If you wanted to find the most challenging, most difficult, most confounding passage in all of the gospels, this just might be it.
It is also the most fundamentally Christian – because it is the passage that calls on each of us to be the most like Christ. More than that, it calls on us to be “perfect, like the Father is perfect.”
That is a tall order.
And look at what it entails.
Turning the other cheek.
Giving away your cloak.
And the most radical and counter-cultural of all: Loving your enemies and praying for your persecutors.
It sounds so nice and reassuring. But do you know what that means? Do any of us?
Take a moment to think and reflect on your own life.
Consider all the people who have hurt you. Those who have lied to you. Stabbed you in the back. Remember the ones who spread vicious rumors about you that were patently untrue. Those who have gossiped about you, or judged you unfairly.
Consider the friend that you trusted, who betrayed you. The co-worker who broke a confidence. The person whose name you’d rather forget who wounded you, or disrespected you, or took advantage of you or even abused you. Look back on all the people in your life who have left bruises and scars, with a word or a look or a touch.
Now, imagine doing what Jesus commands.
Love them and pray for them.
Pray for their good. Pray that grace will come into their lives. Pray that their eyes may be opened, and their hearts may be healed. Because the chances are, if someone has hurt you or persecuted you…it’s probably because someone once did the same to them.
It is a vicious cycle. As Shakespeare put it: “Sin will pluck on sin.”
And that fundamental truth of our humanity – that the cycle just keeps going — may be one reason why Jesus, in this gospel passage, says: “Stop. Enough. Break the cycle. Let it go.”
Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.
I have a hard time with it, I’ll tell you. Recently, some people hurt me, very deeply, and I’ve spent a lot of nights lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, imagining wonderful ways of getting revenge. It’s actually pleasurable to think that way. When you’re angry, I’ve found, it makes you happy. It puts a spring in your step.
But that kind of thinking is ultimately self-destructive – and counter-Christian. And Jesus himself knows that.
He knows we can do better. He knows we can aim higher.
Be perfect, he says, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In the final moments of his life, he showed us that perfection. He taught us what he meant. Surrounded by his enemies and his persecutors, he hung on the cross, stripped, bleeding, gasping, as they gambled for his clothes and waited for him to die. And in that moment, Jesus pleaded, and prayed: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”
Here is Christian perfection – our model for living, captured at the moment of death. Here is love beyond measure: a prayer for a broken and unknowing world.
How do we pray for, and love, those responsible?
A few years ago, on Ash Wednesday, I preached a homily on that topic – suggesting that a good exercise for Lent might be to do something especially challenging, like praying for someone you don’t like, or even praying for an enemy.
And I offered a suggestion – and posed a question — that actually made people gasp.
I asked: “When was the last time any of us here prayed for Osama Bin Laden?”
Well, that was an extreme example. But if we take a hard look at this gospel, and then take a hard look at our lives, it’s not an unreasonable question to ask.
I can tell you: I’m not very good at it. I have a long list of people ahead of Osama Bin Laden that I regularly pray for – and I figure I’ll get to him eventually. I have friends who are sick with cancer, and people who have asked me to pray for loved ones who are out of work or facing some sort of crisis. The enemies are further down my list.
But as Jesus reminds us: it’s not hard to love those who love us – or to pray for those who matter to us.
Yet: we are called to do something more – to love those who hate us, and to pray for those who attack us.
How do we begin?
Writer Emmett Fox, in his book “Sermon on the Mount,” explains it in a way I think we all can understand. And it starts with something so simple, but so hard: forgiveness. It is a necessary first step.
He says: by not forgiving we “are tied to the thing [we] hate. The person perhaps in the whole world whom you most dislike is the very one to whom you are attaching yourself by a hook that is stronger than steel. Is this what you wish?”
I think we all know the answer. We need to detach ourselves from that hook. Then, and only then, can we begin to heal, and to love, and to pray for those who have hurt us so deeply.
So today, as you approach the altar to receive the body of Christ, pray to detach that hook. Pray for the grace to love the unlovable, to forgive the unforgivable, and to remember in prayer those you’d rather forget.
I have a long way to go to achieve that. I think most of us do.
But only in beginning that journey toward love, only then can we dare to approach the perfection Christ spoke of – a perfection we can never fully attain, but to which we all have to strive, day by day, prayer by prayer.
Work to be more than what you are, Christ said.
Strive to be perfect, like the Father.
Jesus showed us the way.
How could any of us not try to follow?
Image: “Metamorphosis” from “Journeys with the Messiah” by Michael Belk