‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” 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 his 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? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This week, after a gut-expanding Thanksgiving pit stop, we return to our walk along that trail of discipleship following Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Over this semester, by following Bonhoeffer’s tracing of Jesus’ words, we have covered considerable ground, each time pausing to assess different aspects of the faithful and faith-filled life. Here, we pause for a moment to consider that controversial and difficult dictum delivered in this text, i.e., the command to love our enemies.
Bonhoeffer builds his reflection on Jesus’ command to love from a simple idea floated at the end of this passage cited above. In the next to last verse, the writer quotes Jesus as saying: “What more are you doing than others?” In that short question, an interesting Greek word—eliciting an equally interesting theological idea—is used. The word is perisson, meaning “peculiar,” “unusual,” or “extraordinary.” This means that the interrogative from Jesus might rightly be rendered, “What extraordinary thing are you doing that others would not naturally do?” It is this idea of extraordinariness, of acting beyond convention or expectation that drives Bonhoeffer’s summation of this passage.
Here, Jesus demands that his followers go beyond conventional expectations of the faithful by loving not just those who love us but by loving those who hate us. This expectation of the unexpected serves as the interpretive model, exhibited in God’s loving us through the incarnation (and ultimately the resurrection), and prepares us for how we are to live in the world as lovers like God. It is this second step, this unusual step that separates a life of faith from a life of functional predictability.
As mentioned above, after all, even tax-collectors can love when loved. Enough said!
What discipleship demands is an extra(ordinary) step, a movement beyond where we are to where we must be. This extra step demands much effort. Love of the loveable is predictable and has the potential to keep the community of faith intact and strong. Yet, love of the unlovable, unworthy of love, threatens the community while simultaneously rendering possible the community’s expansion.
The community is threatened because the conventions of predictability are ignored and established boundaries and convictions are transcended. What was sustainable and secure is suddenly opened up to a variable future with uncertain consequences. Yet, while threatened, the community, also, enters a new stage of possibility. With conventions and boundaries breached, what were certain enemies have the new potential to become friends and what was indubitably anathema moves from outright rejection to possible acceptance as a new part of normal.
In some respects, it seems that what Bonhoeffer is suggesting is that the life of faith is more about a methodology for progressive, evolving faithfulness and community (of God) building than an accumulation of faithful doctrines and convictions. Or, to cite the final passage from this particular week’s text, discipleship seems to be a movement toward perfection, toward the goal of shared life with the entire world despite all perceived impediments, i.e., “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Such a sharing requires a set of skills conducive to breaking of norms and conventions for the sake of new living, new arrangements, and new thinking about each other, our God, and ourselves.
This season of the year that we are entering is a season all about new possibilities, new communities, new ways of thinking, and new normal(s). Extrapolating the lesson offered above, this season is about assuming a new methodology, new strategy for engaging the world, strategies that build and transform enemies into friends, invite in the rejected, and commit to being less interested in guaranteed outcomes than dedication to a process that is modeled upon God’s willingness to try something new for us, changing and challenging everything we thought we knew in the process.
As I look around, I see many opportunities to break some habits, to challenge conventions, and to press toward new practices that offer the potential to transform—personal, social, religious, political, internal, perceived, and real—enemies into friends.
At a minimum, over the next few weeks we will find ourselves standing in line for hours to fulfill our obligations to be good consumers. At a maximum, I see situations like the seemingly intractable disagreements perpetuating conflict in the Middle East that follow the same old pathways looking for resolution, only to wind up reinforcing hostilities and entrenching bitterness.
Risking being overly simplistic and dismissive of the gross disparity between these two realities, these two realities seem to bear at least one commonality driving them both, i.e., self-interest. At a minimum, what things might we be willing to do for hours over the next few weeks that require us to be good givers and sharers as much as good consumers and receivers? How might our taking in this season become a giving that moves us beyond ourselves and our families and our communities into thoughts of and actions for those who have made these inexpensive goods we purchase, assuming the season is about building a better world more than achieving the best deal on a TV or pair of jeans? At a maximum, might new ways be needed, radical, unconventional, extraordinary steps that risk uncertain outcomes but that hold the pregnant potential to birth a new community where enemies become friends?
I realize such hopes might seem rather Pollyannaish. However as someone committed to a life of faith that includes an improbable conviction that even the Divine can and will try whatever it takes to share life with the most mundane and muddled and messy, the thought that active love dedicated to imagining new-yet-to-be-dreamt ways forward that are less committed to predetermined outcomes than to finding new paths for the sake of a shared destiny seems only appropriate. What, if not precisely this unimagined new path is the incarnation about! If this season of the year is about anything theological from the Christian perspective, it is a season dedicated to the practice of imaging and trying something new by moving beyond self-interest and self-preservation at the risk of uncertain consequences but based in a hope for something more reflective of who we are created to be.
So, in this season when we celebrate improbable, audacious, extraordinary acts of love, I choose to believe and seek to practice the extraordinary, the unbelievable . . . not just as the basis for my celebrations of faith but for convictions about how to live in the world as a giver and receiver of gifts, a member of society, and a practitioner of a politics that believes in new ways of living in the world that demands creative risk-taking for the sake of building a community defined more by its bold, imaginative, convention-breaking, extraordinary love than by its rules followed and enemies named.
This Christmas, I am not asking for too much . . . just that the world change. OK, that might be a lot, but at least I know that for that world-transforming love to occur, it must begin in the only way I have any control to make it happen . . . with my willingness to risk my own conventions, convictions, boundaries, and beliefs in order to make it happen. I am not certain where this commitment will end but, like Bonhoeffer and Matthew’s Jesus, I am more confident in my fellow practitioners and risk-takers than in the outcome because their shared life of love is the beginning of the end we seek.
Shared love, that seems like a great place to start!
Have a great week, a great end to the term, a great Christmas chapel on Wednesday, and a season filled with that next extraordinary step that leads to an extraordinary life of love and loving transformation. And, remember, don’t try doing it alone . . . togetherness is the whole point.
See you along the way.
“Love Came Down at Christmas”
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.
Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all of us,