“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”
So it continues. It seems to go against the received wisdom that tells us to avoid people we don’t like and to retaliate against those who do us harm, either physically or emotionally. We get much more satisfaction surely from a well-aimed barb than we do from turning the other cheek. Or do we? The problem with resentment, hatred and violence is that it is never really satisfied. It just sets up a cycle of actions and reactions. When we nurse feelings of resentment and the desire for revenge, it may or may not hurt the target of our feelings, but one thing is sure: it hurts us, and it goes on hurting us. Hatred and violence can never be cured by more hatred and violence. We only have to look at the Middle East and its many long-running conflicts to see how that works out.
Jesus often spoke about the kingdom of God through parables. These were stories that had a sort of slow-release effect. If he had not done this then he probably wouldn’t have had even three years of ministry. But to his disciples he often spelt his message out plainly. So that they could continue his ministry they needed to understand. Last week we heard Jesus speaking about the Beatitudes as he taught about the nature of the kingdom of God. Now he seems to cut right to the chase, telling us things that we might not want to hear. This is very radical teaching. Is Jesus advising us to be doormats? Is he wanting us to allow those who abuse us to get away with it?
Surely not. But what he does do is show us another way of resolving conflict and breaking open a cycle of hatred. It is a very risky way, because it is one which led to Jesus losing his life. When he spoke of being struck on the cheek and turning the other, he did not just talk the talk. He was struck, he was stripped of his garments, he was insulted. In return he chose not to retaliate. He prayed that those who wronged him might be forgiven. In all of this, Jesus is praying for a new and better state of affairs; he is praying for the coming of the kingdom.
In the end retribution does not bring conflicts to an end, but peace-making does. The discrimination and hatred that was seen in South Africa under apartheid came to an end not because one group crushed another. It was through the invitation to share experiences and to listen to those experiences; to identify with people who had been seen as the enemy and to find a common humanity and a desire for a better future. I’m sure that at the heart of this was the prayers of those who had glimpsed that better future. The same was true of the situation in Northern Ireland; somewhere along the line the desire for peace and cooperation overcame the desire for revenge. If those lessons are forgotten the old ways can return. So can our old ways too. The gospel invites us to consider how God has been generous, compassionate and merciful towards us, even when we have not been generous, compassionate and merciful ourselves. It invites us in return to find ways of showing that generous love through our own lives.
Our world, our country, our community are in great need of that generous and reconciling love. If we wait until other people deserve it before making a move, then we shall be waiting a very long time. God has not waited until we deserve it before showing his mercy and unconditional love. If we find it hard to forgive and hard to move on, then the place to begin is with prayer, because prayer changes things and first of all it changes our heart. God wants us to work with him for the coming of the kingdom. Let’s not allow our selective hearing to put limits on that calling. We can’t do it alone, but we can do it together. What really makes the difference is that we do it together in the power of God’s love.