A number of years ago, before I entered the ministry and was still a member of Epworth United Methodist Church, my Sunday School class did a study on different ways to pray. One of the author’s suggestions was to use prayer beads. They’re a little like the rosaries our Catholic friends use, but they don’t have fixed prayers attached to each bead. In fact, each bead can stand for whatever you want it to. I decided to give it a try.
I assembled my prayer beads following a pattern of prayer described by Philip Yancey. Yancey suggests that our prayers should flow like a river. First come the prayers closest to the spring where the river begins, and they broaden from there. So, I begin with my own prayers of thanks and praise, needs and repentance. Then come prayers for my closest friends and loved ones, followed by groups of beads for those who are vulnerable, caregivers, people in leadership, people I might not know personally but who have urgent needs at that moment. My prayer river broadens with prayers for the natural world. And then, finally, at the very end, where those I pray for seem as far from me as a mountaintop spring is from the ocean, are prayers for my enemies.
This section of my prayer beads poses two problems for me. First of all, no matter who your enemies are, it’s pretty hard to pray for them. At least it’s hard to pray something other than vengeance (like we read in some of the psalms), or that they’ll change their ways and be more like us. It’s hard to pray for your enemies with love, because it’s really hard to love your enemies.
And yet, here’s Jesus, saying “Love your enemies.” And he’s not talking about love as a squishy emotion. He’s talking about love as action. Praying is one of the actions Jesus expects us to take, and that’s a heavy lift, for me anyway.
The second problem is figuring out exactly who my enemies are. No one is trying to kill me because of what I believe or who I am. I’m not worried that an army will cross the line from Canada to claim Michigan and Ohio as its territory, or launch air strikes from Lake Erie.
But, that mean I don’t have any enemies? I don’t think so. Because, I confess to having some very negative feelings toward people I think Jesus would want me to love and pray for. People who espouse ideas that I think are making the world an unkinder, less just, less Kingdom-like place. People who spread lies to further their own agendas. People who prey on children, or the elderly, or the disabled, or the poor. People who think creation is theirs to exploit, regardless of the consequences. Politicians who claim to be followers of Jesus but vote in direct opposition to the values Jesus taught: care for the vulnerable and welcome for the outsider.
And then there are those who just rub me the wrong way. The unhelpful customer service agent. The person who isn’t doing things the way I think they ought to be done. The person who stepped on my toes or hurt my feelings or grates on my nerves. These folks may not fit the conventional definition of “enemy,” but I think that when Jesus tells me to “love my enemies” and pray for them, they’ll do.
Jesus spoke the words from our passage today in what we call the “Sermon on the Plain.” It’s very similar to the Sermon on the Mount, which we find in Matthew. But, there are some significant differences.
In Matthew, Jesus sees the crowd following him and goes up a mountain to speak to them and the disciples. This isn’t surprising, because Matthew takes great care to show how much Jesus is like Moses. Jesus goes up the mountain, and he stays there, not coming back down until he finishes the sermon.
Not so in Luke. In Luke, Jesus had spent the night on the mountain in prayer, which was a regular practice for Jesus. That particular night ended with an important event. He called his disciples to him, and from them he chose twelve, calling them apostles. He then came down from the mountain and stood on a level place, surrounded by a great number of his disciples and a large crowd of people from all over Judea, Jerusalem, and the coastal areas of Tyre and Sidon. Then, Jesus looked up at his disciples and began to speak.
Luke’s account tells us two things. One is that Jesus placed himself among the people, not above them. In fact, no one is above anyone else there on that plain, as they would have been on the mountain. Everyone is on a level playing field. No one is better than anyone else. There’s no hierarchy. No one is preferred over anyone else. They’re all standing on the same level place with Jesus.
The second thing is that Jesus’ intended audience was made up of his disciples—people who had already decided to follow him. Jesus may have been surrounded by a crowd. And many of them were in a position to overhear what he was saying. But Luke is specific in saying that Jesus directed his words to his disciples, the apostles simply being a subset of a much larger group. There on that plain, Jesus spells out what it means to be his disciple. He lays out the standards by which his disciples should strive to live—standards that will set them apart from the prevailing culture.
Unlike Matthew, Luke insists that discipleship is rooted in real life. In the Beatitudes, which begin the sermon in both Matthew and Luke, Luke’s Jesus speaks directly to people. He doesn’t speak about them as Matthew’s Jesus does. There’s no hunger and thirst for righteousness in Luke—just real-life hunger and thirst. There’s no spiritualizing here—no turning real-life problems into spiritual ones. In Luke, Jesus speaks directly to his followers about situations they are likely facing, not metaphorically, but on the ground, in daily life.
So, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he’s speaking to people who have enemies, whoever those enemies might be. And, he’s not suggesting a kumbaya kind of moment with everyone holding hands and talking about hating the sin but loving the sinner, and then going off to treat their enemies exactly the same way as before. Jesus gives his disciples real, concrete instructions, not about how his disciples should feel, but how his disciples should act.
Here’s his list, full of action words: “Do good” to those who hate you. “Bless” those who curse you. “Pray” for those who abuse you. “Offer” and “Give” the other cheek and the shirt off your back. These verbs demand action, not just feelings.
If we read between the lines, we know that some of these instructions were directly tied to life and customs in the 1st century. For example, Jesus’ instruction about giving is more likely about how to respond to someone who holds power rather than our duty to be generous to the poor. But the point Jesus is making applies to all of us who call ourselves disciples. We are called to a life governed by love, and this love is to exceed what is normally expected in the world around us.
After all, Jesus says, if you love the people who love you, so what? How does that set you apart from prevailing culture? If you lend expecting to make a profit, how does that make you any different? If you only do good for those who can elevate your status, give you an in, make a connection, that’s just the same old same old.
But, we are called to be a contrast community—a community that lives according to different standards, kingdom standards, God’s standards. We are called to live as children of the Most High—a God who is kind, not only to the good and grateful but to the ungrateful and the wicked. We are children of a Father who is merciful, who is compassionate, and we are to be merciful and compassionate as well.
But, the rubber really meets the road in the last section of our passage. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
When I was looking for a picture for the bulletin cover, I searched on this passage. And almost always, they focus on the “Give, and it will be given to you” part, with pictures of hands receiving gifts. It’s often used as a stewardship verse—assurance that if you give generously to the church, you’ll be rewarded with even more. There’s a problem with that. Because what is being measured isn’t just generosity, or even forgiveness. The judgment and condemnation we pour out will be measured, too.
If we don’t love our enemies, condemnation and judgment and lack of forgiveness are likely part of the mix. If that’s what we’re giving, that’s what we should expect to get back. Jesus likely drew this image from the marketplace. To make sure that a deal for grain, say, was fair and square, a buyer would have the grain measured in his or her own containers. You could fit more in, of course, if you tamped down the contents, or shook it to make it settle. Jesus says that, like buyers in the marketplace, we’re creating our own standards for measuring, either with forgiveness and generosity or judgment and condemnation, and the measure we get back will be exactly the same as what we gave out.
Luke is a little vague about who will be doing this measuring. The Greek grammar suggests that it’s God. But, it could also be the people we’re doling out judgment or forgiveness to. Either way, this is serious business. No wonder Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How we treat our enemies has serious consequences for us.
I need beads to remind me to pray for my enemies, not because they need my prayers for them, but because I do. Praying for our enemies with love may not change them. But it does change us. When we honestly pray with love for someone, it forces us to look at them differently. We have to see them as people, as individuals worthy of lifting to God in prayer. It may be that we’ll see them as needing compassion—the compassion we are to show to others as our Father shows it to us. It may be that we’ll come to see underlying problems that cause us to consider someone as our enemy—problems that may be bigger than us, problems we could work on solving together. We may find that we’ve been manipulated into considering someone our enemy by those who benefit when people are divided and set against each other. Praying with love for our enemies changes us.
Praying for someone with love moves us toward that generosity and forgiveness that Jesus calls us to. When we pray with love for our enemies, we gain the strength and the wisdom we need to act with love towards our enemies. The five love languages that we spent time learning about over the past month or so might help us with that. Most of those we might call enemies are people we know, people we have to interact with on a regular basis. Imagine finding something good about your enemy—something that you respect about them, and telling them with affirming words. Imagine creating an opportunity to spend some quality time with them over a cup of coffee. Imagine knocking on their door with a gift of fresh-baked cookies, extending a hand in greeting, or offering to help with a chore. Our prayers change our hearts, and our hearts change our behavior.
As our loving prayers for our enemies change us, our loving actions towards our enemies might change them. Gary Chapman has a chapter in his book on “Loving the Unlovely.” In it, he tells the story of a woman who came to him, asking if it was possible to love her husband who had, in a sense, become her enemy by the way he treated her. Her husband refused to go for counseling. Her friends advised her to leave him. I should note here that nothing in what Jesus says requires someone to remain in an abusive relationship. God wants us whole and healthy, and there are times when we can only have that apart from someone who hurts us. But this woman still had hopes that she could salvage her marriage.
Chapman proposed an experiment. The woman was to try speaking her husband’s primary love languages for six months. The initiative was all on her part, and she wasn’t to expect anything in return. If he began to respond positively, she was to make a request of him that met her love language needs. Gradually, as she changed her behavior toward her husband, her feelings began to change. And, as he began to experience her love, in a love language he could understand, he began to change as well.
“Love your enemies.” If Jesus gave us a more difficult command, I don’t what it is. I’m not sure how the people of Ukraine would hear his words today. in fact, there are lots of people in the world who have true enemies, and whose wounds are so deep and terrible that it’s hard to imagine how they could find the strength to love the ones who inflicted them. Maybe we need to do the loving for them—not a passive love that ignores injustice but a love that refuses to make the injustice worse. Not a love that ignores hatred but refuses to add to it. This is the love that took Jesus to the cross—a love that endured the injustice and hatred of his enemies, a love he expressed as he prayed for them from that cross.
It’s in that love that we find good news for us. Jesus set a hard task before us—a task we may often fail at. But, as Jesus said, God is merciful even to the wicked. God is compassionate and forgiving. When we place ourselves in Jesus’ hands, we receive the forgiveness we are asked to give to our enemies. We receive the love we are asked to show to our enemies. And we are given the power to live differently and love differently—to be new creations in Christ.
Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Jesus calls us out of darkness and into his marvelous light. Jesus calls us away from hatred and to love, even for those we call our enemies. Jesus calls us to offer mercy and kindness, generosity and forgiveness to all, friends and enemies alike, in the measure it’s been offered to us: a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young