Some lessons can only be learned by doing.
In this week’s text Jesus calls us to love our enemies. It’s the heart of the Gospel and while it sounds nice in theory, it’s never been very popular in practice. And for good reason; when applied to the crucible of real life, there is no guarantee that Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemy will transform our enemy, at least not right away. It may even cost our life.
If we approach this as a strategy to transform our enemies, then we are missing the point. The only thing Jesus’ strategy is guaranteed to transform is us. Practitioners of the Gospel, like Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero, and Gandhi, have demonstrated that in loving our enemy, we reclaim in ourselves the humanity that our enemies deny. We also create the possibility for them to recover their own humanity.
But here’s the tricky part.
The moment we turn this into a moral obligation laid on the backs of those who suffer, it becomes oppressive. Which one of us is ready to tell those who are being assaulted to turn the other cheek— those who are being cursed, to bless—or those who are being abused, to pray for their abuser? Few of us have that kind of authority. And even if we did, we are on dangerously thin ice. Pronouncements like these, when applied as moral commands to people overwhelmed by persecution, can add trauma on top of trauma, all while preserving the status quo.
Even so, Jesus says these words, “Be merciful just as your father in heaven is merciful” (v. 36).
The Gift of Mercy
Is Jesus placing a moral burden on already beleaguered victims? Not at all! Jesus is shining a light on something that sets us free. He is calling our attention to his father – to something that is happening even now, if we can only see it.
By imitating the father, it seems to me that Jesus is inviting us to discover ourselves on the receiving end of a huge gift – the gift of mercy. Mercy means “womb-space” in Hebrew and Aramaic. Yes, “mercy” is the womb that gives life. We cannot imitate God’s mercy without receiving it and we cannot receive it without being born again. As a result, we become midwives for others who are being born again. Jesus is showing us that in loving our enemy and imitating mercy, we come face to face with God’s love for us.
As we are called into being through mercy, something amazing begins to happen. We discover the capacity to “do to others as we would have them do to us” (v. 31). We find ourselves living out the ethic of mercy that has given us life.
We also discover that we can tell a much bigger truth about what’s really going on. We are given what René Girard calls the “intelligence of the victim.” We can speak truth to power in ways that expose injustice and call forth redemption.
To Those who have Received Great Mercy
Finally, (and this is critically important) notice to whom Jesus is speaking in this passage. He is addressing his disciples who have walked closely with him. He is not speaking to the crowd who is overwhelmed by persecution. Jesus is speaking to those who have witnessed mercy, first hand, face to face.
If there is a burden in Jesus’ ethic of liberation, it falls only on those who have received great mercy. We, who have received mercy (and been formed by it), are called to occupy the womb-space of life for those who can’t. It’s we who are called to imitate Jesus, so that we too might be worthy of imitation. Herein lies the hope of the world.
“Be merciful just as your father in heaven is merciful.”