Topic Scripture: Matthew 5:43-48
Will you ever forget where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001?
Some three thousand were murdered that day. By some estimates, as many as 10,000 children are left without one or both parents. We have been at war with terrorism ever since.
To prepare for this message, I read over the list of the victims of 9-11. The number shocked me. Each name grieved me. They range from Gordon Aamoth, age 32, to Igor Zukelman, age 29. I looked at some of their pictures, and was grieved even more.
Then I thought about Osama bin Laden. When you see his picture, how do you feel? How should we feel? Should we forgive him? What does Jesus say?
Is there an Osama bin Laden closer to your life today? Who has hurt you most recently or most deeply? Where is there bitterness in your soul toward another human being this morning? Let’s ask Jesus for help and healing together.
Love on purpose
Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy'” (v. 43).
“Love your neighbor” is a familiar biblical injunction. We find it as early as Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” “Neighbor” comes from “nigh-bor,” one who is “nigh” or near. Loving our neighbor is a basic and familiar Christian ethic.
But were Jesus’ hearers really taught, “hate your enemy?” In fact, they were. The Jewish rabbis considered fellow Jews their neighbor. Everyone else, the Gentile world, was not, and was in fact their spiritual enemy. The Gentile world would corrupt them with its defiled food, customs, and paganism.
Here we find basic humanity exposed. It’s easy to love those who like us and are like us. It’s hard to like those who are not like us and do not like us. It’s human nature to love our neighbor and hate our enemy.
Now Jesus takes his stand: “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (v. 44).This statement has no parallel in the Jewish tradition or literature. No religious teacher in world history ever defended such an ethic.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred while practicing these very words, said about them, “The Christian must treat his enemy as a brother, and requite his hostility with love. His behavior must be determined not by the way others treat him, but by the treatment he himself receives from Jesus; it has only one source, and that is the will of Jesus” (The Cost of Discipleship, 164).
This is the action which makes our love both real and possible.
Jesus expanded these words by saying, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).
When we pray for our enemies, our love becomes real. It moves from sentiment to substance, from feeling to action. It takes wings and grows feet. It becomes practical and tangible. And when we pray for those who persecute us, our actions produce feelings. We act out love, and eventually feel love. It’s a process which takes time, but it works.
Such forgiving love in action reveals our spiritual genetics: “…that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (v. 45). God blesses both the evil and the good. Sun shines and rain falls on the unrighteous and the righteous. And we’re glad, for we’ve all been evil and unrighteous.
A father should love his children, whether or not they love him; and so God loves us. A sibling should love his sister or brother, whether or not they love him; and so should we. Such love shows us to be our Father’s children.
Otherwise we are no different from the children of the world. The tax-collectors, the most despised people in Israel, love those who love them. The pagans destined for hell greet those who greet them. It is human nature to love those who love us. It is divine nature to love those who do not.
Such selfless, forgiving love fulfills the purpose for which we were created: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).
“Perfect” is the word teleios. In this context it means to achieve the purpose for which we were intended. In this sense a screwdriver is “perfect” if it does its job. It is not “sinless”—it may have nicks on the handle and paint on the blade. But if it turns the screw it was meant to turn, it is teleios.
What is our intended purpose? Jesus made it clear: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. God is love (1 John 4.8), and he has created us to love as he does, to forgive as he does, to love our neighbor because we love our Father and to prove we love our Father by loving our neighbor.
And so selfless, forgiving love is the purpose for which we exist. Now, how do we learn to give it?
Love in practice
Dr. Everett Worthington has written the defining book on forgiveness, titled Dimensions of Forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives. When he began his research, he had no idea how much he would need its results personally. On New Year’s morning of 1996, his elderly mother was found beaten to death with a crowbar and a baseball bat. His advice is both professionally informed and personally compelling.
Dr. Worthington suggests five steps towards forgiveness. In examining them while preparing this message, I was amazed by their parallel to Jesus’ words in our text. They form the acronym REACH.
“R” stands for recall. Recall the hurt, as objectively as you can. Admit the reality of the pain you have experienced. Do not deny it, pretend it doesn’t exist, or excuse the person who caused it. Think about your Osama bin Laden, the person who hurt you most, as realistically as possible.
Jesus begins at the same place: “Love your enemies” (v. 44). Not “love if you have enemies.” He knows that we do, and that we know who they are. He warned us: “In this world you will have tribulation” (John 16.33). Where is yours? Who caused it? Think about the person, and especially what that person did, the specific actions which injured you. Recall the hurt in all its reality.
“E” stands for empathize. Try to understand why this person hurt you, from his point of view.
Osama bin Laden wants to remove all foreigners from Saudi Arabia, then remove Israel from the Middle East. He thinks attacking America is the way to do this. Why did your “enemies” hurt you? What could have been their motive, their feeling, their own hurt?
Jesus tells us to “Love our enemies,” using the unusual Greek word agape. This word was employed very seldom in the Greek world prior to Christianity. The common Greek words for “love” point to sexual, family, or friendship love.
Agape is far more. It is selfless, sacrificial, the love which puts the other person first with no thought of reward. The love which cares for the other, however they feel about us.
How do we do this? “A” in Dr. Worthington’s acronym stands for giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness.
Jesus tells us to “pray for those who persecute us.” His words are present tense—do it even while they are persecuting us. This is the act whereby genuine forgiveness always begins.
Such prayer surrenders the right to get even with the person who hurts us, but gives them over to God instead. Such prayer enables us to see this person as God does, as a weak, fallible, complicated human being like ourselves. And such prayer begins the process of wishing for their welfare.
Note that praying for our enemies does not deny justice. Nowhere does Jesus teach us that forgiveness suspends the consequences of evil actions. The legal process which governs human affairs and nations must proceed. To forgive means that we pardon personally—we give up our right to punish this person ourselves. We no longer want revenge and vengeance for ourselves. We trust this person into the hands of God and that justice which is fair and right.
“C” stands for public commitment to forgiveness. Dr. Worthington’s clients write a “certificate of forgiveness,” a letter of forgiveness to the offender. They write such forgiveness in their diary, or tell a trusted friend what they have done. They make public their pardon for the one who has hurt them.
Jesus makes clear that our forgiveness must be equally public. This is our witness, proof that we are children of a forgiving Father. Such forgiveness separates us publicly from the tax-collectors and pagans of our day. It shows the world that we belong to a God of grace.
“H” stands for the final step, to hold onto forgiveness. Every time the pain returns, we take these steps again. We recall it, we empathize with the one who hurt us, we forgive altruistically through prayer, and we commit to such forgiveness. As we do so we become “perfect,” fulfilling God’s created purpose for our lives. We love as he loves. We make Jesus’ love real through our own.
Corrie ten Boom, the Holocaust survivor who lost her entire family to the Nazis, knew firsthand that forgiveness is such a process. She likened it to letting go of a bell rope. When you’re pulling on the rope which rings a bell, and you let it go, the bell keeps ringing for a while. But if you keep your hands off the rope, the bell will begin to slow and eventually stops. She says that forgiveness is not something we feel, but something we do. It is letting go of the rope.
What does this message say to us about Osama bin Laden? Jesus plainly tells us to agape him—to extend to him the selfless, sacrificial love which wants his best in Christ. To pray for him. And to trust him to the judgment of law and the justice of God.
What does this sermon say to us about our personal Osama? The message is the very same. Recall the person and the specific hurt you felt. Empathize in selfless love. Be altruistic through prayer, surrendering your right to revenge and placing him or her in God’s hands. Commit definitely and publicly to pardon and reconciliation. Hold this commitment firm every time the pain returns to your heart, the anger to your soul.
In short, do for others what Jesus has done for us. Give to others that which he has given to you. And he will help you give it.
According to legend, when Barabbas led his revolt in Jerusalem, several people were killed, among them the only son of a carpenter in that city. With revenge in his heart, that father bribed the Roman soldiers to let him make the three crosses used the day of Jesus’ execution. He made the cross for Barabbas much heavier than the other two, to increase the suffering of his son’s murderer. However, when Barabbas was freed and Jesus crucified in his place, our Savior had to carry his cross. That’s why it was so heavy that Jesus stumbled and Simon of Cyrene had to help carry it.
It’s only a legend, but its spiritual point is true. Jesus’ cross was heavier than any other. Not because it weighed more physically, but spiritually. He carried the sins of the world on it. Including mine. Including yours.
From that cross he prayed that his Father would forgive us. And so he does. Now he asks only that we give what he has given to us. And he will help us give it.
A grandfather and his grandson were discussing September 11. The boy said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One is angry and wants only revenge. The other is loving and forgiving. Which will win?” His grandfather replied, “The one you feed.”