As I look back over the years I have always been very fortunate with neighbours. I have had the kinds of neighbours who have been willing to turn lights on for me when I am away, and collect the post, and who have enjoyed a good conversation at the end of the day. We cannot choose our neighbours most of the time, so I have been very fortunate. When I was a small boy, I remember that one of our neighbours used to scrub the porch of our home for us the day before we returned home from holiday – I cannot imagine anyone doing that now.
It is good to have good neighbours, and to be a good neighbour as well. And it is not all that difficult to love a good neighbour! But we only have to open our newspapers to find out how bad some people can be as neighbours, whether we are talking about the people who live next door, or the country that is next door. Around the world, some people practice very poor skills at being neighbourly.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies… 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.” Elsewhere the Gospel writers record Jesus saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Love your neighbours, even if those neighbours are your enemies.
Quite where Jesus gets the idea of people loving their neighbours and hating there enemies is something of a mystery, Biblical scholars have puzzled over it. Certainly there is no Old Testament text that says that. But we can presume that Jesus uses it as the basis for the correction that he brings, because it is a phrase that is in common use in his own time. In our first reading, from the nineteenth chapter of the book Leviticus, right back near the start of the Old Testament, Moses teaches the people, “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself”. It seems likely that over time religious leaders and teachers had added the inverse to that law, to say that just as we should love our neighbours so we are free to hate our enemies.
But Jesus says in response, love your neighbour, yes – but not just the neighbour who loves you in return, love the neighbour who is your enemy as well. And what standard should be used as a benchmark? The perfect standard of the love that comes from God himself.
Even the Church has, at different times in history lost its nerve about them. The idea of loving our enemies is one of the teachings of Jesus which in the past was separated by the Church into a special category called the “counsels of perfection,” which meant that it was not applicable to most people, but only to those few who had discerned a call to lead a religious life in a monastic community. The idea was that such noble virtues could not be let loose in our imperfect world, but were to be modelled fully, only by those people who had already given up the world to live in the enclosure of a monastery.
But that kind of an interpretation of how we should apply the words of Jesus seems to deny the reality of the lives of the people who first heard his message. We might be tempted to console ourselves by the thought that it was somehow easier for people in the time of Jesus to love their enemies than it is for us to do today. But I find that a hard concept to comprehend.
Jesus delivers this incredible teaching to a group of victims.
He is not speaking to the elite in society in some kind of gala performance at a top lecture theatre, but to a people who have lost their national sovereignty, and suffered under a tense relationship between the Jewish aristocracy on the one hand, and the occupying Roman powers on the other. In the midst of that political reality Jesus says to those who will listen to him, “love your enemies.”
At the same time there is little doubt that the kind of people who followed Jesus onto a hill side to hear his teaching were not the leading powers within society. Jesus attracted to himself the powerless and destitute, those who were unable to carve out a decent existence because of the heavy burden of the taxation system that the occupying forces had put in place. In the midst of that economic reality Jesus says to those who will listen to him, “love your enemies.”
In amongst of all of this political and economic hardship, when it was abundantly clear who these peoples’ (these victims’) enemies were; having lost the power to control their own affairs, having lost the chance to earn enough for a happy life – those things which you and I take for granted – they were also witnessing the disintegration of their religious traditions. They were battling to remain separate and distinctive within a cultural situation that was leading many of them away from their religion into new ideas and new cultural expressions.
What those people who journeyed out to be with Jesus wanted to hear most was the call to revolution. The call to win back political and economic control, the call to uprising against their Roman oppressors so that their nation might be reclaimed and their religious tradition made strong. But what Jesus has to say to them is far from what they want to hear.
Love your enemies the Romans, the ones who illegally occupy your land; love the enemies who imprison you without proper trial; love the enemies who ridicule all that you stand for, who blaspheme in the Temple and limit your religious observances. Love them, even as they are taking away your earnings, and forcing you to pay them more than you have ever had, and by whose actions the last hopes for your future are being destroyed. It does not sound to me like these people were living in a situation in which loving enemies was easy at all! Just as it is not easy for us either.
So how were they, and how are we, expected to respond?
When the compilers of our Gospels came to remember the sayings of Jesus, the graphic image of the cross would have been foremost in their minds. It is only in the light of the reality of his death, and their experience of his resurrection, that those early followers of Christ came to understand the importance of what he had said to them earlier. The editors of our Gospels knew the end of the story before they began to bring together in one place each of the events that preceded it. So when they heard these words, this challenge to love, regardless of the response, they knew exactly what he was on about: because they had seen it lived out in Jesus.
They knew that these sayings of Jesus were more than religious metaphors, they required an active response. And they would have remembered Jesus’ words from the Cross, in the midst of the agony and pain of his final moments: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!”
The words that we now begin to slowly journey towards in our Christian year as we set our faces towards the Easter scene of the crucifixion. This is the reality that underpins what Jesus is saying to those first followers, and to us today. He lives it out in the final moments of his life. As he hangs upon the cross, and experiences the fullness of its agony, Jesus lives out the life-giving, resurrecting message which he has come to share with humanity: “love one another, as I have loved you.”
Even when the disciples experience him in the glory of his resurrection, when the powers of death have been destroyed, we hear nothing from Jesus about vengeance, or revenge, or reprisals against those who killed him. So for those earliest readers of this text there was no doubt about what Jesus meant: loving your neighbours – whether they’re your friends or your enemies – means the way of the cross. It means taking the initiative of restoring relationships with those who live around us – here and now in the vulnerability of the messy-ness of our lives. It is the whole reason for Jesus coming amongst us.
Humanity had become alienated from God, and from each other, and so God comes to be one of us, to be our neighbour, to love us and to draw us back into that relationship which had always been intended. And yet even when God came in so intimate a form, God was rejected, as the love which was offered in Jesus was rejected – unconditional love, nailed to a cross. But that was not the end. The love of God, offered freely by God and yet rejected by humanity in the Cross, could not be destroyed. Death could not hold it.
God calls us to love our neighbours in the same way that we have experienced God’s love for us in Jesus. To live lives of forgiveness and healing. If we are the body of Christ, as we will say in a few moments that we are, then the love that we give others, is offered not only on our own behalf, it is given on God’s behalf, because it is God’s love which we share with those around us. Jesus calls us to be good neighbours, to love those who love us too, and to love those who are our enemies in equal measure. We can only do this in his strength. This is the mission of a Cross-shaped Church. This is what it means, according to our Lord, to be his disciples.