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Posts Tagged ‘Reconciliation’

Love Your Enemies

 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good; and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? Matthew 5:44-46

As I ponder these words of Jesus, I find it helpful to distinguish between people I do not like and those I consider an enemy. In general, I choose not to associate with those whom I share little in common. The person I must associate with in the normal course of my days who does not share my core values and understanding of the world, however, is a higher level of annoyance for me. While I accept that not everyone feels the same way I do about things, I find these people unpleasant to be around for an extended time, and I try to avoid or ignore them as much as possible. The third category of person is one who not only does not share my core values and understanding of the world, but he or she actively works against what is important to me. This person fits my definition of an enemy because avoiding or ignoring them is not sufficient. Rather, I find myself working in direct opposition to them in support of what I believe. Fortunately for me, there are not too many people in either of the latter two categories. They do exist, however, and I struggle with how best to deal with them in a way that is consistent with Christ’s teachings.

There is one striking example in the Gospels of Jesus becoming angry and actively working against the interests of another. In Matthew 21:12-13 (also in Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 2). Jesus enters the temple and finds merchants selling sacrificial animals to worshipers. He overturns their tables and orders them to leave, saying, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.” The sellers were actively working against Jesus’ vision of the temple as a house of prayer. It was a dramatic clash of values, and Jesus took overt action against them. Based on my definition above, one could say the merchants were the enemies of Jesus.

Even so, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. Everyone loves those who love them, Jesus says. For me, it is helpful to remember that to love someone does not necessarily mean I have to agree with them, approve of their behavior, or even particularly like them. The type of love of which Jesus speaks is an action, not an emotion. We can act in the best interest of another without necessarily agreeing with their life choices. We do not have to become like them, but we do need to acknowledge their existence, respect their right to feel as they do, and understand that God loves and cares for them every bit as much as God loves and cares for us. God allows us our preferences, but when our preferences lead us to judge others harshly, we tread a thin line between seeking to do what is right and believing that God is on our side, exclusively.

With some serious self-reflection, we begin to understand that our views and preferences are fraught with biases and prejudices, just like those of our enemies. With more reflection, we may even discover that what we find so annoying about another is actually a reflection of some deeply repressed tendency in ourselves of which we are ashamed. In other words, our enemies reflect something within us that we are hesitant to acknowledge. In that sense, our enemies are our greatest teachers. When we hate an enemy, we are only directing our venom back upon a part of ourselves that needs to be known, loved, and transformed. Many times, our enemies are not even aware of our feelings, so we truly only harm ourselves.

What I actually think Jesus is leading us to through loving our enemies is to persist in finding a third way to reconcile our differences – one that includes and honors both the position of our enemy as well as our own. In that way, there is no reason to hate our enemies because they are no longer an enemy but a comrade in a shared purpose. Loving others is the mark of a child of God, even and especially when that person seems to be working against us.

This is the 22nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

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First, Be Reconciled

 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  Matthew 5:23-24

We live in increasingly angry times, or so it seems to me. Perhaps our expectations of ourselves and others have been set so high that it is impossible for them to be met. In an age of photo-shopped images and unreal “reality” TV, perfection has seemingly become the new normal. No one measures up to that standard and many of us resent the self-imposed expectation that we could or should. On the rare occasions when I watch the news, I see stories of anger manifesting in families, schools, and workplaces. Whether we are stuck in traffic, annoyed by political commentary, or offended by the thoughtless actions of another, we are quick to become angry and slow to forgive. In many ways our self-righteous anger has morphed into the lifeblood of our society – if we are not angry about something, it seems we cannot be alive to the moment.

I am not implying there is nothing worthy of our anger. Hunger, homelessness, poverty, child and spousal abuse, injustice and oppression in their many manifestations, all should fill us with fury, and a commitment to action. My point is not that we should never be angry, but that it is not helpful to respond to anger with more anger. Becoming angry is a hollow, unhealthy emotion if it goes no further than being an emotion. When we sit in our easy chair, point our finger at the television and scream, “Someone should do something about that!” we are correct. Someone should do something about it. Unfortunately, we miss the point whenever we think the someone who should do something is someone else.

Where we stray from Jesus’ teachings about anger is when we demand retribution or retaliation when confronted with injustice or inconsiderate behavior. Jesus did not preach retribution or retaliation; Jesus taught reconciliation, and the difference is profound. Anger separates us from others and tells us, in essence, that we are better, more righteous, or more Christian than they. Jesus encourages unity with others, honoring and respecting the diverse ways in which each person manifests God’s presence in the world. This is especially true in our churches, where Jesus tells us to first be reconciled to our brothers and sisters before we offer our gifts at the altar. Anyone preaching hatred, intolerance, punishment, retribution, or retaliation from the pulpit is, in my opinion, not faithfully relaying the message of Christ. In Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven times.” In a word, always.

Anger is a gift from God intended to motivate us to action, not a sword to divide us one from another. It is the energy and passion that empowers our words and actions. We do well to remember, however, that that which upsets us is almost always a reflection of some deeply repressed dissatisfaction within our own being. Therefore, humility is always a wise companion to anger.

In the 1970’s movie Network1, a former news anchor played by Peter Finch goes into an on-air rant, encouraging people to stick their head out the window and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The movie pans to scenes throughout the country where people yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Being mad is neither the problem nor the solution, however. The problem comes when we focus outside of ourselves first, blaming and demanding change from others, before assessing our internal motivations and responsibilities. Yes, we should be mad as hell; and yes, we should do something about it. This is our world – yours and mine – and it is our responsibility to make it better for everyone. Our righteous anger can help us do so, but meaningful change begins within.

Once we have lovingly reconciled with our brothers and sisters – and our spouses, parents, children, co-workers, neighbors, strangers-on-the-street, immigrants, and those of different ethnicities and orientations – then can we lay our offerings at the altar in peace.

This is the 19th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 Prefer to listen? Check out Life Notes Podcasts at www.ContemplatingGrace.com/podcasts

1           Network, motion picture. United Artists. 1976.

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