Once upon a time, long long ago, in a galaxy far far away, that passage from Matthew changed my life. Well, it wasn’t another galaxy, exactly, but it was certainly another world. And it certainly feels like a longtime ago. I started working for the Pillsbury Company over 30 years ago. But this story takes place in 1987, about 3 years after I became a Christian.
Many of you know what it’s like to be in a company which is undergoing upper management shake-outs, and others have fought off corporate takeovers and buyouts. We were doing both at once. And management handled it by squeezing budgets and cutting staff. So you can imagine the morale was very low. At any rate, when this particular part of the story began, the Risk Management Dept, in which I was number 3 on the totem pole, had lost two directors and two assistant directors in two years, and after a few months of managing without any other professional staff at all, I trained in a new boss - a bright young treasury vice president who looked as though she was good for the long haul. Once she got her feet wet they brought in a lawyer to actually run the department, and I was free to go on vacation. Before I went, though, we had a long talk about my future and where I wanted to go with the company. I said that I wanted to move away from number-crunching and get into contract negotiations. And then I went off for 3 lovely weeks in Italy.
I came back to find myself number three on the totem pole again, assigned to crunching numbers as if we’d never had the discussion at all, with another bright young thing with a brand new MBA whom I’ll call Zoe brought in to be the number two. I was FURIOUS. It wasn’t exactly persecution, but it certainly felt like betrayal and injustice. I spent several weeks being just barely one step above sullen and uncooperative. It wasn’t pleasant for anyone. And it certainly wasn’t Zoe’s fault, she had no idea of the back ground. But then I read this passage from the Sermon on the Mount in my devotions. It was like being struck by lightning. I felt as though Jesus was addressing me personally.
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate
your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who
persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for
he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the
righteous and on the unrighteous. 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.”
That is what I heard. And this is how I understood it. God is always who he is. God always loves, God always does good things. Even when God disciplines us, it is for good; even when he allows bad things to happen to us, he brings good out of it, because God cannot do otherwise. Love is who God is. That is what it means by God being perfect. He isn’t partly one thing and partly another. He doesn’t change with the weather or the tides or even with the behavior of his creation. And I understood that I, too, was to be the same all the time, regardless of how people behaved towards me. And the person that God called me to be was the one he had redeemed in Jesus Christ, the one whom he loved. And so all of my behavior was to flow out of that relationship, rather than from other people’s behavior.
And so I changed how I behaved, both to Zoe and to everybody else in the department. And everything changed from that moment on. And out of my willing cooperation from that moment on, I found myself not only crunching numbers, but traveling all over the country training Pillsbury subsidiaries in the use of information systems for managing casualty losses, and at the end was the only person in the department given the option of staying on when we were bought out by Grand Metropolitan a few years later. It was the best advice I had ever gotten, and yet when I first read the passage, it seemed both impossible and unrealistic.
Now, I can’t promise you that because you are nice to them, other people will be nice to you. I can’t promise you that if you display God’s love to them, they will respond favorably to God. But I can promise you that if you change, the whole dynamic of the relationship will change in some way, some important way, that you may not even imagine at the outset. And in any case, it’s not really about your relationship with them. It’s about your relationship to God.
Because it boils down to the fact that whoever controls our behavior owns us, whether we like it or not. Now, if Jesus owns us, which he does, why don’t we act like it? “You are not your own,” said Paul to the church in Corinth, “you were bought with a price.” [1 Cor 6:19-20] If we let other people - or circumstances - determine our actions or our attitudes, we are denying God’s ownership of us, we are saying to Jesus, “These other things, these other people, these other conditions mean more to me than who you are and what you have done for me.”
Think about it. Is that true of your relationship to God?
Maybe you are convinced that your negative reaction to other people’s misconduct is the righteous result of your identification with Jesus, your commitment to God’s truth. And it’s quite true that sometimes people really do
behave badly. Sometimes people really do deserve to be punished. Some people really appear to be enemies of God, and it’s really tempting to think that surely Jesus would approve of our treating them differently, even of mistreating them - perhaps (so we tell ourselves) that they might learn the error of their ways. After all, didn’t Jesus drive the money-lenders out of the temple? The Pharisees believed that. The most respected Biblical scholars of the day really did teach that 'You should love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' [v. 43]
Now, this doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. I challenge you to try to find it. But that’s what they taught, and furthermore, the faction that was in power during Jesus’ day taught that only Jews were your neighbor. Everybody else was the enemy, because obviously they were enemies of God. They got this notion from the OT commandments to exterminate the people who lived in Canaan when God brought them into the land, and from the angry Psalms, and from other passages pulled out of context. And unfortunately many Christians since then have interpreted those passages in the same way - a sort of “kill a Commie for Christ” attitude. But that isn’t what Jesus taught. The violence in the OT was all judicial, legal, and official, acts for the ordering and preserving of society, and for the defense of God’s people, carried out by people commissioned by God to act on his behalf.
And so are Jesus’ violent acts in the NT. When he calls the Pharisees vipers, when he whips the moneylenders out of the temple, he is executing justice as God’s agent. Likewise, the state is called and commissioned to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty. But the church is called to a different task. Jesus’ disciples both in their personal relationships and as representatives of his church - have another and much more difficult role. And that is simply to display the love of God to the world. We can’t execute God’s perfect justice, because we don’t have his perfect knowledge. The only way open for us to be perfect, as he is, is through love. The only aspect of God’s character that we are at all able to imitate or to reflect is his love, because we have experienced it directly. We know his love in a way which, thank God, we will never have to know his justice. And so that is what we must display. It is difficult, but it is not impossible. Because it’s not our love which we have to share, it’s God’s, and there’s an unlimited supply. All we have to do is make sure that God’s love that we’re paying attention to, and not the world’s injustice.
One way to keep from being controlled by other people is to visualize yourself as having pipelines connecting you vertically to God, and horizontally to the other people in your life. There’s a valve which enables you to receive input from only one at a time. You control it. When you have it turned in one direction, the people out there are in control, and what you get from them is all you have to give back. And the backwash even gets mixed into your interaction with God. But when you have that valve turned in the other direction, God is in control, and what he gives you is what fills you, what feeds you, and what flows out of you. And remember - you control which way it goes.
A dear friend of mine sent me a wonderful story which perfectly illustrates the same point: A wise old Native American had a grandson who came to him, angry at a schoolmate who had done him an injustice, said, "Let me tell you a story. I too, at times, have felt hatred for those who inflict damage with no sorrow for what
they do. But hate wears you down, and doesn’t hurt your enemy. It’s like taking
poison and wishing your enemy would die. He continued, "It is as if there are two wolves inside me; one is good and does no harm. He doesn’t take offense when no offense was intended. He only fights when it is right to do so, and in
the right way. But the other wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing sends him into
a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think
because his anger and hate are so great. It is hard to live with these two wolves
inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit." The boy looked intently
into his Grandfather's eyes and asked, "Which one wins, Grandfather?" The
Grandfather solemnly said, "The one I feed."
Which wolf do you feed? Do you feed the wolf of resentment, or fear, or anger, or envy? Stop for a moment. Think. Name in silence some person or situation who arouses those feelings in you. If you stop feeding the wrong wolf those feelings would lose their power over you. Wouldn’t you like to be free?
You may not even know how to give up the habit of striking out at the people who threaten you, the people who have hurt you or those you love. That is why Jesus gives us such simple directions. There are just two.
First: Love your enemies. That doesn’t mean try to manufacture warm feelings for them. All it means is, desire their good. And if possible, act on your good will to them . As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." [Ro 12:20] It may well be that the best revenge is to refuse to become less than who you can be in Christ. And notice that Paul does NOT say, if your enemies are out of bullets, give them some. Give them what they need, not what they want... And what they may need most of all is to repent and turn to Jesus.
Which is why step two is, Pray for those who persecute you. You may not want to. The wolf of anger or resentment may still be chewing away at your insides. If that is where you’re at, tell God that you are doing it under protest and only because Jesus told you to. That’s enough. Your prayer offered up in reluctant obedience will nevertheless feed your own soul. Because each act of obedience, no matter how small, widens the pipeline which connects you -
and me - to the life and love of God. And each act of mercy, each act of grace we practice in Jesus’ name, returns to us tenfold.