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Matthew 5:38-48: How To Pray for an Enemy

Today’s Gospel lesson is full of some of the hardest teachings in the Bible:

  1. Turn the other cheek

  2. Give more than what is sued for

  3. Go the second mile

  4. Give to everyone who begs from you

  5. Do not refuse one who wants to borrow from you

  6. Love your enemies

  7. Pray for those who persecute you

  8. Be perfect

The Ten Commandments don’t even pack more challenges than these eleven verses. They are the sort of teachings that can prompt us to ask ourselves, “Jesus didn’t really mean that, did he?” It’s a bit curious the sorts of stories we question in this way. Jesus tells us a parable—a made-up story—about casting people into hell where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and we take it literally. But when he gives his disciples straightforward teaching about nonviolence, radical generosity, and radical love we agonize about just how seriously we are to take him!

As hard as these teachings are, Jesus is dead serious when he instructs to counter violence with nonviolence, to respond to need—and maybe even greed—with generosity, and to cast out hatred with perfect love. The question is not “Is he serious?” but “How?” How can we learn to be nonviolent? How can we become radically generous? How do we learn to love our enemies? How do we learn to pray for those who persecute us?

In a scene from “Fiddler on the Roof”: a man asks the Rabbi “Is there a proper prayer for the Tsar?” The Rabbi thinks for a few seconds, then nods and says, “May God bless and keep the Tsar—far away from us!” The other day on Facebook I saw an updated version of this prayer. It was a picture of a bumper sticker that said:

Pray for [controversial politician who will go unnamed] Psalm 109:8, which reads “May his days be few; may another seize his position.”

Just as I am certain that Jesus means it when he asks us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, so am I certain that these kinds of prayers are not what Jesus had in mind.

Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg  teaches how to pray for an enemy in her book Lovingkindness, which describes a form of prayer called metta, the Pali word for “lovingkindness.” In metta meditation we pray for others by offering them phrases that communicate lovingkindness. The traditional phrases are:

  1. May you be safe

  2. May you be healthy

  3. May you be happy

  4. May you live in peace

It is a prayer of well-being for all, even for our enemies. When it comes to offering metta to our enemies, she says this:[1]

Learning to pray for our enemies in this way forges a connection between ourselves and those whom we see as enemies. It opens us up to the awareness of our common humanity, to the knowledge that we too have the capacity to harm and alienate others, and that we too are just as much in need of God’s grace and healing as those who oppose us. It opens us up to the truth that there are no hierarchies of grace in the Kingdom of God. The grace afforded my enemy is just as powerful as the grace afforded me.

Christian theologian Paul F. Knitter tells a story of what can happen when we forge this kind of connection to our enemies. In the mid-1990s he was serving [2]

“I’m sorry, but we Buddhists don’t denounce anyone,” not an enemy, not a persecutor, not anyone. Knitter goes on to explain why:

I am a mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am also the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.

Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek, give more than what is sued for, and go the second mile because we must acknowledge that we too have the capacity to harm, to grasp, and to coerce. We are two ends of the same spectrum of violence.

Jesus calls us to give to everyone who begs and borrows because it opens us up to our own need, because that act of extending and opening up our hands is an act of acknowledging that we are all beggars before God. And I can no more overcome poverty of spirit by myself than the beggar can overcome poverty of material by herself. We are two ends of the same spectrum of poverty.

Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us because true reconciliation comes not by taking sides, but by inviting all sides to the table and hearing all voices and recognizing the common humanity of both persecutor and persecuted. We are two ends of the same spectrum of injustice.

Jesus calls us to be perfect as God is perfect. And the perfection that Jesus calls us to is conveyed by the Greek word teleios, which is perhaps better translated full, complete, mature, or whole. Something that is teleios has reached its fulfillment. Something that is teleios is fully grown and filled out. Something that is teleios is whole and full of integrity. We are whole and full of integrity when we see the other in ourselves, when we see the same image of God in the enemy, the beggar and the bully that we see in ourselves. We are perfect when we learn to call ourselves by our true names. We are perfect when we learn how to pray for our enemies.

So let us pray for our enemies . . . may you be safe . . . may you be healthy . . . may you be happy . . . may you live in peace. Because your safety is my safety, your health is my health, your happiness is my happiness, and your peace is my peace. Amen.

[1] Sharon Salzberg, Loving-Kindness, pp. 79-81.

[2] Paul F Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian, pp. 176, 188.

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