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Bible students and commentators sometimes speak of “the hard sayings of Jesus”. These are teachings which Jesus gave and they are hard for two reasons: first, because they are difficult to do; and second, they are “hard and fast”, that is, there is no leeway in the saying. I think most of us would agree that Jesus’ teachings regarding the treatment of our enemies are hard sayings.

Jesus is very clear in stating how we should act toward those who wrong us. We are told to pray for them and forgive them (Matt 5:44, Luke 6:28, Luke 11:4), and we are told to forgive repeatedly (Matt 18:22, Luke 17:4). Taking these teachings seriously leads to a difficult life. If someone hurts me, my inclination is to hurt them back; hit me and I’ll hit you harder; I’ll teach you a lesson. But Jesus says, “No.” Jesus says don’t hit them back (Matt 5:39, Luke 6:29). Yes, you’ll teach them a lesson – the lesson of love and forgiveness, not of revenge.

It is far from easy to forgive, truly forgive, someone who has wronged me. It takes time and effort; the greater the offense the more time and effort it takes. We are called to this hard work, and Jesus does not allow any way to sidestep it. In fact, Jesus says that God’s forgiveness of my sins is linked to my forgiveness of sins against me. “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt 6:14,15). That is very clear, and very frightening.

It sounds like a threat, or that God’s forgiveness is given after I have earned it by forgiving someone else. However, we know that all of God’s gifts are mercies and that we can never earn any of them. Bishop N.T. Wright gives us a way to understand the relationship between forgiving and being forgiven. Think of forgiveness as a door in your spirit. God’s forgiveness comes through this door and the forgiveness you give to others goes out the door. If you shut the door and don’t allow forgiveness to go out to others, then God’s forgiveness cannot come in. The door must be open, and being open, forgiveness flows both ways. Forgiving and being forgiven is not a quid pro quo but rather a sharing of the grace of God. Through grace God forgives me, and through grace I forgive others. The gifts of God are meant to be shared and this includes the gift of forgiveness.

Loving one’s enemies works in a similar fashion. God’s love is given to us, and that love is meant to be shared. We are to display God’s love just as God displayed it. God’s love was displayed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are called to display God’s love through service to others by following the example of Jesus. We are called to serve our enemies no less than our friends. In Lent, and especially during Holy Week, we are taught of Jesus’ service to his disciples and to us. This love, this life of Jesus, included loving and forgiving those who wronged him, both friends (such as Peter) and enemies (those who called for his crucifixion).

Forgiving and loving one’s enemies takes time. It may take years. It takes diligent prayer, hard work, and commitment. But it is the work to which we are called: to promote healing and love in a broken and offensive world. As we forgive and love, we find ourselves forgiven and loved, and we also find hope for our despairing world.

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