Matthew 5:13-20, Epiphany 5 A, February 9, 2014
Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Joffrey. Cercei. Tywin Lannister. The Red Woman. These are the names that Arya Stark says every night before falling asleep. If you haven’t seen or read Game of Thrones, you might think that this is the list of people that she cares about, just as we pray for those we love. For Arya, this isn’t so. Instead, this is the list of people that she intends to kill.
In the Game of Thrones series, Arya is a young preteen girl who has seen more death and despair than anyone should ever have to. By the end of the third book and TV season, her father, mother, and one of her brothers were brutally murdered in her presence. Many others that she loves have suffered at the hands of her enemies. So it is no wonder that she has vengeance on her mind.
We have seen similar events of such intense violence. In the Bible, Cain couldn’t stand the fact that God preferred Abel, so he killed his brother. King Saul felt disgraced that the people preferred young David, so he repeatedly attempted to murder him. Saul of Tarsus truly believed that Jesus’ followers were so out of line that he brought them to the authorities to be stoned to death.
Throughout history, people have resorted to intense violence. When King Henry VIII didn’t receive an heir from his wife, he disposed her by divorce or beheading. Joseph Stalin in his Great Purge executed hundreds of thousands of his own communist party so that he would never face opposition. White supremacists were so afraid of the message of racial equality that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of that they killed him.
In our modern day, we cannot escape violence. Michael Dunn, a white man living in Florida killed the black teenager Jordan Davis just because he was playing loud music. In Ukraine, protests against the government have turned violent in the past few days; Thursday alone almost 70 died. Even in our own backyard, Kristen Smith abducted her half-sister’s baby and then abandoned the child outside a gas station in West Branch.
Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that none of this is acceptable. Instead of hating our enemies, we are to love them. He does not mean that we need to become emotionally attached to our enemies in the way that we are with our families. Instead, we are to respond with kindness.
When brought to court with a debt to pay, we should pay double. If someone insults us, we are not to respond in kind. Instead, we can stand firm without resorting to retaliation. Ultimately, all of Jesus’ guidance in this passage - from turning the other cheek to handing over a coat to walking another mile - is all about nonviolent responses.
For most of us, the violence that we fear - or inflict - is not physical violence. Some of the hardest violence to recover from is emotional, verbal, and written violence. We often hear about how terrible kids can be toward each other, yet adults can be just as destructive. We are no better than our enemies.
Frederick Buechner writes about our modern tendency to throw curses instead of punches. He writes,
"It would be pleasant to think it's because we're more civilized nowadays, but maybe it's only because we're less honest, open, brave. We tend to avoid fiery outbursts for fear of what they may touch off both in ourselves and the ones we burst out at. We smolder instead. If people hurt us or cheat us or stand for things we abominate, we're less apt to bear arms against them than to bear grudges. We stay out of their way. When we declare war, it is mostly submarine warfare, and since our attacks are beneath the surface, it may be years before we know fully the damage we have either given or sustained.
"Jesus says we are to love our enemies and pray for them, meaning love not in an emotional sense but in the sense of willing their good, which is the sense in which we love ourselves. It is a tall order even so. African Americans love white supremacists? The longtime employee who is laid off just before he qualifies for retirement with a pension love the people who call him in to break the news? The mother of the molested child love the molester? But when you see as clearly as that who your enemies are, at least you see your enemies clearly too.
"You see the lines in their faces and the way they walk when they're tired. You see who their husbands and wives are, maybe. You see where they're vulnerable. You see where they're scared. Seeing what is hateful about them, you may catch a glimpse also of where the hatefulness comes from. Seeing the hurt they cause you, you may see also the hurt they cause themselves. You're still light-years away from loving them, to be sure, but at least you see how they are human even as you are human, and that is at least a step in the right direction. It's possible that you may even get to where you can pray for them a little, if only that God forgive them because you yourself can't, but any prayer for them at all is a major breakthrough."
Loving our enemies by showing them kindness is a tall order. Somedays it may seem impossible. Violence can only create more violence. So, when you are hurt, stand up for yourself nonviolently and turn the other cheek. When you owe your enemy a debt, repay her plus more. When your enemy requires you to work for him, go out of your way to do a bit more. You may be amazed at how your enemy will respond to your kindness.
Like and unlike Arya, the young girl from Game of Thrones, please do name your enemies every night. But instead of listing their names with the intent to destroy, pray for them. Pray that God might work through them so that they can be a blessing instead of a curse. Pray that you might find a way to be kind to them. Maybe - just maybe - God can help you to repair your relationship with your enemy. May it indeed be so. Amen.