A High Bar, A High Calling
Luke 6:27-38 (NRSV)
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
So, this is crazy, right? I mean it looks good on the surface, this bit of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, as it’s called in Luke’s Gospel, but it’s been glossed over and simplified and sanitized for our digestion in so many ways over the years, that we forget how hard it might really be … if we were to take all of this seriously, that is.
“Love your enemies” has almost become a cliché, hasn’t it? Does anyone actually do this anymore, if they ever did? I’m not even sure who my enemies are at the moment. My enemies are often far away, hypothetical, existential kinds of foes; I don’t contend with them daily, face-to-face, man-to-man, if you will, in ways that I’d actually have to make a choice, even, to fight them, let alone love them, as Jesus suggests. And those times I have met with enemies face-to-face, it wasn’t pretty, or easy, or loving, in the end.
And what does it mean to “bless those who curse you?” I’m no good at that, either. It makes me think of that back-handed, double-edged, passive-aggressive, southern-style, Steel Magnolia’s kind of “Bless your heart” sort of blessing, that really doesn’t have much to do with kindness or mercy or blessing at all. You know what I mean, right? When was the last time you blessed the person who flipped you the bird in traffic – and meant it?
As for the rest of Jesus’ words today… I have driven past the beggar and averted my eyes. I have asked for or expected my stuff back when I loan it. I have withheld my coat and my shirt and more, if you must know, my closets are packed and I could use more hangers at the moment.
And what about, “praying for those who abuse you,” are you kidding me? I’ve never been abused in the ways that come to mind when we hear that word nowadays – physical, sexual, domestic kinds of abuse, I mean. And the sorts of prayers I’d pray if I were to be, wouldn’t be kind or loving or full mercy and forgiveness, I’m sure. I have a hard time mustering that kind of grace for the sake of someone who’s abused somebody else, for crying out loud.
And, honestly, I believe all of this is okay, to some extent. And that God understands. And that Jesus didn’t really expect much more from his followers back in the day, or from you and me, here and now.
I take these extreme statements of Jesus about as literally as I do some of the other things he says about plucking out our eyes if they cause us to sin, or lopping off our limbs if they cause us to stumble. It’s holy to the extreme – it seems like crazy talk – it’s virtually impossible, for most of us – it’s hard work, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean we ignore it altogether. It doesn’t mean we don’t strive to do better.
I think what Jesus does here is call us toward a better way, as hard as that might be; as difficult as it is to accomplish; a way that involves love, even when it seems impossible; blessing, even when it’s difficult; prayer and mercy and forgiveness even when it goes against our first instinct; our natural, sinful inclination; our better judgement, even.
This is Jacqueline. She was a girl back in 1994, living in Rwanda, during the genocide where something like 1,000,000 Tutsis were killed – mostly by way of machete – by their fellow Hutu countrymen. Not gunned down from a distance. Not poisoned in their sleep. And not by strangers or outside forces or alien invaders. This genocide took place up close and personally… 1 million men, women and children… killed with machetes… at the hands of – with the hands of – their neighbors. (I was a sophomore in college in 1994 and every time I read or hear something about this atrocity, I’m as surprised as I am embarrassed that the news of it barely showed on my radar, if it ever did at all.) That’s just one of the reasons I think it’s an important story to tell.
Anyway, Jacqueline’s entire family – but for one uncle – was slaughtered like this, one day while she was away from home getting milk from the family cow. She came home from a daily chore to find her entire family – and others in her village – brutally slaughtered. She escaped, along with that one, remaining uncle, survived, and now lives in a village called Mbyo, in the same neck of the woods where she had grown up and escaped the massacre, 25 years ago, this April.
This is Fredric. He was one of the Hutu men who killed so many of his Tutsi neighbors, like Jacqueline’s family. He makes no bones about it when he talks of the day he joined the ranks of those radical Hutus, set up road blocks to contain the Tutsis, and then so mercilessly murdered them. He spent a mere eight years in prison for what he did, and for what he’s admitted to. And he can’t forget the evil he helped to perpetrate. And what’s amazing… 25 years later… is that he, too, lives in the village called Mbyo.
Jacqueline is his neighbor – on purpose.
This village called Mbyo is one of eight “reconciliation villages” in Rwanda – established since the genocide. It’s a place where victims, survivors and perpetrators of that nightmare live as neighbors and friends, even, all these years later. Sometimes Jaqueline’s children play in Frederic’s yard. When her cow occasionally fails to produce milk, she asks him for help – and he gives it. The village elected Frederic to be a leader, the mayor of Mbyo. He speaks on behalf of the others, to this day; he mediates conflicts and tries to find solutions to their problems.
Some crazy Catholic priest named Bishop Deogratias Gashagaza had the idea for a “reconciliation village” and made it happen, just 10 years after the genocide. He wanted to create a safe place where Hutus – the ones who did the killing – and the Tutsis – those whose loved ones were slaughtered – could live peaceably together, in a state of reconciliation and forgiveness. It didn’t come easily. It’s a 15-year work in progress. But what began with a lot of understandable mistrust and reservation and fear between the one-time enemies has become something surprising… unbelievable, really… beautiful, I’d say… transcendent… holy.
More than 50 families live in the village of Mybo now, Tutsis and Hutus, as neighbors. Their kids go to school together. They live and work alongside one another. They have spent time rebuilding each others’ homes, tilling each other’s fields, and actively mediating disagreements amongst themselves. And they no longer claim their status as either Tutsi or Hutu. They are simply Rwandans, all of them, they say.
And it makes me wonder if Jesus’ words about loving your enemies; blessing those who curse you; turning the other cheek; praying for those who abuse you are more possible than I pretend. It makes me wonder if that high bar of being merciful, like God is merciful, really is possible and worthwhile – rewarding, even – if we take it seriously and do the work of it all, together.
I think that’s what life in the kingdom is supposed to look like. And I don’t think we have to relocate to a “reconciliation village” to accomplish this. I believe we live and move and breathe in the cosmic “reconciliation village” of God’s kingdom every day – wherever we are.
We can pray for bullies on the playground, in the classroom, and in the cafeteria. We can forgive that jerk at the office. We can work at loving those people in our lives who make it so hard sometimes. We can be slower to condemn those with whom we disagree. We can be generous, even if we don’t think they deserve it. We can practice humility when we want so badly to prove how right we are. We can offer a blessing and mean it. We can show and receive mercy. We can forgive and receive forgiveness. We can love and be loved, in spite of ourselves.
This is what life in the kingdom can look like. And Jesus models it for us, and invites us into it, because he knows we’ll be blessed and because the world will be changed when we live this way.
And because he knows, in the end, that God is merciful, even when we can’t be. God is loving, even when we’re not. God’s grace is always more than we can give and more than we deserve – a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over – for you and for me, and for the world, until we get it right.
Much of this message was inspired by an article you can read HERE.
I also learned a lot about the Rwandan genocide from the book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed By Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch.