Saturday, January 09, 2010

Loving The Enemy

(Matthew 5:43-48) 43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Sermon Audio on "Loving The Enemy" can be downloaded here with group discussion questions.

Salam 1Malaysia! We are continuing a series of sermons based on the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus spells out what it is like living as the people of God’s Kingdom, what it means to be a community that follows after Jesus as their King. He is challenging the kind of empty religion that looks good on the outside but is corrupted on the inside. Many people think, “I’m morally okay since I’m not a serial killer or I don’t sleep with someone else’s wife. When I swear in God’s name, I don’t break my oath. I’m basically quite a good person lah.” But Jesus goes deeper than the outward, external action. He zooms in to our inner hearts, our hidden motives and secret intentions. “No, that’s not good enough. You have heard that it was said that… But I tell you this…”

You should not commit murder in your heart with hatred. It is a sin to commit adultery in your heart with lust. Your word is your bond. Tell the truth in what you say. Don’t need to swear at all.

Again we see how radical Jesus’ message was to his original audience and to us today. He is not abolishing the Old Testament Law by lowering the standard. Instead He is fulfilling the purpose of the Law by going to the root of the problem. Sin must be dealt with radically in our heart. And this is the “righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law”. It’s not just following the letter of the law, but also keeping the spirit of the law. It is obedience that comes from the inside out.

In the passage we read just now, Jesus does the same thing again. You see, the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is not something new. It’s also found in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 19:18, it says, “'Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” But as time went by, the people in Israel began to limit love only to their fellow Israelites. Who is my neighbor? Only my own people. My relatives. Those who share my race and religion. So I’d love them exclusively. The rest are not my neighbors so I can hate them. Some folks (like the Qumran community famous for the Dead Sea Scrolls) would go around saying, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'. But they heard it wrong. The part on ‘hating your enemy’ was not there in the biblical text.

So Jesus sets the record straight: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” In that famous parable we call “The Good Samaritan,” an expert of the Law asked Jesus this very question: “Who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus told him this parable which most of us know by heart: “A man was robbed, stripped, beaten and left half dead. A priest happened to walk past, and when he saw the man, he quickly moved on. Then a Levite who works for the temple saw him but ignored his needs as well. Lastly, a Samaritan stopped and took pity on him. He took care of him and paid for his medical fees. Now who is a neighbor to that victim?”

In those days, the Jews did not associate with the Samaritans due to many racial, religious and political reasons. Hmm… If that sounds strangely familiar to us in Malaysia, it’s because we too have different ethnic and religious groups living side by side with each other but with precious little contact and understanding in between. By telling the parable, Jesus subversively expanded the definition of a ‘neighbor’ to go beyond friends and families and include even the Samaritans. A neighbor is anyone in need whom you can help.

So He broke down the walls of hate by including even outsiders as a neighbor to be loved as well. Instead of rejecting sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors, He ate with them in fellowship meals. This is how the Kingdom of God looks like. To those who think “I’m a loving person. I love my own people”, Jesus says “Your love is too narrow. It’s selective on who you want to love. Don’t pick and choose. Love your enemies also.”

But it’s so hard, almost impossible to love our enemies, right? Pray for those who persecute me? Are you serious? This is something that I struggle to learn as well.

On a personal level, there are people who purposely hurt us or anger us for no good reason. Some play office politics and give us an unfair deal. How can I love someone who offended me, betrayed me, insulted me and broke relationship with me? Do you know someone like that?

In certain societies, the decision to follow Jesus may mean losing your job, your loved ones and even your life. Persecution is the cost of discipleship. Although in Malaysia, it has not come to the point of martyrdom, we still experience milder forms of persecution like the destruction of church buildings, the ban on the word ‘Allah’ in our Bahasa literature, restrictions on the liberty of conscience for some Malaysians and so on. Sometimes persecution can come in the form of the insults, ridicule, false accusations and gossips.

So how should we respond when we experience things like that?

Do you remember that Star Wars movie called “Return of the Jedi”? I watched it as a kid and one of Soo Inn’s ecommentary uses it as a helpful analogy. In the movie, the hero Luke Skywalker tried to avoid fighting the bad guy Darth Vader, who was also his own father. But when Darth Vader threatened to turn Luke's sister to the Dark Side, Luke went crazy and chopped off Vader's mechanical right hand. Then the evil emperor, who was observing this duel, made a tempting offer: "Good! Your hate has made you powerful. Now, fulfill your destiny and take your father's place at my side!" (Finish him off!)

And the evil emperor is right – there is a kind of power that comes with fear, anger and hate. To those who have a tidak-apa attitude when it comes to suffering or injustice in the world, they may never get angry at anything. And if we are too engrossed with the comforts of life to care much for the suffering around us, then probably we need to be more concerned about what God cares about and be more aware of what’s happening out there.

But for some of us who care deeply about social justice, poverty, human rights… it is often easy to get angry, depressed and furious at unjust things happening in our country especially when those responsible often don’t pay for what they have done. And it’s tempting to surrender ourselves to rage and hatred. At first, our righteous anger is directed against real injustice… That righteous anger gives us motivation and power to fight evil. But when we are angry, it can also quickly lead to unrighteous anger and careless decisions… Soon we draw the line between good and evil along the lines of us against them… of one race against another (we are the good guys, they are the bad guys) when in reality, the line of good and evil cuts across every human heart. When hatred and anger consumes us, we are drawn towards the Dark side.

At the climax of that Star Wars movie, young Luke Skywalker refuses to choose the dark side. He refused to deliver the final blow. Instead, he threw away his light saber and chose to suffer and die for being true to the Light. Yet it is his very "weakness" that inspires his father Darth Vader himself to love once again and to reject the dark side in his final moments. The Jedi knight saved the galaxy through his weakness.

When Jesus says: Love your enemies, He didn’t ask us to do anything that He himself is not prepared to do first. And He already did it on the cross when He forgave and prayed for those who crucified him saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Come to think of it, aren’t we all in fact sinners who have rebelled against God and we were once His enemies? Yet Christ died for us that we may be reconciled.

This does not mean that our Christian response to evil must be passive. In Romans 13, we know that the state is granted authority by God to bear the sword and punish the wicked. So Christians can and should use all legal means at our disposal to fight evil and corruption.

But we are not to repay evil with evil, but with good. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Jesus is calling us to let go of our bitterness, vengefulness and personal vendetta. The path of the kingdom is love (even to our enemies), prayer for those who persecute us and the willingness to suffer for Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who suffered so much in Nazi Germany during World War 2, said "This is the supreme command. Through the medium of prayer, we go to our enemy, we stand by his side, and we plead to God for him."

Still, this is not something easy to do. Where do we get the power to do the impossible? We cannot do it unless by the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit.
In the Bible passage today, I think we can find some powerful reasons or motivations for us to love our enemies. The first motivation is found in verse 45: “So that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

What does that mean? John Piper explains it this way (and I quote) “This does not mean we can earn our way into God's family by loving our enemies. Rather it means that when we love our enemies, we prove ourselves to be in God's family. If you love your enemies the way God loves his enemies, then you show that you ARE a child of God. You are seen to be a child of God… You can't earn the status of a child. You can be born into the family or you can be adopted into the family. You can't work your way into it. Jesus means that loving our enemies shows that God has already become our Father, and that the only reason we are able to love our enemies is because he loves us first...” End quote.

And how did we become part of God’s family in the first place? How did we get adopted as a child of the Father? It’s through forgiveness… By grace, God in Christ has forgiven us (His enemies) even though we don’t deserve it… When we look at the horror of our own sin and then look at the holiness of God, we see our utter hopelessness. But the good news is Christ has taken our punishment on the cross so that we can be reconciled with our Father and be adopted into His family. Our wrongs have been freely forgiven through faith in Christ.

Have we not experienced God’s forgiveness and grace? If we have been forgiven so abundantly by God, how can we not forgive others? If we have truly known God as our Father, surely this relationship ought to overflow in love for our enemies as well. How can we not forgive after having been forgiven so much?

The second reason or motivation to love our enemies is this: It’s because God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

In other words, we are called to imitate our Father in Heaven who makes no distinction between the just and the unjust when sending good gifts of His creation. His kindness is lavished on both moral and immoral people. He sends rain and harvest to the padi farmers in Kedah, the farmers in Kelantan, the pineapple farmers in Sarawak – it doesn’t matter if they voted for Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat, it doesn’t matter what they believe or don’t believe.

So we love our enemies because that is how God treats His enemies. He causes his planet to rotate for the evil and the good, and produces oxygen for the righteous and the unrighteous. John Calvin describes it as a divine kindness that is common to all. Some people call it ‘common grace’. But this grace is not saving grace. It does not mean that God will not punish the wicked and reward the righteous one day. Of course, He will ultimately do that.

And it’s important to keep this in mind. Because what makes it so hard to let go of our anger is the overwhelming sense that the person who offended us does not deserve to be forgiven. If the hurt is deep and great injustice was committed against us, there is a valid sense of moral outrage. We feel that if we forgive this person, we trivialize the seriousness of that wrong he has committed. This evil must not be forgotten or ignored. So how do we resolve this tension of unconditional love on one hand and the cry for justice on the other?

Part of the answer is found in God’s promise of final judgment. Because God alone is the perfect Judge, we are freed from the personal craving for revenge. The question is: “Do you trust God to set things right? Do you believe He sees the issues and the offender’s motives far better than what we can see? His justice is purer and wiser than ours. We can’t improve on His judgment. And He has promised there will be a day of reckoning… Will you trust Him as the perfect Judge?”

Consider Romans 12:17-21 “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

We don’t take justice into our own hands because the ultimate Punisher is God. Our motives are mixed at best. Our judgments are limited in perspective. But He sees all and His eyes are pure. So don’t take revenge, leave room for God to repay.

In fact, this is also the example of Christ Himself. 1 Peter 2:21-23 “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

So leave room for God’s wrath. Entrust yourself to God who judges fairly. Justice shall be served but in the meantime, we need to be set free from the craving for revenge. We do so by imitating God who shows His kindness to both the wicked and the righteous. We do so by trusting in God’s promise to deliver justice. Be perfect just as our heavenly Father is perfect. The word ‘perfect’ doesn’t mean we can be 100% without sin in this life. It actually means: Be “complete”, be “all embracing” in your love just as God is merciful and all-inclusive in His love.

The third motivation to love our enemies is this: If we love those who love us, how are we different from the tax collectors? And if we greet only our own brothers, do not even pagans do that?

Don Carson gives us some background on tax collectors: In those days, a Roman citizen can literally buy a territory in the Roman empire and he would have rights to collect taxes from that place. Then he can outsource the collection to the local “Ah Long” or ‘Mafia’ type of people. They in turn outsource to others to collect taxes from the rakyat. These tax collectors would have a quota to hit, and they can keep skim off the rest of the money for themselves. Corruption goes all the way up this multi-level tax ladder. As a result, tax collectors were despised as traitors of their own people.

But even tax collectors have friends. At least they can have lunch with other tax collectors. Despicable though they may be, they have their own ‘in’ group. Even the pagans (those who do not worship Yahweh) greet their own brothers, so how is the church any different if we only love and greet those who love us in return? It is when we love our enemies that people will see something peculiar in the church.

To be salt and light in the world, we must live as a radically different kind of people. If we only love people who are lovable and beautiful, how are we any different from everyone else?

Loving our enemies displays the distinctiveness of the Kingdom in a fallen world that has seen too much of violence, hatred and bloodshed. It’s a radical counter culture.

OK fine – But is this Christian ideal of loving your enemy practical or not? Does it really work in a fallen world like ours? Chairman Mao Zedong once said (The Little Red Book, 1964): “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” You want social change? Use force, violence and the will-to-power. So can this message of Jesus about loving our enemy really change the world?

I think it can. Let me encourage you with the real life story of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. He was a pastor and civil rights activist who struggled against racial segregation and discrimination. Do you know that in the 1950s there was a custom in the southern parts of America that African-Americans had to sit at the back of a bus? On the 1st of December 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks, an African-American woman was arrested by the police for refusing to stand and let a white bus rider take her seat. It would be the spark that lights up a revolution. Martin Luther King, a pastor in the city and other community leaders called a meeting and a big crowd came to the church. The decision was made to boycott the bus company in protest. For 381 days, they would walk or carpool to work instead of taking the bus. This is an example of civil disobedience.

In retaliation, his home was bombed by terrorists. His wife and their baby daughter escaped without injury. When he arrived home he found an angry crowd waiting to take revenge. But Dr. King told them to go home: "We must learn to meet hate with love".
Eventually in 1956 the Supreme Court declared that local laws for racial segregation on buses were illegal. The boycott was a success. As a symbol of reconciliation and victory, Dr. King and a white minister, Rev. Smiley, shared the front seat of a public bus together.

Throughout his career, he was jailed and beaten many times. In the end he was assasinated at the age of 39. Through it all, he did not retaliate with violence but with forgiveness. The legacy of his life transformed a whole nation without causing bloodshed and continued to inspire civil rights movements all over the world. This is not an idealistic pie in the sky … It can be done. It has been done.

Of course, his example is not perfect but I think we Malaysian Christians can learn a lot from his model of balancing the New Testament ideal of unconditional love with the prophetic justice of the Old Testament. It is not enough to just talk about love we need to also care deeply for justice. It is not enough to get angry over injustice we need to promote righteousness in a way that loves our enemies.

With this story in mind, listen to these famous words by Martin Luther King when he preached on the same Bible passage on loving our enemies. Listen for its prophetic relevance to how the church should live in Malaysia today.

He said: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.

The relevance of what I have said to the crisis in race relations should be readily apparent. There will be no permanent solution to the race problem until oppressed men develop the capacity to love their enemies. The darkness of racial injustice will be dispelled only by the light of forgiving love. For more than three centuries American Negroes have been battered by the iron rod of oppression, frustrated by day and bewildered by night by unbearable injustice and burdened with the ugly weight of discrimination. Forced to live with these shameful conditions, we are tempted to become bitter and to retaliate with a corresponding hate. But if this happens, the new order we seek will be little more than a duplicate of the old order. We must in strength and humility meet hate with love… Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. For the salvation of our nation and the salvation of mankind, we must follow another way. (What is this other way?)

He goes on: While hating segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community.

To our most bitter opponents we say: "We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with spiritual force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory." End of Quote

This is the way of the cross. This is how we setup signposts of the Kingdom that points to a different way of being human. Not through hatred but through love for our enemies.

Bringing this closer to home, I wonder how can we apply this in our Malaysian context? Recently we hear of disturbing news of intolerance in our country like the famous cow-head incident. There was a protest against the proposed construction of a Hindu temple in Shah Alam where some irresponsible people stomped and spat at the head of a cow, a sacred animal for Hindus. It was a clearly provocative act, with threats of violence.

Or the recent case of two Muslim journalists who sneaked into a Catholic church as spies to take Holy Communion, then spit out the host (bread) and took photographs of it to be published some more. This is a sacrilegious act to Catholics who believe the host to be the real body of Christ. And the internet went on overdrive with angry condemnations.

For such a time as this, how should we as Christians respond?

I don’t have any easy answers and this may sound naive but just wondering (and I invite you to imagine with me. Maybe you can come up with more creative and better ways of doing it). I wonder: What happens if the Church or individual Christians issue a calm statement that what these people have done is wrong, and relevant authorities should investigate and charge if any law is broken. But at the same time, we also say, “We forgive you for what you have done. You may have been manipulated by people with vested interests. We would like to meet you personally, sit down over coffee and listen to what you have to say and why you behave like that. Maybe we can find a win-win solution”. I wonder how the society would react when we respond in love and respect when insulted and provoked like that? Would it make Malaysians sit up and take notice: “These Christians are really out of this world lah”?

For such a time as this, the world is watching. They are asking: “Which community has beliefs that make its members treat people in other communities with love and respect- to serve them and meet their needs? Which community's beliefs lead people to demonize and attack those who violate their boundaries?" (Keller) For such a time as this, the world is looking for answers.

When we encounter intolerance, fear and racial tension in our beloved country, may we also receive wisdom and courage from the Holy Spirit to find creative ways to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us… This is the way of the cross.

Will you be part of this culture of peace in a time of racial polarization? Will you follow Him even if it costs a great deal?

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