Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Luke 6:27-38
Ordinary 7C; Proper 2
The Genesis text for this week offers an image of what Jesus instructs in Luke.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Pray for those who persecute us. Turn the other cheek. Be merciful. Do not judge. Do to others as we would have done to us. The list is as familiar as it is difficult. And yet, some people manage to embody these demanding, seemingly impossible instructions. Joseph does.
Joseph asks first about his father, but his brothers remain so stunned they cannot speak. Joseph tells the very ones who threw him in a pit and left him for dead, “Come closer to me.” Surely, they imagine this proximity will bring retribution, but instead Joseph tells them, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves.” He attributes their sinister behavior to divine providence, as life preserving in the midst of death. He assures the brothers who betrayed him that he will save them, their families, their flocks. He kisses them, weeps on their necks, loves those who hurt him, caused his exile and eventually came begging for his help. No judgment, only forgiveness. No humiliation, only mercy. No punishment, only provision. This story could have, should have, gone so differently, but Joseph refuses to follow typical human plot lines and does to others not what was done to him, but what he would want done to him.
No wonder this passage from Genesis puts a lump in my throat every time I read it. Who among us has not longed for such unmitigated reconciliation, unqualified forgiveness, unearned compassion? And yet, I struggle with Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon on the Plain not just because they require Herculean strength of character, but because I know these verses get manipulated, rendering the already vulnerable and victimized further abused. I know preachers through the ages counseled people to stay with abusive spouses using these verses as proof of God’s will to do so. Let’s be clear, Jesus never condones abuse. Jesus hold accountable those who persecute and injure others, and so should we. Jesus does not tell people to remain in dangerous, hurtful circumstances. Jesus insists his followers adhere to the standard of love, even for their enemies. Like Joseph, disciples of Jesus Christ seek the good, even for those who’ve sought to do them harm.
I saw a bumper sticker on a car the other day. It read: “God bless our troops, especially our snipers.” I am still thinking about that statement. Or was it a prayer? What’s the thought behind it? I am not a pacifist, I am grateful for those willing to put their lives on the line for our safety. I want God to bless our military personnel and their families. But that second phrase catches me short. How does such sentiment fit into these instructions to love our enemies? Maybe I am splitting hairs. I don’t know, but somehow asking God to bless our snipers feels less than merciful. What would be more reflective of this passage from Luke? God bless our troops and our enemies, too? I don’t see that slogan becoming a big seller.
We all know the Golden Rule embedded in this passage, but how often do we truly live by it? Truth be told, it takes more effort than I’d like to admit to squelch my anger at the person who cut in front of me in line or traffic. Lately, I find myself talking back to politicians on the radio, and not with words of prayer for their well-being. I am so far from Jesus’ call to love my enemies, from Joseph’s magnanimous response to his mean-spirited brothers, that often the only prayer I can mumble under my breath is, “God help me.” I suppose that is a start and we need to start somewhere.
Reunification between Joseph and his brothers, his father, took years. No doubt, few in the family imagined that reconnection would or could ever come to fruition. Even the most hopeful among them must have questioned the possibility of ever seeing one another again, let alone embracing and experiencing forgiveness. Turning the other cheek often happens unexpectedly, sometimes after long seasons of hurt and anger. Doing to others what we would desire done to us takes practice, with lots of missteps along the way. I don’t think Jesus’ teaching is meant to be a box that is checked, but rather a life-long practice honed by trial and error.
At least that’s my experience. When rifts occurred within the communities I know best, getting to a place of mercy came in stages, fits and starts, with glimpses of grace mixed with extended stretches of threatening terrain. A dinner with pleasant conversation is considered progress. A moment of laughter like a visitation from the Spirit. Enough time lapsed to talk without immediately getting defensive a major step toward one another. Eventually, cautiously, forgiveness creeped in the cracks and created bonds stronger in the broken places.
When I read Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, I don’t so much think of loving far-away enemies (although that’s important), I hear Jesus’ call to seek reconciliation with those closest to me, those I’ve harmed, knowingly and unknowingly. Being merciful requires proximity, saying, “Come closer to me,” not to wound or punish, but to talk, embrace and kiss. Loving those we are not inclined to love means recognizing the impulse to do otherwise, and turning toward them instead of pushing them away.
In a climate in which immediate and total judgment gets amplified, demonstrations of mercy, forgiveness and love don’t come easily. They take intention, an intervention by the Holy Spirit, a willingness to call on Jesus, rather than capitulate to our own instincts. Some reunions are years, generations even, in the making. But imagine what a wave of grace such reconciliations might create. God help us.
- When have you “turned the other cheek” or extended mercy?
- When have you received mercy and forgiveness?
- Which part of this Sermon on the Plain challenges you the most? Why?
- For whom are we called to pray at this time and place? Practice praying for those people and places in which you find it difficult to extend mercy.
- Are there stories of rift and reconciliation in your church? Your community? Your family? What happened to cause the schism? Did healing occur?
- Notice when you find yourself rushing to judgment. What are you thinking and why?
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