Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mike: Matthew 5:43-47

"You have head that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor 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; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:43-47) (NRSV)

The test of true religion is how we act toward those who hate or harm us, or whom we have been taught to treat as enemies.

"You shall love your neighbor" is drawn from Leviticus 19:18. "Hate your enemy" presents a problem. To the best of my knowledge, this specific language is not found in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, any number of passages acknowledge the existence of such feelings. Going beyond texts, I think it reasonable to conclude many a parent taught their children to observe both maxims. Frankly, it's human nature.

Which, of course, is Jesus' point: "What more are you doing than others? For someone of the Christian tradition, the injunction to love and pray for even enemies narrows our options. At the very least, if we take Jesus seriously we're forced to examine our typical reactions.

Rami, I took this matter seriously even as a child. The rural school I attended featured serious divisions among the students. To be frank,all students had friends and enemies. Your enemies could (and usually did) hurt you, not only in terms of shunning and teasing but sometimes to the point of physical violence. Naturally, we were tempted to buy into the system, choose our side, and go to war.

I wanted to do so, but each time I started down that road I stumbled over this teaching of Jesus. Sometimes I got up, shook the dust from my sneakers, and plunged into the fray. More often, though, I chose not to hurt "my enemies." Worse, I felt compelled to try to help at least some of them in the ways available to me: a kind word, a bit of help with homework, choosing them for a sports team, and the like. To put it mildly, such behavior was not well received by my "friends." I wish I could honestly say that all the teachings of Jesus took hold so strongly during my youth!

Looking back, I now know I was being granted a taste of the loneliness which comes to any of us who depart from the norm.

The scripture passage teaches that those who follow Jesus' injunction may "be perfect" even as God is perfect. A better translation might be "mature" or perhaps even "complete." Love in action, without regard for the categories of friend and enemy, completes a follower of Jesus. In our better moments we remember this is so. Too often, we forget.

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