Love and forgiveness are some of the most common themes throughout the bible and today we have these themes running through our passages. The story from Genesis 45 (3-11, 15) about Joseph is a story of betrayal – but also forgiveness and reconciliation. And the Gospel passage (Luke 6.27-38) is Jesus’ well-known exhortation to ‘love your enemies’.
But how well do you live up to these ideals of love and forgiveness? Is this something with which you struggle? Many of us, in fact I would suggest probably all of us (including me), do struggle with these ideals of the Christian life. We are not alone in this.
Have I told you about the preacher, who, after a long sermon on today’s gospel passage, asked his congregation how many were willing to forgive their enemies? About half held up their hands. Not satisfied he harangued them for another twenty minutes and repeated his question. This time he received a response of eighty percent. Still unsatisfied, he lectured for another fifteen minutes and repeated his question.
With all thoughts now on Sunday dinner, all responded except one elderly lady in the rear.
"Mrs. Jones, are you not willing to forgive your enemies?"
"I don't have any", she replied.
"Mrs. Jones, that is very unusual. How old are you?"
"Mrs. Jones, please come down in front and tell the congregation how a person can live to ninety-three and not have an enemy in the world."
The sweet little old lady teetered down the aisle, very slowly turned around & said, "It's easy. I just outlived them all."
As I read the passages set down for today, particularly the Psalm (37.1-11, 40-41), I received new insight into why it might be that I struggle with the idea of loving and forgiving those who are my enemy or in some way have ‘done me wrong’. Maybe you will be able to relate with this:
When I think of Jesus’ injunction to ‘love your enemy’ my thoughts immediately tend to put the focus on the enemy and their action. Who is the enemy? What is it that he/she or they have done or are doing against me? How bad a thing is it? Is it too bad for me to forgive? Are they showing some remorse? And so on!
But this is where I go wrong! Focusing on the other person is not what it’s about!
Christianity is about a personal relationship with God. To be a Christian requires the individual to believe in Jesus, put their trust in Jesus and to invite him into their life as Saviour and Lord. The follow-on from this is to endeavour to live in a way that is in obedience to God’s will and the way that he wants us to live. Much of Jesus’ teaching, and the teaching of the bible as a whole, is about how to live as a disciple of Christ. And I suggest that today’s passages also have something to say about that.
So, when Jesus says, “love your enemy” he is not intending for me (and you) to focus on our enemy and their action. Rather, he is saying something about how I must behave. The focus must be upon myself – my response and my action. So, I need to be thinking “How do I respond?”, “What are my actions?”
Jesus sums it up with the word that he used when asked what the greatest commandment was – “love”. Love God, love your neighbour, and love your enemy. So, my focus should be on the first part of his statement, the word ‘love’. ‘Love’ is an action on my part and is the right way to respond.
I have previously quoted some responses from children when they were asked what love is. It illustrates the wisdom of children and in this case none more so than six-year-old Nikka who said, "If you want to learn to love better, you should start with a friend whom you hate." I think Nikka would have had no trouble with Jesus’ exhortation to ‘love your enemy’!
But, for we adults, a focus on our enemies and rivals cannot be simply switched off – I have already expressed my own struggle to do this. Nevertheless, it can be overcome by a new way of looking at things, i.e. by refocusing on ourselves rather than the enemy. This should be a conscious and deliberate response – a redirection of our response.
For guidance on the right and wrong way to respond, we can look to the psalm for today, Ps 37:1-11. Whereas most psalms are addressed to God, this psalm speaks to us, to you and me. It is a wisdom psalm which tells us how to live and how to respond, especially towards those who might do us harm and be our enemy. One commentator has suggested that it is a wonderful elucidation of the third of the Beatitudes, “blessed are the meek” (Matt 5.5). And so perhaps, it is not by accident that Luke has Jesus’ teaching on loving enemies following immediately after Jesus’ sermon on the blessings and woes that we read last week – the parallel passage to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.
We tend to think of ‘the meek’ as weak and cowardly. But as I have previously pointed out, the Greek adjective means ‘gentle’, ‘humble’, ‘considerate’ and ‘courteous’, and the theologian, Dr. Lloyd-Jones suggests that, “Meekness is essentially a true view of oneself, expressing itself in attitude and conduct with respect to others.’
The first verse of the Psalm begins with what we must not do: ‘1 Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers …’ And why? Because, ‘… they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb’ (Ps 37:1-2).
We find almost identical wisdom expressed in the wisdom writings of the Book of Proverbs, for example: ‘Do not fret because of evildoers. Do not envy the wicked; for the evil have no future; the lamp of the wicked will go out’ (Prov 24:19-20). And, ‘Do not let your heart envy sinners, but always continue in the fear of the Lord. Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off’ (Prov 23:17-18).
Essentially, Psalm 37 is saying (to paraphrase), “Don’t allow the bad things, the sin of others, to cause you to fall into sin. Instead, seek to respond in love and meekness, and trust God that it will all come out okay in the end. He is a righteous God and will judge them in time.
In the verses 3-11, Psalm 27 goes on to detail how we should respond. We could make a list:
· Make sure that there is no sin in the way that you live your life.
· Instead of criticising others, make sure that there is nothing in your life that can be criticised.
· Do good. (v.3)
· Make sure that you are being obedient to God in all things and seeking to live in accordance with his will.
· Be patient – don’t act rashly, don’t take upon yourself judgement and retaliation that is rightly God’s responsibility.
· Refrain from anger – it only makes things worse.
· And most importantly, trust God.
Even if you are treated unjustly, respond with love and trust in God – knowing that he will eventually vindicate you and you will receive your just dues. This may be in the short term in this life, or it may be when we are resurrected with a new imperishable body that we read about in the Epistle reading for today (1 Corinthians 15.35-50). Paul says those who stay true to Jesus will be rewarded with resurrection and a new imperishable body. Regardless of whether we see vindication in this life, we can be assured that we will have it when we are resurrected.
An example of trusting and of vindication is provided in the Old Testament reading set down for today (Genesis 45.3-11, 15). This is the well-known story of Joseph, a story of betrayal; but also, forgiveness and reconciliation. You will remember how Joseph was set upon by his jealous brothers and sold to slave traders. He was subsequently taken to Egypt where he became a servant to the Pharaoh. We might wonder whether Joseph may have felt abandoned by God at that point.
But God raised him up in Egypt and Pharaoh eventually placed him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. A drought overtook the area of the world and eventually Joseph’s brothers, who were starving, went to Egypt to try to obtain some grain from the stores that Joseph had, with God’s leading, stored up prior to the drought. The brothers did not recognise this very powerful man dressed in Egyptian robes as the brother that they had betrayed and sold into slavery.
Today’s passage is the moment when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers.
What might we have expected to follow? Revenge? Joseph had every reason to react negatively. Movies would probably have had Joseph imprison his brothers to get his revenge – they were in his power and he could have done anything that he liked to them. Vengeance in Old Testament times was as much a pursuit of gratification as it is today.
But instead, Joseph offers forgiveness and explains that the events that took place were actually part of God’s plan. ‘God sent me before you to preserve life’ … ‘So it was not you who sent me here, but God …’ (Gen 45:5,8)
Through God’s actions, Joseph was able to provide for his family. How often have you found in your life that God can bring out something good from bad things that happen? In Joseph’s case, God used evil intentions for good.
So, whilst we may struggle in the face of challenges and when confronted by those who would wish to do us harm, we are encouraged by our passages not to focus on the other person, but on ourselves. And we are encouraged to not retaliate in the way that they are acting – not with reciprocal violence and evil, seeking revenge, reprisal or retribution.
Rather, we are encouraged to respond in love and meekness, to forgive those who have wronged you, and to trust that God will bring good out of bad and will vindicate you. And we can be confident that all people, the good and the bad, will eventually receive what we deserve.
In response to the message of these passages, we might ask ourselves, “How do I react when someone slights me?” Do I perpetuate harm and violence, or do I seek to preserve peace?