There is the idea that the Old Testament is the book of Law, and the New Testament is all about grace. That is broadly true, but there are large elements of grace and forgiveness in the Old Testament, and elements of Law in the New Testament. The two readings we have today show us how both Testaments can have unexpected surprises.
Today you heard the tail end of the story of Joseph. Let me remind you of what happened before we get to today’s passage. Joseph is the favorite son of his father Jacob. And he knows it. And he lords that over his other brothers. For example, he has a dream one night that there are eleven sheafs of wheat bowing down to one sheaf. He has eleven brothers, and so he interprets this to mean that one day his brothers will be bowing down to him, the youngest. Ok, so he was right about that, but it was not wise for him to go tell his brothers about his dream. Then he has a second dream that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. They were already miffed about him being his Daddy’s favorite, and about the ornate tunic, or coat of many colors, his father had given him. One day Joseph goes out the fields where his brothers are working (apparently Joseph did not have to go out and work in the fields) and the said, “Look, here comes that dreamer! Let’s kill him! Well, they don’t kill him, but they sell him to slave traders, who take him to Egypt.
While in Egypt, after a series of misadventures, Joseph eventually becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man. If you remember, the Pharaoh had a dream about seven fat cows eaten by seven skinny cows, which meant there would be seven years of good crops, and then seven years of famine. It was Joseph’s job to manage the grain and all the other goods in the fruitful years so there would be enough food during the seven years of famine.
The famine does come as Joseph predicted, and guess who comes knocking on his door to ask for food? His brothers–the guys who sold him to the slave traders. How easy it would be to deny their request, assuring their death. If he wanted, he could give the word, and have Pharaoh’s men arrest them. The opportunity for vengeance has come knocking on his door. He can finally get his just desserts, he can finally make those who tried to destroy his life pay for their deeds. He can triumph over his enemies.
But what does he do? He forgives them. Unconditionally. He loves his enemies. He accepts them, and brings them into the fold.
And now we come to Jesus.
27″But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
He is talking about exactly what Joseph did some 3000 years earlier. Joseph looked the people who tried to kill him right in the eyes, and said he forgave them. Not only that, he welcomed them into his home, and made sure they were taken care of for the duration of the famine.
Jesus would have liked that.
These are hard words coming from Jesus. It is one thing to read of Joseph forgiving his brothers. It is quite another to look our own enemies in the eye, and forgive them. Yet that is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. God, according to Jesus, is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. God, according to Jesus, is merciful. And Jesus tells us we should be merciful, we should be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, just as God is.
And he takes it one step further. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged, ” he says. “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Of course he could have stated it another way. “Judge, and you will be judged. Condemn and you will be condemned. Hold grudges and grudges will be held against you.”
That is a harsh standard, one that is not easy to keep.
But it is an important standard. One thing that 5000 years of recorded history teaches us is that hate begets more hate. Hate and judgment are viruses that affect humanity. They do an incredible amount of damage, and they are contagious. The inoculations for hate are love and forgiveness, acceptance and kindness. Jesus calls us to love our enemies because it is good for us to do so. It is good for human race.
Loving Unlikely Enemies
Not all of our enemies are people. We face foes of many different types, and in all probability, if we have real enemies, they are probably not people. After all, we are very likable group of people–moderate in theology, moderate in politics, moderate in style. Who would hate us? Why would anyone choose to be our enemies?
On the other hand, the impersonal enemies we face are much more prevalent. What do I mean? I’ll start with a personal example from own life. There are many times when I feel that age is an enemy. The morning creaking of my bones, the ever-increasing aches and pains, the flow of years and the bittersweet lingering memories of times gone by–these appear as unwelcome intrusions in my life. I bet I am not the only one who feels that way. Of course fighting age is about as effective as fighting gravity. You’re just not going to win that battle.
But what if I embrace it? What if, instead of seeing the advance of years at the invasion of an enemy in my life, what if instead I welcomed it. What if, instead of dreading it, instead of fighting it, I accepted it as this time in life. It is neither good nor bad. It just is.
When I was a hospital chaplain I did a meditation program, and found it worked for people with chronic pain. I did a lot of reading on the subject and found two really interesting articles on pain management. The first involved meditation and pain directly. They took two groups of subjects, put rubber bands around their arms, had them immerse their banded arm in a bucket of ice water, and hold them under the water as long as they could. One group was told to think about their happy place. They would immerse their arms in the water, and as the pain of the cold water grew, they would think about being somewhere else, somewhere very pleasant. A beach, sitting by a mountain stream, at their favorite restaurant with friends. They were told to think of anything except the pain. And in fact these people were able to hold their arms in the cold water longer than people who did not do that.
The second group was told to concentrate on the pain. Get to know it. Think about how it felt, and what that compared to. Explore it. Get to know the pain. Feel the pain. Don’t try to run away from it; instead run toward it.
The first group of people, those who tried to think about anything but the pain, were able to hold their arms in the cold water for up to three minutes. The second group, those who were told to embrace the pain, could hold their arms under for up to seven minutes, and some were able to do it almost indefinitely.
The second thing I ran across was an interview with a pain management specialist, who I think was from Finland. He had an effective, but strange way of helping deal with chronic pain. When asked why he was so successful in helping people deal with chronic pain, he said the first thing he did was to try to get people to become friends with the pain.
To think of pain as an enemy is very easy to do. But that if it is not. What if, instead we can make it if not a friend, a least a benign acquaintance? What if we can learn to love even this enemy? I realize this may be more radical than trying to love a human enemy, but what if we were to embrace the various enemies that surround us–age, pain, depression, addiction issues, illnesses–physical and mental, and other negative circumstances in our lives. What if we can accept them, let go of our anger, let go of fighting, and learn to embrace the things that plague us. An alcoholic can only change if they embrace the fact they are an alcoholic. And sometimes there are circumstances we cannot change. I’m never going to change the fact that I am getting older. A cancer patient can undergo treatment, but they will be a cancer patient.
We can spend our lives fighting those things that plague us, fighting our enemies. Or we can learn to love our enemies. I realize how hard that is. And there is really only one way we can truly learn to love our enemies, and that is by loving God. Neither Joseph nor Jesus talked about loving enemies as a humanitarian gesture. They did not practice that because they were good people, but because they were godly people. Both wound their love of neighbor and of enemy around their devotion to God.
It sounds counter-intuitive–to love an enemy. But Jesus tells us it is the way to eternal life. It is the way to wholeness. It is the way to salvation.