In today’s passage, Jesus tells us that the way of God is to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. There is no ultimate good that comes from being nice to people who are nice to you. That is easy. What is hard is being nice to people who revile you.
I recall a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird when a disturbed individual contemptuously spits a disgusting gob in the face of Atticus Finch because he (Atticus) was defending the innocence of a black man. Atticus has an unfathomable reaction, one that had a very powerful impact on me as a child watching Gregory Peck’s screen portrayal: he controls himself, wipes off the filth, calmly gets in his car, and drives off without a word. There is no physical reaction, although every muscle fiber was twitching underneath his suit. The assailant is just waiting for it; he is certain the punch is coming. What we want during this scene, and in many scenes like it in our own lives (though perhaps not as dramatic) is for Atticus to knock the thug into next week. We want him to take revenge. We want him to put this man in his place.
Isaiah 55:8-9 says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” This comes vividly to life in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. We really want to do things our way. The problem is our way is not usually the best way. Our way is often short-sighted and prone to erroneous judgment. Our way does not see the big picture, the long-term implications of our words and deeds. Along comes Jesus…
How hard must it have been for His followers to hear about praying for the Roman occupiers? Or sitting down to eat with tax collectors? Or, how hard must it have been for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to pray for those who wished him dead? How about Jesus on the cross praying for His tormentors (Luke 23:34)? Without the love and life of Christ flowing through us, without our participation in the divine life, we can hardly grasp even the possibility of being this way. Yet, with God all things are possible. We can start the daily habit of praying for those who dislike or trouble us. We can pray for those who stand athwart God’s Kingdom. Daily habits help in building our Christ-like character.
The example of Atticus is the example of Christ. Instead of responding the way we think is right and just, Atticus does things God’s way. Think of the reverberating example set for all who witnessed this event and heard about it. Rising above the hatred and violence of the world is the way of Jesus.