Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
20 February 2022
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
It was only a few Sundays ago that we talked about loving our enemies and here we are, Jesus says it in our Gospel reading to all who would listen, and to all who care to follow him.
It is the least intuitive instruction of the Gospel, and perhaps it is here that we realize that none of the things Jesus instructs us in just fall into our lap, or are the things we’re inclined to do anyway.
I grew up during the cold war in the place that would have been the first to be wiped off the map, had there been a war. My parents had lived through WW II, my grandparents had lived through both world wars.
And then I grew up in the church and I always thought that when Jesus talked about loving our enemies that he meant it, because it is what he practised. He healed the ear of the soldier who was arresting him and asked his Father to forgive is executioners.
When I grew up, Germany still had the draft. It was the Cold Ware, after all. In order to be freed from serving in the military and be assigned to an alternative service in a hospital, care home, or social institution, one had to appear in front of a panel and explain why one’s conscience forbade to serve with a weapon. One of the standard questions was this, “You are walking with your girlfriend through a park at night and are attacked. What will you do?” They obviously didn’t expect you to be gay, even though the likelihood of being attacked for being gay was probably much greater.
But it wasn’t a good question either way because none of us would know what we’d do. And yet the question illustrates how counter-intuitive it is to say that one will not bear arms, even though Gandhi called it when he said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” Except that you’ve got to be blind to begin with not to see the end coming that Gandhi spoke of.
I was pretty committed to non-violence from my teenage years on. I had a job after school in those days, collecting shopping carts on the parking lot of a supermarket. No little electric tractors then, just muscles. The store I worked at had two entrances and correspondingly there was a parking lot on either side. So, I thought if I had cleaned up the side I was working on, I’d go over to the other side and see what I could do there. We were not assigned a particular side. But one of my colleagues felt that my help meant that I was interfering with his work and challenged me to a fight. I did not know that he lived in a home for juvenile delinquents. I declined the fight. But I could not resist the urge to call him an idiot, which was when his fist hit my face.
Yes, loving your enemy is not an easy thing and I hadn’t even known him to be an enemy.
Wendell Berry in his novel, Jayber Crow tells the story of Port William, KY from the perspective of Jayber Crow, the town’s barber.
One character in the story is Troy Chatham, a man who married into the farm but understands neither the farm, nor the family he has married into. Because he doesn’t understand the land, he can only think expansion at great financial and personal cost. Because he does not understand the family he married into he cheats on his wife.
The story of Port William is told through a number of decades and the following episode takes place in the late 1960’s when civil rights and the Vietnam war have divided the country.
Troy Chatham is a fierce supporter of U.S. war policies and one evening in the barbershop he casually says in regards to the protesters against the war:
“They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”
There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. . . .
It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”
Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”
I said, “Jesus Christ.” And Troy said, “Oh.”
Jayber, who is the narrator, wryly says, It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.1
But perhaps loving our enemies does not mean to have warm feelings for them, or to have illusions about their intentions or convictions, or their evil designs, perhaps it only means to acknowledge that they too are created in God’s image, and once we are mindful that they too are loved by God, we will not seek their destruction, or ridicule, even if they made it easy for us, and by so controlling our anger, we ourselves grow in the likeness of God.
Erich Fried, an Austrian Jewish writer who fled to England after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938 published a re-writing of the Cain and Abel story in which the roles of Cain and Abel are reversed. He titled the story Pre-Emptive Strike. Abel perceives that his brother Cain holds a grudge against him, and that he is not safe in Cain’s presence. In order to avoid injury or death Abel strikes first and murders Cain.
After Abel has thus murdered Cain (an early application of the infamous stand-your-ground laws, one may say), he hears God’s voice.
But what does it say? “Cain,” it is calling, “Cain, where is your brother Abel?” Here am I, Lord, here! Have no more fear for me; here I stand, Abel, the one whose sacrifice you graciously accepted. And Cain, whom you rejected, lies there behind me. His own sin has turned against him. … No, Lord: you are mistaken. I am not Cain. Abel is not my brother, it is I myself. Why do you ask me: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ You are mistaken.
And a little later Abel speaks to himself, But how can that be? Never in life did Cain look that much like me. Almost as though … or do I imagine it? But I know my face. Over there in the pool which reflects everything I see it day after day. And now he is supposed to look like me? No: that cannot be. It only appears to me like that because he is dead. I am different in appearance from him. I know: I’ll go to the pool. I want to see my own face again.
Now I know why he is mistaken and calls me Cain.
Fried says as much as that in hatred and enmity we become hatred and become the enemy, and deny the image of God that is imprinted on our being.2
Admittedly, the command to love one’s enemies, to do good to those who hate us, and to bless those who curse us have been used to silence the oppressed, though that is not at all the point Jesus is making and to use the words of Jesus in this way is to pervert God’s intentions. Rather, Jesus advocates for a freedom that has nothing to do with vaccine mandates, mask requirements, or consumer choice, but the freedom to serve others, even if that service may cost us, because that is the way of God. Be merciful just as your Father is merciful, says Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas says about the love of our enemies, “Since I am a Christian I truly believe that you always live in a world at risk. Indeed, what Christianity is about, is always learning how to die early for the right reasons.”3
None of this comes to us naturally, we need to be deliberate and we need to practise. We may start in traffic, work ourselves to be kind to the neighbours and relatives who are difficult, refrain from generalizations, and see where that may take us. We may find that it makes our own life more complete, and better, and whole, even though the direction of our life is not toward ourselves but toward God and toward others.
In John’s epistle we learn that God is love. That means that when we are in God there is no room for enmity or hatred, and so when Jesus calls on us to love our enemies, he does nothing more than invite us deeper into communion with God, with the God who did not save the world through violence but through sacrifice.
1 Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, Berkely, CA, 2000 Counterpoint, pp. 286-287
2 The Pre-Emptive Strike byErich Fried, translated by Albert H. Friedlander, in European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Summer 1982), pp. 28-29, Published by: Berghahn Books
3 Stanley Hauerwas on patriotism, pacifism and just warriors: https://jasongoroncy.com/2009/04/18/stanley-hauerwas-on-patriotism-pacifism-and-just-warriors/