"Strength to Love" – Matthew 5:38-48
"You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
"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."
Over the past three weeks I have had the pleasure of participating in weekly discussions centered on select sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., collected in the book Strength to Love.
I rediscovered my copy of Dr. King’s sermons last month as I prepared to lead a before-school Bible study at Sugar Creek Elementary. It was to be the kids’ last day of school prior to the observation of MLK Day, and I wanted to take the occasion to address MLK’s faith, which is as foundational to his character as anything else in his life, and yet probably was not a topic that would not have been discussed much during school hours that week.
I opened the dusty book and recalled that fifteen years earlier, as an undergraduate student, I had read and underlined his words with what could be described as a detached reverence. I knew intellectually that his words were true, but I also held his words at a distance because I assumed they were contextual – applicable only to his time and his situation. They weren’t words for me. After all, I wasn't even alive in the 50’s and 60’s. After all, I’m not black. And after all, I assumed I would have been on the right side of history had I lived in that time, fighting for the rights of my black brothers and sisters right alongside Dr. King. My original margin notes and underlines revealed the scribblings of a privileged, sheltered young man who thought he was reading a historical document with little regard for its current practical implications.
I felt convicted as I re-read his words through the lens of contemporary life. I wanted to once again wrestle with his words but this time alongside the perspectives of my fellow Christ-followers here at Cross of Grace; both with an eye on its historical relevancy as well as its current implications.
I’ve been blessed by the dialog this group has provided; and I feel like the participants have been challenged, convicted, and encouraged by Dr. King’s reflections on scripture and the prophetic call to engage in social justice in Christ’s name. His sermons are not easy to get through, both because of his expansive and scholarly verbiage, as well as his insistence that scripture would inspire all people to live Christ-centered lives of equality, nonviolence, and transformative love.
One of Dr. King’s sermons included in this book from his reflection on 5th chapter of Matthew – our assigned scripture for today. I was tempted to read his sermon to you in its entirety. I decided against that, although that’s not to say that I have anything to add to his profound words. Instead, I’ll share a few of his insights with you so that you too can share in its richness and truth.
When we hear Dr. King reflect on the truth of Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies, it’s important to hold a few images in mind. His words are that much more powerful and convicting when we remember that his dedication to love and nonviolence was not an abstract ivory tower philosophy. Instead, his dedication to love and nonviolence was a roadmap laid out for him in the pages of scripture – a way of life which he knew would paradoxically both lead to his death as well as to future peace.
Here are a few images from the time to remind us of what MLK anticipated and experienced as a result of his commitment to working for social justice. These snapshots of his reality remind us that he was not afraid of hatred, abuse, imprisonment, or even death. They were the prices he was willing to pay in order to live the Christian truth of loving his enemies.
With these images in mind, I encourage you to take in his words of hope and profound, painful truth.
In his sermon on the 5th chapter of Matthew, Dr. King acknowledges that the call to love one’s enemies is perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ admonitions to follow.
How do we love our enemies?
- We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive
- “He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love”
- “When we forgive, we forget in the sense that the evil deed is no longer a mental block impeding a new relationship”
- “We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found in our worst enemy.”
- “We must not seek to defeat or humiliate the enemy but to win his friendship and understanding.”
Why should we love our enemies?
- “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
- “Hate scars the soul and distorts the personality.”
- “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
- Because Jesus tells us to (“Love your enemies…that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven.”)
In one of the most passionate and faithful passages in the entire book, Dr. King writes,
"We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non co-operation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is co-operation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
"Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in mankind’s quest for peace and security.”
I pray that you understand a truth that I could not grasp when I was a college student – Dr. King’s words are timeless truths because they are rooted in a profound and personal understanding of Jesus’ words. The call to stand up against oppression, hatred, and inequality with the weapons of love is not restricted to particular decades in the 20th Century. This is the same call with which we are to treat our very real enemies today, whomever you understand them to be.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. held all people to the highest standard of moral living – namely, a life guided by purposeful and subversive love aimed squarely at the hearts of people who mean to hurt us. We, as followers of Christ, inherit the command to love our enemies. These are not the words of an idealist, a snowflake, or any other adjective you would prefer to use to dismiss those who advocate love over hate as well as what seems like irrational peace directed toward those who mean to harm us. These are the words of Christ, which brave men and women throughout history have taken seriously and doing so, have transformed the world into a better place, even if it cost them their lives. That is the call before us today. I pray you would find the inspiration and courage to love your enemies and that you would hold me to that standard.
For I truly believe that times like these require a response of love, a willingness to be a voice for the voiceless, and a trust that speaking truth to power will continue to shape our world into a place of peace for all people.