My all time favorite novel is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. In recent years it has had great popularity based on the musical versions, I adore them as well. Yet to sit and read the original novel is to uncover layers of richness to characters and story that don’t fit into the stage versions.
Jean Valjean is an ex-convict, just released after serving a 19-year sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. As he attempts to re-enter society, no one will hire him or house him because of his criminal record. Then he stumbles into the bishop’s house. The reader already knows that the bishop is a kind, caring man. Embittered by his struggle, Valjean is now bewildered by the bishop’s hospitality. In his anger at his recent treatment, he seizes the moment and steals the bishop’s silver service and flees into the night.
In no time he is caught, then the surprise. The bishop does not respond as Valjean expects. Instead of being angry and condemning him, the bishop examines his own behavior and finds himself lacking in charity. “I have for a long time wrongfully withheld this silver; it belonged to the poor. Who was this man? A poor man evidently,” the bishop reasons to himself. So when the police arrive with the captured Valjean, the silver in his possession, the bishop calmly greets the thief and says, “But I gave you the candlesticks also…why did you not take them along with the plates?” The police, surprised and confused, reluctantly let the thief go.
Like a child caught with a hand in the proverbial cookie jar, Jean Valjean expects blame and condemnation for his actions. Instead he receives forgiveness and mercy. He expects hatred, and instead, he receives love, and at that moment evil is transformed to good.
Our text from the Sermon on the Mount, is, in essence, God’s story of grace for us. It summarizes the gospel – the good news we have received, and the good news which we are called to live. Jesus’ words focus on how we are treat others, but the reality is they are based on how God treats us. Loving enemies, forgiving negative experiences, giving and expecting nothing in return, offering mercy instead of blame and condemnation – this is God’s story. After all, God put a rainbow promise in the sky, even though we hadn’t earned it. God made manna fall from heaven, even though the wandering Israelites had done nothing but whine and complain. Jesus, in his most difficult parable, the story of the vineyard owner who pays the one-hour workers the same as the eight-hour workers, giving them, and us, not what is deserved, but what is needed. And in that archetypal story of the Prodigal Son, we meet a God who rejoices when a sinner comes home.
Again, and again, and again, God gives grace instead of grief. God gives us blessing instead of blame. God gives us comfort instead of condemnation. And in the serendipity of those surprising moments we are changed.
But the thing of it is, it is one thing for God to be gracious to us, that’s what God is supposed to do, right? It is quite another matter for us to do the same! After all, we live in the real world. Right? We need to be practical, cautious, sensible. Loving our enemies and turning the other cheek is dangerous business. It’s down-right foolhardy and contrary to our own interests. No, we need to be right, to be safe, to be number one, always in control of the situation –always aware of our surroundings. This is the only true way to preserve our own skin. And so we, worldly twenty-first century folks that we are, recognize that we live not in a world of grace, but instead in a world of hostility. We live in a world where if we get robbed or mugged, we press charges. We live in a world where, in order to maintain national superiority we can never admit the United States is wrong, or at least, only under former administrations. We live in a world where sixty percent of Americans support legalized revenge…we call it capital punishment. We live in a world where, after parents die and sibling rivalries turn into warfare, millions of dollars and thousands of emotional hours are spent contesting wills and fighting over family heirlooms.
Each of us, deep down realizes that resentment and retaliation, judgment and blame are tightly woven into the fabric of our human lives. Such a negative reaction to the bad things in life is learned behavior in a world where self comes first. It is part of the original sin of seeing ourselves as the center of the universe. And it is the disease of the soul which Jesus comes to heal. When Jesus eats with Zacchaeus, when he forgives and empowers the woman at the well, when he breaks bread with Judas, and when he gives authority to faithless Peter, he gives them, and gives us, grace. He gives us the benefit of the doubt, the gift of a second chance, the lavish and generous blessing of unconditional love.
And then Jesus asks us to do the same! To take the risk, to make the decision, yes, to follow him. He asks us to be foolish enough to spurn the ways of the world, and to do things in a new way.
In his classic, Love, Medicine & Miracles, author and surgeon Bernie Siegel tells the story of Wild Bill, an inmate of a Nazi concentration camp, who after six years of serving the enemy as an interpreter, was still full of energy, physical health and a positive spirit. To the other prisoners, he was a beacon of hope, an agent of reconciliation, one who was constantly urging them to forgive each other and the enemy. This man’s positive spirit was all the more amazing because of the horror which he himself had experienced at the beginning of the war – watching his own family: his wife, his two daughters, his three little boys, shot before his very eyes by Nazi soldiers in Warsaw.
When asked to explain his lack of bitterness, Wild Bill responded, “I had to decide right then whether to let myself hate the soldiers who had done this. It was an easy decision, really. I was a lawyer. In my practice I had seen too often what hate could do to people’s minds and bodies. Hate had just killed the six people who matter most to me in the world. I decided then that I would spend the rest of my life – whether it was a few days or many years – loving every person I came in contact with.”
It’s a new ethic – to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek, to forgive and love no matter what – it is what Jesus asks. But does it make sense? Does it work? Or is it an offense in our dog-eat-dog world? Is it realistic to ask families of murder victims to forgive and love? Is it appropriate to ask a battered wife to pray for the one who abuses her, to offer the other cheek to the husband who struck the first one? Sure, God sends sun and rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike – but are we called to love and be merciful to people who take us for granted and use us for their own advantage? These selfless, idealistic values may be fine for a Messiah, but for those of us who are victims and victimizers in the real world, they are offensive and dangerous.
Unless we look at them in a new way. Years ago a work on Christian assertiveness used these words from Matthew as guidelines for healthy assertive behavior. The point is, to love our enemy is to take charge of the situation, to refrain from just reacting as a victim of their behavior. To love our enemy is to change the situation, to take the initiative to relate to our victimizers in a new way – literally to take the power out of their hands and put it in ours in a positive way.
To love the enemy does not mean to like the enemy. Rather it means to understand them as human beings – troubled and sinful human beings who have hurt us because they themselves hurt inside. It means to make a decision to respond to them in ways which will benefit them and perhaps lead to healing.
Now this is not to suggest that we passively sit back and ask for more abuse. It does not mean that the abused wife continues to live with the husband who beats her. No, the loving thing to do, the thing that is in the best interests of the one who is doing the hurting, may very well be to blow the whistle, to press charges, to get help for a sickness that is out of control. You see, to do good, to love and forgive those who offend us, is to refrain from hurting them in the same way they have hurt us. It is to initiate a new form of confrontation and healing that will lead to the well-being of all the parties involved. An ethic of grace – far from being an offense – is an invitation to take the offensive, to live positively instead of negatively, to stop playing the role of the victim, and to start living a life of proactive discipleship.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote:
“Forgiveness does not mean ignoring what has been done. It means, rather, that the evil act no longer remains as a barrier to the 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 even in our worst enemy.”
King concludes that when Jesus asks us to love our enemies he is pleading with us to offer understanding and creative good will to all people. This is the only way we can truly be children of a loving God.
This new ethic of grace is different than an ethic of justice. Instead of reacting to the sin of others, instead of basing our response on reward or revenge or reciprocity, we can, instead, initiate a new relationship based on love and hope. And, by taking the high road, we can become fertile ground for abundant life to grow, both for our enemy and for ourselves.
Victor Hugo’s bishop showered Valjean with the ethic of grace. The bishop’s blessing of silver candlesticks – and forgiveness – freed Valjean from his cycle of self-loathing and world hating. It opened the door of transforming grace he would show Fantine, Cosette and Javert.
These words in Matthew are not spoken at large. Jesus knew that secular people could neither understand nor honor such a difficult ethic. No, these words in Matthew are spoken to the disciples, to believers who have decided to follow Jesus. These words are spoken to us, people who have chosen to be the yeast in a world that needs the fullness of grace. This day, may we have ears to hear these words and take charge of love.
© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved