best for everyone. There is no one in whose death or damnation God delights. God does not damn anyone. We understand that. We understand that the pastor in Chicago who screamed out, “God damn America,” was doing something God wouldn’t do, and that is to condemn. What he should have said, if he believed it, was, “America may damn itself.” That’s a matter of judgment.
The point, quite simply, is we know from the scriptures that “God desireth not the death of any sinner but that all should turn from their wickedness and live.” And that our hope has to be that all will turn from their wickedness and live. If our Lord could not only forgive those who were so cruelly crucifying him, but could impart absolution to the thief on the cross, who in the desperation of his last moments, cried out, “I deserve this punishment. Remember me O Lord when thou comest into Thy kingdom.” This man to whom he said, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” If our Lord could forgive Peter, who three times denied Him, after having promised, “I will go to prison and to death for You,” then we also ought to forgive those who injure us. But this is not again that kind of romantic stupidity that sometimes is interpreted as love in our culture. It’s not, “Hey, hit me again. It feels so good when you stop.” No, that’s not what it is. It’s not being a sucker, it’s not being a fool, it’s not making yourself vulnerable to being injured. It is making yourself vulnerable to being disappointed. It’s making your heart vulnerable to being hurt again and again, because we always have to harbor hope and prayer for our enemies no matter how wicked they may appear to us to be now.
And so our Lord calls to our attention how His heavenly Father causes the sun the rise on the good and on the evil alike, and His rain to fall upon the fields of the just, and of the unjust. And if God, in His distributive justice, pours out His love equally upon all of His creatures, then we are obliged to struggle to forgive; we’re obliged to struggle to love; we’re obliged to struggle to pray for others.
Bishop Benjamin tells a story about two Jewish holocaust survivors who met in New York. One of them told about how wonderful his life in America had been, and how he had found a new meaning, and a new purpose, and a new joy. The other one said, “All I think about everyday is those Nazis: how I hate them, how I despise them. How could they do what they did?” And the first one said, “I see. I am here in America, and you are still in the concentration camp.”
Hatred and anger injure the perpetrator more than the object of the hatred or anger. It is their revenge on us if they can make us think day and night about how ill treated we were, then we are still in the prison of their control. And so, brothers and sisters, to pray for them, to say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” – this is the cure for all that anger, for all of that rumination about past injuries. Yes, stand up and demand that right be done and that wrong be persecuted and prosecuted. But do not call upon God, or desire of Him, that those are the perpetrators should suffer eternal damnation or loss. But call upon Him to touch their hearts and warm them, to turn them, and to save them.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!