When I was in elementary school, I did just about everything with my twin sister, Joyce. Looking back, I think we were pretty good kids. However, I remember one time when we got into trouble. Together.
We were in 5th grade, and I remember there was some kind of fight happening among the girls in our class. Two of our classmates, Cheryl and Cindy, had a disagreement and everybody was taking sides. I can’t even remember what the fight was about. But Joyce and I were on Cindy’s side. In our minds, Cheryl’s group was the enemy.
One day, Joyce and I were with our mom at the laundromat in town. We discovered that someone from our class had written some words in chalk on the outside wall of the building. It read, “Cindy is stupid.” I have to admit that between Joyce and me, I was often the twin who instigated things. So, this time, I came up with a bright idea. We found some chalk, and I rubbed out Cindy’s name and wrote, “Cheryl is stupid.” Of course, I couldn’t stop there. I added, “and she smells.”
A couple days later, Joyce’s teacher called us into her room after school. Mrs. Johnson was angry. She told us she knew exactly what we had done. She gave us a lecture about how disappointed our parents would be if they found out. Then Mrs. Johnson made us go back to the laundromat and clean up what we had written.
Today I can laugh at that story. We were kids fighting over a silly argument. Acting like we hated one another. Playing what I like to call the “judgment game.” But to us, it was deadly serious.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the judgment game. But from a totally different perspective. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Here, Jesus uses the Greek word “agape” for love. Agape is used throughout the Gospels and New Testament. This passage is part of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Last week, we heard Luke’s Beatitudes. Today, we hear about love and hate.
I believe some people don’t want to hear what Jesus is really saying. In fact, Jesus starts out by stating, “I say to you that listen.” In Greek, it literally reads, “I say to those of you who are hearing me.”
We Americans tend to hear things in terms of how they apply to us individually. We say things like, “When he did that to me, I was so angry!”—or, “I can’t believe how she treated me!” But throughout this Gospel lesson, in the original Greek, Jesus does not address what he says to the individual “you.” He always uses the plural form for “you.” A subtle, but important distinction that’s hard to hear in English. So, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he’s not speaking just to me. Literally it would be, “All of you must love all your enemies.”
Jesus tells us to love, not just on an individual level, but as a community. One thing that has been especially shocking for me over the past few years is how hatred has become a feeling that unites people. Tribalism now rules our political discourse, dividing us into camps. We see it happen everywhere. For example: Your neighbors either hates immigrants, or your community feels compassion for them. Your church either condemns queer people, or you vote to become a welcoming congregation. Your political party either opposes equal rights, or you join protesters in a Woman’s March.
It’s the same judgment game I played as a child, only now the issues are more serious. Typically, the judgment focuses on figuring out who is on your side. And once I figure out you’re not on mine, suddenly, we have nothing to talk about. We judge one another.
But I believe something happens to us psychologically when we play that judgment game. Momentarily, at least, you feel better about yourself. You step up on that little pedestal we all have in our heads or egos or psyches. And you end up looking down on “those” people. They become enemies. And, boy does that feel good!
But today Jesus is calling us to quit playing the judgment game. “Don’t judge,” Jesus says (and again he’s using that plural form of “you”)—“and you all won’t be judged.”
But how do we stop playing that game? How do I stop feeling angry about what those people say about my queer community? How do you stop hating those who want to build a wall? How do we stop resenting the people who are unwilling to change state laws and corporate policies to protect our the most vulnerable among us?
I believe the key is that the love that Jesus talks about is not just about feelings—not that I would ever deny the importance of acknowledging how we feel. Emotions are a normal part of our human experience.
But the kind of agape-love Jesus talks about is not based on our feelings. It’s based on actions. Loving actions that can overcome the hatred that pervades our world.
The past couple weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about that, including a couple situations that have made me feel a lot of anger and resentment. It’s made me wonder: How do we move beyond the judgment game?
The story of Joseph in our first lesson shows us one way to do that. This is one of my favorite stories in Genesis, probably because it’s my namesake. When you look at Joseph, he had a lot of good reasons to hate—to play the judgment game. His brothers resented Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery (today we would call it human trafficking.)
In Egypt, Joseph becomes a servant of Potiphar, the captain of the guard, Later, Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of attempted rape. So, Joseph goes to prison.
There, Joseph interprets the dreams of two cellmates. Eventually, Pharaoh calls for Joseph to interpret his own recurring dream, predicting a seven-year famine. Pharaoh likes him so much, that Joseph gets appointed as director of a famine relief program.
Eventually, the brothers of Joseph come to Egypt for food, because they are starving. But they don’t recognize him That’s when Joseph gets pulled into the judgment game. He hides a silver cup in the grain bag of Benjamin, his youngest brother, the one he truly loves. Then he accuses the brothers of theft. Finally, Joseph tells them the truth. Of course, Joseph had every reason to hold a grudge. He could have just sent them back to Canaan. To live with regret and the memory of what they did.
Instead, Joseph forgives them. Now, that doesn’t mean Joseph forgot what happened. After all, his community passed this story on to us, centuries later. But Joseph chose to no longer play the judgment game. He did something unexpected. Something based on grace. Something based on agape love.
The story of Joseph is not a story of retribution—though Joseph had the right to ask for that. It’s a story of restorative justice. God saves Joseph from death and slavery, and restores him to a position of blessing. Likewise, Joseph saves his brothers from starvation and guilt, and restores their relationship as family. Forgiveness is like that. It’s not just about one person saying they’re sorry. It’s also about the person who’s doing the forgiving. About finding a way to restore the trust that was broken. To let go of resentment. To start on a new path in the journey of that relationship.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought for years against apartheid in South Africa and saw many friends go to prison because of it, once wrote: “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering—remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
May God help us to remember. To remember there’s a way to end the judgment game. The way of love. The path of agape. The shared journey to reconciliation. Amen.
+ + +
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 6:27-38
Jesus said, "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."