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Why Love?

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch

February 24, 2019

Luke 6; 27-38

“Do not judge.” We hear it a lot and we always have. And yet at the same time, we judge like crazy. It’s a major affliction in our nation. It starts in childhood but seems really to hit its stride in middle school and high school where we judge people by their clothes, their interests like theater or sports, certain things that we decide, often in a pretty arbitrary way, are “cool” or “uncool.” In school, this can be pretty devastating. But a major reason we judge others at that age is because we’re trying to figure out who WE are. One easy way to do that is to find some clear line of demarcation, like clothes or activities or race or sexual orientation or body type. Those are easy ways to clarify the tribe we belong to. And that’s exactly what it is—figuring out our tribe. These were the tribes when I was in school, and from what I gather, they remain the same: I’m a jock, and I know how a jock is supposed to act. I’m a freak, and I know how a freak is supposed to act. I’m a nerd, and I know how a nerd is supposed to act. I’m a preppy, and I know how a preppy is supposed to act.

It’d be one thing for us to decide, this is who I am, this is the crowd I belong to; but it seems we can’t just choose a tribe—we also have to cut down all the other tribes. This is the worst part of the “choosing who I am” process, which is “choosing who I’m not.” I’m not a jock or I’m not a freak or I’m not a prep. But it isn’t enough not to be the other thing—the next stage is to decide how bad it is to be a jock or a nerd or a freak or a prep. To start to think, there’s something wrong with the people I’m not—they have some sort of personality defect; they’re inferior people. And then we treat them that way. That’s judging, and we start young, but we do it our whole lives. It seems like I can’t build myself up without putting you down.

And this middle school behavior has afflicted our society today in ways I can’t recall seeing before during my lifetime. One side calls the other side “deplorable,” casting an aspersion on an entire group of people just because they don’t agree politically; the other side says, “they don’t love our country like we do,” as if not to think a certain way is treason. And here’s something troubling to think about: we’ve all heard a lot about the suspicious role of the Internet in the last election and for that matter in the present way we talk about politics. We’ve heard about Russian “Troll Farms” that have sent out false memes targeted to both liberals and conservatives with the intention of spreading rumors and hate and influencing elections. But why do these false memes work? Because all they do is confirm our already existing prejudices about the other side. We’re suckers for this because we already believe the worst about those with whom we politically disagree.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

In contrast Jesus tells us another way to live. And keep in mind that those who first heard his word on this were people who were persecuted for being Christian. And those who first read these words in the Gospel of Luke, which was written about 80 CE, were Christians who were being specifically targeted and persecuted for their faith—they lost jobs because they were Christian. They were thrown in prison because they were Christian. They and their family members were tortured and fed to the lions in the coliseum because they were Christian. These people had real, concrete, flesh and blood enemies who hated them for who they were. And these very people are the people to whom Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We get offended and hurt and make enemies of those who don’t feel the same way about health care that we do. We treat them like pariahs and say awful things about them and often wish the worst sort of harm to befall them. In contrast here are the early Christians, many of whom will suffer and die for what they believe, and Jesus is telling them, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

We may say, “But look what they do to us! We’re just doing the same thing in reverse! It’s self-defense!” But this is exactly the sort of retaliatory behavior that Jesus is commanding us NOT to engage in. In fact, Jesus tells us to do the very absolute opposite: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” What Jesus is saying is this: Are you being made fun of? Are you being threatened? Are people treating you poorly? Well then, look at all the bad things “they” are doing to “you,” and then say: “That’s exactly what I WON’T do to them. I will not treat them the way they treat me. I will instead treat them the way I WISH they would treat me.”

Everything Jesus teaches us in this passage is the opposite of retaliatory behavior. If anyone strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other one also! If someone takes your coat, give them your shirt as well! If they steal your property, let them have it! It’s almost over the top how much Jesus wants us to avoid retaliation. But we have to be aware, If we claim to be Christians, then we can’t just dismiss what Jesus teaches us as “over-the-top” or “naïve.” We believe the person teaching us this is God in human form, walking the earth, telling us how to live. It is a mistake for us to assume he does not know what he’s talking about. If there’s a disparity between what Jesus teaches and what I’m doing, I need to seriously consider the possibility that maybe I’m the one who needs to change.  

At its heart, Jesus’ teaching on how to love our enemies is based on the nature of God: “Be merciful, just as your Heavenly Parent is merciful.” It is based on the extraordinary assumption that you and I can be like God. “But love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High: For God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” What it comes down to, you see, is that God looks down from heaven and sees both good people and bad people, and sees them all as beloved children whom God wants to redeem; and God looks especially upon those who are lost and wants to save them, because, quite simply, God loves them. And if you and I want to be called children of God, then we should want the same for those who are cast as our enemies. We should love them and want to open the door of redemption for them; we should want to save them and for them to be as much children of God as we see ourselves to be. And retaliation in any form is a barrier to that love.

Retaliation is also a barrier to reconciliation. Ultimately, what we want for those whom we call our enemies is not to punish them, or to tell them to stay as far away from us as possible, or for us to be locked away safe in our protected enclave and they to be likewise locked away safe in their own protected enclave. What we must really want is to live together in peace and mutual harmony as much as possible. Surely these divisions of liberal and conservative, democrat and republican, or divisions by race, creed, national origin, or sexual orientation, are not so vital, so definitive, that we simply cannot reconcile and live together? It’s worthwhile to look at our lesson from the Book of Genesis for today, the story of Joseph. Remember Joseph? The Technicolor Dreamcoat. That Joseph.

When Joseph was young, he was the apple of his father’s eye, and he knew it. He flaunted it before his older brothers. They were furious with him: in fact, they hated him. They hated him so badly that they threw him into a pit and had him sold into slavery. They stained his technicolor dreamcoat with blood and took it back to their father and reported he’d been killed by lion.

In reality, Joseph became a slave in the house of Pharaoh, where he became distinguished and respected for his ability to interpret dreams and for his wisdom. Ultimately he became the Pharaoh’s chief counselor—as Joseph himself says in our Scripture, he was considered “a father to Pharaoh.”

The time came when there was a great famine throughout the Middle East and Africa. Because of Joseph’s God-inspired wisdom, Egypt had collected enough grain that they could feed themselves and others during the famine. In desperation, Joseph’s brothers, who lived in Canaan, came to Egypt to beg for assistance. They came before the Pharaoh’s main counselor, not knowing that he was their brother Joseph whom they’d sold into slavery decades before.

But Joseph knew. He knew who they were and he knew what they wanted. And he had suffered terrible hardships because of their cruelty: slavery, torture, arrest and imprisonment. And now he was a great man, and in an ideal position to retaliate. You can imagine how that would look: “Do you know who I am? Do you? I am Joseph, whom you persecuted, whom you enslaved, whom you sold away!” They’d cringe in horror—in fact, that’s how it looks at first when Joseph reveals himself: the brother’s terrified in recognition that what goes around has come around—their awareness that the law of “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” could not possibly bode well for them in this moment when all their nightmares had come true.

The moment for “Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” had come—but that is not the measure which Joseph meted out to his long-lost brothers. Instead he embraces them; instead, he welcomes them with open arms. Rather than a human’s eye view of how he had been treated, Joseph takes a God’s eye view: “You meant it for evil, but God has meant it for good!” he says. Now they can all live together in Egypt, safe from the famine; and in the big picture, Joseph is not just saving his brothers; in the big picture, Joseph is saving the entire nation of Israel from obliteration. Joseph took the God’s eye view: God didn’t want enemies punished. God wanted reconciliation. God wanted forgiveness. God wanted people living together in love.