Our Gospel reading begins with this from Jesus: “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies.” In case we miss it the first time, Jesus repeats it in the same words just a few sentences later. “Love your enemies.” That’s a tall order!
We get a picture of love for enemies in our Old Testament reading. It comes from the story of Joseph, the one who had the coat of many colors or, as the musical puts it, the amazing, technicolor dreamcoat. The whole story of Joseph is great, but we only need to know the general outline to appreciate our reading.
Joseph irritated his older brothers so intensely that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. That makes them his enemies.
Against all odds, Joseph rose to great power and prominence in Egypt. Eventually Joseph’s brothers show up in Egypt hoping to trade for some grain, and they are ushered into Joseph’s presence. They don’t recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. And in our passage, Joseph tells them who he is.
We are told the brothers were “dismayed.” I suspect that is an understatement. They must have been terrified. They should have been terrified.
Few of us will be tested like Joseph was. I’ve irritated plenty of people over the years, and some have irritated me. But at no point, I like to think, have things gotten so bad that we wanted to see each other enslaved. My “enmities,” such as they are, are considerably more modest that Joseph’s.
Still, there have been people in my life who have been hard to love: difficult neighbors and cantankerous family members. You may have heard the old joke about academic politics: the fights are so bitter because the stakes are so small. When I used to teach, I participated in some of those bitter fights with small stakes.
And here is Jesus, telling us we are supposed to love all those people: the difficult neighbors, the cantankerous family members, the stubborn colleagues, and everybody else we don’t like. Just contemplating it is depressing!
But Jesus is clear. So, we sit with his command to love our enemies. We let it work on us. What would it look like to actually love the most challenging people in our lives?
Jesus gives us a first answer in the famous Golden Rule. “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
I would prefer that people who don’t like me would still give me the benefit of the doubt, would acknowledge that I am not trying to be a jerk even when I am being a jerk, that I want to do the right thing even if I am not doing it. That’s what I would have them do to me.
So, Jesus says, I should extend that courtesy to the people I don’t much like. I should NOT assume that they are evil human beings who take perverse pleasure in making my life difficult. I SHOULD remember that virtually all of us do the best we can, even if our best isn’t always very good.
Giving others the benefit of the doubt is not the fullness of love. But it is a big step in the right direction, and life in the United States would be better if more people took it.
But what about people who don’t do the best they can, people who have genuinely harmed us? Like Joseph’s brothers did to him? They did bad. There is no excusing it. Giving them the benefit of the doubt would be foolish and inadequate. But according to Jesus, Joseph should love them.
And Joseph does. In an astonishing act of generosity, Joseph forgives his brothers, and reassures them, and welcomes them. At the end of our reading, Joseph even “kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” Shockingly, amazingly, Joseph loves the brothers who sold him into slavery.
What does that mean for us?
Well, Jesus is NOT telling us to let other people take advantage of us. My guess is that, even after forgiving his brothers and embracing them in love, Joseph still didn’t spend a lot of time with them alone in dark alleys. The brothers who had violated Joseph’s trust so badly had a LOT to do to earn back his trust.
But, and this is the key point, Joseph’s brothers didn’t have to earn his forgiveness or his love. Joseph forgave them up front. Joseph loved them before they had apologized or done what they could to make things right. Joseph’s love for his brothers did not depend on what his brothers did. Joseph loved them not because they deserved his love, but because he was loving. That’s our calling, too.
Stories of that kind of love are not limited to the Bible. I recently finished a biography of Howard Thurman, a twentieth-century mystic and holy man. Thurman was Black and raised in the segregated south at a time when Black people were being lynched literally every week, more than 52 every year for the first twenty years of Thurman’s life.
Thurman didn’t make excuses for the racism and violence around him. Thurman fought for civil rights for his entire life. But Thurman did his best to fight in love. Thurman took seriously Jesus’ command to love people he had good reason to consider his enemies.
Thurman said loving people meant meeting people where they were, and treating them as if they were already where they ought to be. Thurman said, we place a crown over their heads and invite them to grow tall enough to reach it.
I love that. When interacting with people made small by their own meanness, we don’t pretend they are different than they are. But we also don’t get down on their level. We don’t let their meanness define who we are or how we relate to them.
Instead, we relate to them as the people they could be, as the genuinely loving brothers or sisters they could become. We hold a crown over their heads, knowing that they could grow into it. We try to love them into loveableness.
There are no guarantees, of course. They might stay mean and nasty. We can’t control how other people are. But we can control how we are. We can keep loving them.
And when it seems like too much trouble, when we wonder why we bother with such irritating people, it helps to remember God’s love for us.
In Romans, Paul reminds us that we were all once “enemies”—he uses that word—to God. But, says Paul, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (5:10). God loved us enough to suffer and die for us when we were God’s “enemies”—separated from God by sin. God meets us where we are, as sinners, and treats us as the beloved children of God we were created to become. God holds the crown of sainthood over our heads, and God invites us, and helps us, to grow into it.
Jesus commands us to do the same to everyone we meet, even those we think of as enemies.
And when we struggle, when we stumble, when we fail to love as we should, God is there, helping us to grow, helping us to become the people we ought to be, helping us to love a little better.
Jesus calls us to love as we are loved, to love others as we are loved by God. May God help us to do better at it.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
 Paul Harvey, Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography, 95-96.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan