Dear Friends in Christ,
During the liturgy last Saturday morning, the Gospel appointed to be read was Matthew 5:42-48:
Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.
Passages such as these are difficult for us to hear; they are the moments when the “rubber hits the road.” It’s easy to be nice to the people that are nice to us, but exceedingly difficult to be nice to people who are even hateful towards us. Yet Jesus calls us to do so.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to do things that He hasn’t already done, though. Jesus Christ, being God before the ages, is the same One who became a man and lived among men. As God, he had every right to pay back those that hurt him. Even as He was being arrested, He remarked that He could summon twelve legions of angels to put a stop to what was being done to him (Matt. 26:53). He chose to accept the suffering and dishonor of the Cross, in order to save mankind—including the very people who were crucifying Him!
We are supposed to follow Christ’s example in all things, and so we should likewise pray for those who do us wrong, and not react with hatred. We are even told to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39)! Returning provocation with provocation does not work to resolve any issue, but merely escalates it. Responding to provocation with humility, bowing out of the argument, blessing the one who is causing the anger, is the way to diffuse such situations.
This allows God to do His part. We are not commanded to do this because there is no sense of justice; on the contrary, God will dispense justice on all people and on the world, in the time, place, and manner that He deems best. Sometimes, this will be immediate, with God getting us out of a difficult situation. Other times, this will involve some suffering on our part, which He allows for us to learn patience and other virtues. The command of God to love one’s enemy is meant to teach us how to truly love; a love that is not just based on reciprocity. It’s not just an emotion that we are seeking to learn, but a way of life, an approach towards people that sees everyone as a child of God, no matter how bad they are, and frees us from judgment.
Remember that all people are created in the image of God; we have lost the likeness through sin, but the image is still there. When God looks at us, He sees a bit of Himself in each person, no matter how they have disfigured the likeness. Our goal as Christians is to become like God, which involves our patient acceptance of trials and our demonstrating love towards our enemies, as God Himself did.
For some people, being confronted with our loving and humble response, they will be converted from their error. Many people in the 2000 year history of the Church are on record as having converted after Christians repaid their provocations with kindness. For others, there will be no repentance, but this does not mean that God is not keeping track. The record will be settled, but by the Just Judge. We humans are fallen, and as such cannot always be just. Our attempts to be fair are often chances to show favoritism, exact revenge, and otherwise engage our passions. By leaving the judgment to God, we are freeing ourselves from the burden of taking on something we are usually not qualified to do.
Scripture must be taken in context, and these passages cannot be taken to unhealthy extremes. The command to love your enemy does not require a naïve response; we are not called to allow someone to take advantage of us or abuse us, whether physically, mentally, or financially. There is no requirement that we put ourselves in dangerous situations, or not act with reasonable caution in our dealings with others. Christ says elsewhere: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). The message is therefore that while we should be careful and watchful, we should never allow ourselves to respond with anger when we are provoked.
When I began coming to Greenville in 2008, I became aware of previous conflicts which had led to divisions amongst the Orthodox Christians in the area. Over the years, several mission parishes have come and gone. While I was not a personal witness to the history, I have gotten to know many who were. In almost every case, the people involved in these disputes, people on both sides of any of the several issues at the heart of the divisions, have expressed a desire to move past the mistakes of the past. Some people still feel hurt, but want to follow the words of Christ in Matthew 5:42-48, and putting aside this hurt, respond with love, trusting that God will settle things. In recent months, we have seen an increase in communication between people who once found themselves on opposite sides of the disputes. We’re seeing a slow but gradual attempt to seek out understanding and explore a new way forward on a person-to-person basis.
Since its inception, our mission has witnessed traditional Orthodox Christianity in the Greenville area. We have been blessed by God to have the support we need, and we have developed close fellowship amongst ourselves. Now we are seeing the mission serve as a meeting place for attempts at resolving past difficulties. Ultimately this is the mission of the Church, to reconcile man to God, and to reconcile man to man. Some Church hymns recount how on the Cross, Christ drew all men to Himself. There are many who are still scattered about the area with no Church home, both Orthodox Christians, and those who have been let down in some way by other Christian denominations, especially those changing the teachings of the faith to conform to the way of this world. If you are such a person, who is isolated and has not been to Church in some time, perhaps because you were hurt or let down, won’t you take a chance to come and see the good things going on here? As the Prophet David exclaimed, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). I look forward to meeting you after our next service.