A preacher, upon reading the text we just heard, set out to write a sermon about loving your enemies. He knew it was a difficult teaching that was challenging for congregants to accept, so he worked extra hard, giving it all he had. When Sunday came, he preached a very thoughtful, inspiring sermon that was persuasive from beginning to end. At the conclusion, he asked those present to raise a hand if they had been convinced of the need to love their enemies. Only about half present did so. Undeterred, the preacher dove into the subject for another ten minutes. After that, he asked for another show of hands. This time 75% indicated they were now willing to love and pray for their enemies. Another ten minutes of preaching and now everyone raised a hand with the exception of ninety-eight year old Mildred Phlymaldihide. The preacher asked her stand up and explain why she was not willing to love and pray for her enemies. In a shaky voice she said, “Well, I don’t have any enemies to hate.” How could that be wondered the preacher? “Oh, I used to have lots of enemies back in the day,” she continued, “but, I outlived them all.”
We are forever blessed that the Disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. From this one simple question we now have the Lord’s Prayer; a prayer that has done more to shape human spirituality and action than any other. How I wish one of those disciples had spoken up in today’s text and asked Jesus to teach them how to pray for their enemies. Should we pray that they see their error and come over to our way of thinking? That seems a little self-serving. Should we pray that their efforts against us be thwarted while our efforts against them succeed? Should we pray differently for enemies of our country than we might pray for our own personal enemies? When our enemy is not a person, but rather a thing - say, perhaps something like cancer – how should we pray? I really wish we knew how Jesus prayed for his enemies, but we don’t.
We do know this, however, Jesus had enemies. We can divide them into two basic groups: those he confronted and those he did not. The occupying Roman forces fell into this second group. Unlike many other messianic figures in that age, Jesus took a passive approach of non-resistance with regard to the Romans. He was no insurrectionist, nor was he going to lead a violent uprising. There is not a single story in any of the Gospels were Jesus directly attacks Roman rule. What would be the point? It was futile to resist such a dominant and ruthless force.
In the face of such powerlessness, Jesus teaches a way to find empowerment that is now often referred to as ‘the second mile.’ By law, a soldier had to right to make any person lug his gear a mile. Can you imagine setting out on a busy day and getting sidetracked by some Roman thug too lazy to carry his own gear? Or what if you were working hard in the field trying to grow food for your family and was told abruptly to get walking? Jewish men found the practice to be humiliating and infuriating. You can imagine how startled people must have been when Jesus suggested that they voluntarily carry a soldier’s pack a second mile.
Have you ever seen the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke? There is a wonderful scene in the movie where Paul Newman’s character is working with other inmates at menial labor tarring and shoveling gravel along a sunbaked country road. It is work they did day in and day out under the supervision of gun toting prison guards. One day, feed up with the indignity of the work and treatment, Newman’s character does something radical… He begins to work with all of his effort and energy. The entire chain gang responds in kind and before you know it they have exhausted the day’s supply of materials. They spend the rest of the afternoon sitting in the shade of a tree waiting for the prison bus to arrive at its scheduled time. Cool Hand Luke could not change his circumstances, but he could change how he approached them. That is exactly what Jesus is teaching his followers to do. “You are powerless,” he said, “to resist this law, therefore you must rise above it.”
Scholars of church history now suggest that some of the earliest converts to take the Gospel message of Jesus to the corners of the Roman world were soldiers. How many of them do you think might have been converted during a ‘second mile’? Just imagine how that conversation went:
Soldier: O.K. loser, you can put down my gear now and go home.
Christian: No, I’m still good. I’m happy to carry it another mile.
Soldier: What? Why in the world would you do that?
Christian: Well, let me tell you about Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified but now lives.
At its heart, Jesus’ teaching about the second mile was a way of preserving one’s dignity and integrity while accepting that some enemies hold certain advantages over us that cannot be altered or challenged. There will be times that we encounter enemies too powerful for us to confront openly. When this happens, we can wonder what Jesus might have us do to maintain our own sense of dignity and integrity and how that might, just might, open the door to something transformational.
As I said earlier, Jesus had other enemies that he could (and did) challenge... often. Certain religious, legal, and political leaders were constantly nipping at his heals and he was more than willing to take them on. He was unimpressed by the way they took God’s laws and codified them into certain types of external behavior. To their way of thinking, it was permissible, for instance, to seethe in the presence of one’s enemies as long as you didn’t act upon it. For Jesus, this was not at all what God intended. The Law must reign in our hearts even as it rules our actions. Anything less than this means while we may act peaceably enough, we are still being torn apart on the inside. For Jesus, that was no good.
In today’s Old Testament reading we heard Moses receive from God a series of moral imperatives. It is a wide ranging laundry list: don’t glean all the food from your field so that the needy have something to eat; don’t lie or defraud anyone; and my two favorites: don’t scream insults at someone who is deaf and don’t put an object in front of a blind person causing him to trip. With each instruction comes God’s command: “You must be holy for I am holy.” So in addition to being just plain wrong, when we act in a way discordant with God’s personality we lose something important about ourselves. God’s image embedded in us at creation becomes tarnished, or muted, or perhaps diminished. It is the equivalent to what happens to a world-class athlete who gives up training. Each day spent sitting on the couch and each bag of potato chips takes him farther and farther away from his true self.
The last imperative God gives to Moses is a direction not to hate in your heart any one of your own kin (and for some of us that is enough of a challenge, isn’t it). From there God speaks about neighbors, saying we must love those close to us as we love ourselves. Jesus expands this idea of neighbor to include all people, even, and especially, our enemies. He saw in hatred the cumulative spiritual effect of sitting on the couch and eating potato chips day after day. That which is in us which is of God begins to disappear; being eclipsed by the hatred.
That Jesus had enemies – people who challenged him in public, mocked him in private, schemed his downfall, and eventually out-and-out sought to have him killed – suggests that what was godly in him was always under threat of being overshadowed by hatred. Again, I wish we knew the words he prayed that led him to love those who sought his ruin.
The Book of Common Prayer contains a collect for our enemies. It reads:
O God, the Father of all, whose son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I find helpful its sense of mutuality and hope for eventual reconciliation. I know clergy who offered this prayer on the Sunday after the 9/11 attacks on our country and (as they say) actual results varied. Some found it calming and restorative. Others were outraged.
Perhaps one day we will find our self in Mildred Phlymaldihide’s position and we will have outlived all of our enemies. Short of that, we have a real challenge on our hands. The writer Anne Lamont said that hating our enemies is akin to drinking rat-poison and expecting all the rodents to disappear. It just doesn’t work that way. What we lose is our self and the wonderful way God’s Spirit is intended to shine through our cracks.