Is it any wonder that his family thought he was crazy? I read statements like those and I cannot help but question him. This is not easy to hear and it's even harder to live out. It's also very difficult to teach to a child who is being constantly bullied at school. How does one even begin to bless those who would curse and mistreat us? Why would we even want to? It is certainly more natural to want to retaliate and strike back (either physically or verbally). One does not see others blessing those that they even disagree with on social media. Comments under posts tend to fall on the side of vitriol and harsh condemnation. Did anyone take Jesus aside and say, "Lord, that's not how the world works"? Of course, he would probably have just responded with, "I know, but that is how the kingdom of God does."
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus even states, "But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44). Prior to this, he said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy." What he's doing is reminding his listeners of what they had been taught in the Temple. This was Rabbinic teaching. Yet Jesus follows what they have heard with, "But I tell you..." Imagine being in church and having Jesus say, "I know what you have heard preached, but that's wrong. Here is how it is supposed to be lived out."
I must admit that, in my own life, this is a verse that I would love to overlook and pretend did not exist. One of many really. Growing up, a very short and even shyer kid, I was bullied a lot in school. Afraid to get into trouble, I often did not strike back. Every night before bed, I would pray that the bullies would stop or, at the least, find somebody else to pick on. Every morning before school, I would pray that God would cause them to have a change of heart or transfer them to another school. But, to my dismay and bewilderment, God did not seem to hear or answer my prayers. Soon turning the other cheek became me bloodying the other child's nose because I had had enough. My thoughts were, "I gave God a chance. I tried to pray for those who mistreated me, but that didn't work. At all." And, for years, the idea of forgiving them was something I would smirk off with, "Yeah, right." If I'm going to pray for my enemies, then I'm going to do it Old Testament style with vengeance and fury and wrath. I would pray Psalm 109 where the Psalmist not only wants his enemy's days to be few but also wants his enemy's children to wander about and beg. I love the idea of asking God to curse and smite, to dash their babies against the rocks. Why not? For all the pain and humiliation and hurts I suffered, why shouldn't my enemy be struck down by God? "As Rich Mullins once joked, "Vengeance is mine, thus sayeth the Lord, but I just want to be about the Lord's business." It's a joke I can too easily relate to. When we are hurt, we want to hurt others. When we are wounded, we want to wound. We prefer to drag down rather than raise up those who have injured or slighted us in any way.
We live in a culture of act and react; not bless and pray for those we disagree with and, especially not, our enemies. Just look at our politics. No, we prefer to draw lines in the sand and to believe in an us versus them mentality. You're either for us or against us. If you don't agree with us, then you are our enemy. There is no common ground, no compromise, no finding a place of meeting and understanding. W have stopped listening and started demanding. We want our way or the highway.
When Jesus refers to "love your neighbor" in Matthew 5:44, he was drawing from the Levitical concept of neighbor which was solely "thy people" and enemies were everyone else. And, just as he does with everything else, Jesus turns that on its head and upturns this law in the same manner he did the tables of the moneylenders in the Temple. He doesn't allow us to just love our people (whether that be our literal family, only those of our nation or race or religion or sexuality, or our own political party) but to view everyone as our neighbor and not our enemy. He gives us no out, no escape clause, no loophole. Christ does not allow us the self-pleasure of retaliation or leaving someone else out of the club. All are welcome to the table. When he makes a table for us in the presence or our enemies, as the Psalm says, it is with the hopes not of excluding them but in drawing them in to his love. It's a feast to tell them, "This is how I treat my children. Come, be one of them."
As I'm teaching this to my younger son, who is perplexed and baffled by a God who would ask this of us, I am teaching myself and find myself just as baffled and perplexed. It is a struggle to do this. It is a dying to self and self-interest and self-preservation. It's much more natural to bless those who are like us, who agree with us, who are nice to us. It's so much easier to curse or cuss (as Southerners would say) those who we dislike, who are our enemies, or we disagree with, or who even cut us off in traffic. But cursing darkens both our hearts and our world when we choose it. There is no light shown when we view someone not as having been created in the very image of God, but as our enemy and as an other. If God did not curse us when we were yet enemies to Him, how, then, can we do otherwise to those who have injured us?
Forgiveness and blessing are not easy to offer but it's what's required if we are to become like the Christ we claim to follow. As Henri Nouwen wrote, "Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family."
So I will pray that I can pray for my enemy. I will strive and fail and strive some more to bless those who curse me. The decision to love and actually love another is always difficult and makes us vulnerable and open to rejection and suffering. That's what we see in the life of Christ. His example is that to love is to be broken, but to be broken is to be whole and filled with Shalom so that we can offer Shalom to those most in need of it - those who have hurt us because they, themselves, have been hurt.