Read Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 and Luke 6:27-38
I want to start with a few questions, but I don’t want you to answer them out loud. I’d like you to think about these questions in the silence of your own heart. Answer them as honestly as you can.
Who do you strongly dislike, perhaps even hate? Try to think of someone, even if it’s a person you just know about from the news. Against whom do you feel ill-will, or against whom are you nursing bad feelings? Toward whom do you feel bitter, or even angry? We’re going to explore the intersection between these feelings and our bible readings.
Our Leviticus passage ends this way: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” (19:18)
Jesus’ words in our gospel reading serve as a commentary on the deeper meaning of this commandment. Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you.” (6:27-28)
Some of you may be thinking to yourselves about now, “Ohhh, but Jesus, you don’t understand! You have no idea what I’ve been through, the kind of abuse I’ve endured, the pain and hurt I’ve experienced.”
Here’s the first thing – say this after me – GOD KNOWS WHAT WE GO THROUGH. There are no secrets from God, and there is nothing that he doesn’t know. God deeply loves you, and yet he still says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”
Does this command say, in effect, that what that other person did to me is excused? Absolutely not! Rather it means that God, who does know all, and who loves us deeply, knows what happens to us when we cling to our hatred, to our bitterness, and our anger.
In the Bay of Naples in Italy live the nudibranch snails and the medusa jellyfish. You can google these names and learn all kinds of things about these interesting creatures. The nudibranch snails are small, attractive snails protected by a shell that cannot be digested. The medusa jellyfish makes a deadly error when it swallows a nudibranch snail. The jellyfish thinks it’s getting a tasty meal, but the snail attaches itself to the inside of the jellyfish and ends up eating that jellyfish from the inside out.
This is exactly what happens to us when we nurse our grudges, or when we do not let go of our anger. We may think we’re getting a tasty snack, munching on those resentments, that bitterness, those feelings of ill-will, But, in fact, those things are eating us alive from the inside out. This is not what God wants for us.
And here’s the second thing. God does not want our destruction but – say this after me – GOD WANTS FOR US JOY IN OUR LIFE AND FREEDOM.
Pastor Debra Samuelson of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Minneapolis tells of a man named Tom, who carried much grief and anger, for many years, toward his sister’s murderer.
His sister her roommate attended a Bible study that welcomed into their study the man who would become her killer. They had been told he had recently been released from a state mental hospital. However, they had not been told he had been confined to the facility after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for killing a 15-year old girl.
Tom’s sister was moving out of her apartment the next day. Her roommate, who was getting married, had moved out two days earlier. Tom was to have been there the next day to help her move, but this night she was alone. Her murderer came to the door looking for her roommate, became enraged when she was not there, and stabbed Tom’s sister to death.
During the trial, Tom recalls wanting to jump out of his chair and kill him. Who could blame him? Who among us would have felt any differently at the time? But 15 years later it was eating him alive. Tom had thrown himself into his work and did hours upon hours of volunteer work so he would be too busy to have time to think or feel. Tom stayed involved in a church Bible study.
At one Bible study, the topic was forgiveness. He remembers thinking about his sister’s murderer. He blocked it out of his mind. That was something he did not want to deal with.
But then a woman raised a question at the Bible study. She said, “These words of Jesus about forgiving others seem too simplistic. What if someone killed your children or your wife or your husband?” Tom said he felt as if he’d been slapped in the face.
They didn’t know about his sister until that night. That evening, Tom told his story and finally realized the price he was paying for his anger. He realized he must, and could, let go of his anger toward his sister’s murderer. It wasn’t dramatic, he said. It was a simple release of anger that he had held onto for 15 years; and, finally, after all those years, he had a real sense of peace.
God’s command to love our neighbor, and Jesus’ command to love our enemies, does not mean that we must have a cozy, warm feeling in our heart toward those who have wronged us.
And here’s the third thing. What Leviticus and Jesus are talking about, is – say this after me – NOT LOVE AS A FEELING, BUT LOVE AS AN ACTION.
The action of love is what is commanded here, letting go of the hatred, letting go of the bitterness, letting go of the resentment and feelings ill-will, that, in fact, is eating us alive.
Leviticus speaks of the actions of love when it says:
* You shall not reap to the very edges of your field…you shall leave them for the poor.
* You shall not deal falsely.
* You shall not lie to one another.
* You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.
And then Jesus deepens these actions even more:
* Do good to those who hate you.
* Pray for those who abuse you.
* Give to everyone who begs from you.
* Do to others as you would have them do to you.
These are the actions of love. They do not say that what the other did is OK. No, instead, they prevent those wrongs from eating you alive. Sometimes these actions of love can take time, as in the case of Tom. It can take time to come to terms with one’s anger.
These actions in the Bible are not meant to be applied with exact literalism. We must assess a given situation and make the decisions that seem right to the Spirit of God. Nor are these actions commanded to make the suffering person suffer more because that is one more thing he or she is not doing right.
And these actions are not commanded for us to point judgmental fingers at another, telling that person you must love your neighbor as yourself, or you must love your enemies.
Rather, these commands are given as a gift, for our all-knowing and all-loving God knows that this is the only way to true joy and happiness and peace in our lives.
To let go of the anger, to let go of the bitterness and resentment, to let go of the feelings of ill-will toward the one who hurt us – does not right the wrongs that have been done but is the door God has opened for joy and for peace in our life.
I think a good way to close this, is with a blessing that the Apostle Paul uses in Philippians chapter 4, as he closes his letter to the Christians in Philippi. Paul says, “And now may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (4:7)
God will help us to understand that hanging onto feelings of hatred, anger, and ill-will, is only a slow death for us. And then God will give us the strength to let go and to know true joy and peace in our lives by resting our hearts and minds in Jesus our Lord.
Let us pray.
O Lord our God, once again, this week, we are overwhelmed by news of violence in our world. We commend to you this day all our hurts, all our anger, and all our pain. Give us peace, and restore to us the joy of your salvation. In Jesus’ name. Amen
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