Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Many hold these to be the most unique of Jesus’ teachings. His other insights, such as love your neighbor, are found in the ancient Scriptures. By highlighting them Jesus elevates them above other important, but less weighty, commandments. Walter Wink, a Christian writer and scholar, calls loving your enemies “the litmus test of authentic Christianity” in our time.
If you bristle when hearing this, you are not alone. My first reaction to it is to try to chop it down, to find a way to mitigate it’s meaning, to make it more manageable and less demanding. I don’t want to be judged on my ability to love, aid, bless, and pray for my enemies.
If loving your enemies is not your cup of tea, try this on for size:
The wicked are perverse from the womb; *
liars go astray from their birth.
They are as venomous as a serpent, *
they are like the deaf adder which stops its ears,
Which does not heed the voice of the charmer, *
no matter how skillful his charming.
O God, break their teeth in their mouths; *
pull the fangs of the young lions, O Lord.
let them wither like trodden grass.
Let them be like the snail that melts away, *
like a stillborn child that never sees the sun.
Before they bear fruit,
let them be cut down like a brier; *
like thorns and thistles let them be swept away.
The righteous will be glad
when they see the vengeance; *
they will bathe their feet
in the blood of the wicked.
Does this sentiment strike you are a tad too vile? Does it make you recoil? Does it seem far removed from the teaching Jesus puts before us this morning? What is the source of this hateful passage? Well, it comes from the 58th Psalm, verses 3-10. That’s right, it is a part of our bible, our canon of sacred and inspired writings.
The 58th Psalm is one of many known as the Imprecatory Psalms – named after the word imprecation meaning “a spoken curse”. Almost 25% of the psalms have a verse or passage falling into this category. Some of the curses are rather benign, such as “Let them be caught in the snare they have set for me.” Others are completely over the top… “Let his children be waifs and beggars; let them be driven from the ruins of their homes” or “he will heap high their corpses and smashed heads over the wide earth.” On Sunday mornings, sometimes, but not always, when you hear the introduction “Portions of the X-numbered Psalm are appointed to read in response to the first lesson,” the part left out is a spoken curse, an imprecation.
We leave them out for good reason. Often they are barbaric, vindictive, and appear to be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. It is far easier to ignore them, dismiss them, or pretend they don’t exist than to reconcile them with Jesus’ instruction to love, aid, bless, and pray for our enemies. Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, is well-known for saying, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about Jesus.” It is difficult to imagine how these spoken curses are acts of love, so how can they in any way be associated with our Lord? After all, his dying words on the cross were not words of imprecation (as we might expect), but rather, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Still, we in the Christian tradition hold all words of Scripture are inspired by God. Keep in mind, these psalms are not an irrational outburst of someone pushed past his or her emotional limits, but the products of reasoned and prayerful reflection and insight. And while it is tempting to say the Imprecatory Psalms are reflective of an Old Testament ethic of law while the New Testament is based on an ethic of love, it is worth noting Jesus and several New Testament writers quote from these same psalms. More than one person has said they are a part of Scripture to remind us of the gap between God’s highest good and our own defective prayers, but this also seems a bit too convenient a solution.
How do we square Jesus’ teaching to love our enemies with the spoken curses riddled throughout our sacred Scriptures?
For those of you who have joined St. Paul’s in the last four to five years, you missed out on knowing me during my “bad neighbor era.” Almost every neighborhood has a person who, when he moves away, launches everyone else to throw a block party celebration. For the first five years I lived in my house I lived next to that guy. I won’t go into the stories because, well, I might lapse into post-traumatic stress, but let me just say my ex-neighbor was an irrational donkey’s behind who delighted in making my life miserable.
As infuriating as he was, the truth is I did not hate him. What I hated – and hated with a passion – was his behavior. If, at any point, he had approached me and said, “I have come to realize I have been a difficult and unpleasant neighbor and I am going to change my behavior and undo everything I can that I did just to be spiteful”, then I would have welcomed him as a friend. How likely was this to happen? Not very, but even imagining it speaks to a deeper truth. It was the behavior I abhorred, not the person.
It is easy to lose sight of this truth. The distinction between person and action can be blurred easily. Loving your enemies does not mean loving their unlovable behavior. It does not mean we are to excuse the inexcusable. It does not mean putting up with what is problematic and pretending everything is OK. As long as my ex-neighbor continued to act in a way that diminished my ability to flourish and demeaned me as a person, I was unwilling to dismiss his behavior. Still, at least in my heart, I tried to maintain a distinction between who my neighbor was and what my neighbor did.
I don’t pretend this distinction solves completely the challenges posed by the Imprecatory Psalms, but it is a place to start. The spoken curses voice just how hurtful and destructive certain actions and behaviors can be. They attempt in no way to minimize the destructive acts of our enemies. Jesus’ teaching calls us to love our enemies while hating the wrongs they perpetrate. It is surely one of the most difficult of his teachings to follow and perhaps this alone makes it one of the most important.
My earnest prayer is that God, even while hating some of the things I do, will love me. If I ask God to extend this mercy to me, how can I not extend it to my neighbor?