Beloved Members of St. Martin’s,
If you really pay attention to the gospel, there inevitably will be a teaching that is especially difficult. And it’s always nice to know that I am not the only one struggling with that particular commandment.
For me, one of the most difficult is “praying for my enemies,” people who actively seek to hurt or revile me or the things and people I care about. And the Psalms, the original prayer book and hymnal in scriptures, are chock-full of praying for God to thwart one’s enemies—Psalm 35 in Friday’s Evening Prayer being a particular example. I am comforted when I encounter these psalms in the Daily Office, for it reminds me that we all have those experiences of threat and unexplained malice in our lives with others, and often for no real reason that we can discern.
The fragment of the story of Jonah that occurs as our first reading this weekend shows that this difficulty is universal, which is a comfort. Jonah is ordered by God to go to the biggest city on earth at that time, Nineveh, and warn the inhabitants to repent. The problem was that Nineveh was also the seat of mighty Neo-Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib in Mesopotamia, one that reduced much of the Kingdom of Israel to rubble and carried off hordes of Israelites into captivity.
To say Jonah resisted this mission of mercy is an understatement (see the poem at the end of this email for one take, or re-read one of my sermons on Jonah here). When even a great prophet of God tries to flee to the ends of the earth to avoid offering mercy and the promise of salvation to his enemies, I imagine many of us can relate to that. And in the story, Jonah’s preaching does cause the Ninevites to repent, at least temporarily, much to Jonah’s disgust. And the story of Jonah in our Sunday lectionary abuts the gospel story in this week’s daily office of Jesus’s discussion with the Samaritan woman at the well. And as a result of Jesus’s willingness to engage with a supposed enemy of his people, an entire town comes to believe in Jesus as Messiah.
We live in a time when the bonds of kinship, community, and identity are more frayed than ever, and when wars of retribution and the refusal to seek peace are causing the loss of innocent life day after day. Yet tearing each other down when we disagree, and even worse, dehumanizing others we see as threats of competition to us, only serve to inflame the very injuries we feel at the hands of those who hurt us. “Hurt people hurt people” is a wise observation. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted, hate can not drive out hate; only love can do that.
As the full story of Jonah illustrates, that grace offered to even those of whom we are rightfully wary is yet another assurance of the certainty of the grace offered again and again to ourselves. If God can forgive our enemies, who are we to not at least pray for them? After all, an enemy who repents is no longer a threat, if the repentance is genuine. It’s easy to give up on others, but hard to work to end enmity and strife. Yet isn’t it worth trying? Even if we do not succeed in converting enemies to friends, we can at least stop allowing them to live rent-free in our heads and hearts, and give ourselves the peace of knowing that we ourselves are not adding fuel to the fire.