I want to ask you something, and I want you to answer it honestly: Who is it that you hate?
The very word hate may be jarring to some of you. Hate is a strong word, equivalent to killing in many people's vocabulary. If that is the case with you, let me rephrase the question. Against whom are you nursing a grudge? Where is the bitterness in your life and to whom is it directed? Who is it in your life who has made decisions differently than you have and you are quite convinced that your way is much, much better, so you hold that person at a distance with an air of self-righteousness? Who are those people in your lives?
Our Leviticus passage ends this way: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord." Jesus picks up these words in our Matthew text: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment and the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Some of you may be thinking to yourselves about now, "Ohhh, but pastor, you do not understand! You have no idea what I have been through, the kind of abuse I have endured, the heartache, the devastation."
Let us look again to the words of the Leviticus text: "But you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Now, Matthew: "The second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself." I don't hear any loopholes in these words. I don't hear any room for exceptions. These words are unequivocal.
But doesn't Jesus know? Surely, God knows what I have been through. Doesn't this command in effect excuse unjust behavior? Doesn't it say the sin was OK, that what happened to me wasn't wrong if I love my neighbor as myself, if I love the perpetrator? Jesus does know what you've been through and what you're going through. There are no secrets from God, which is why those words are definite-because God, who does know all, knows what happens to us, God's beloved children, when we cling to our hatred, to our bitterness, to our self-righteous arrogance.
In the Bay of Naples in Italy lived the nudibranch snails and the medusa jellyfish. The nudibranch snails are small, attractive snails protected by a shell that cannot be digested. The medusa jellyfish makes a deadly error when it swallows a nudibranch snail. The jellyfish thinks it's getting a tasty meal, but the snail attaches itself to the inside of the jellyfish and ends up eating that jellyfish from the inside out.
Dear friends in Christ, this is why these lessons are emphatic and not in anyway ambiguous. This is what happens to you when you nurse your grudges and do not let go of your anger. You think you're getting a tasty snack, munching on those resentments, that bitterness, that self-righteousness. But, in fact, those resentments, that bitterness, that self-righteousness is eating you alive from the inside out. This is not what God wants for you. God does not want your destruction but wants for you joy in your life and freedom.
Time had not healed Tom's grief or the anger he carried unknowingly toward his sister's murderer. His sister had been a delightful young woman. She had worked for a Christian organization, and she sang in the church choir. She and her roommate attended a Bible study that welcomed into their study the man who would become her killer. They had been told he had recently been released from a state mental hospital. They had not been told he had been confined to the facility after being found not guilty by reason of insanity for killing a 15-year old girl. Tom's sister was moving out of her apartment the next day. Her roommate, who was getting married, had moved out two days earlier. Tom was to have been there the next day to help her move, but this night she was alone. Her murderer came to the door looking for her roommate, became enraged when she was not there, and stabbed Tom's sister to death.
During the trial, Tom recalls wanting to leap over the railing and kill him. He couldn't even see the man as a human being and who could blame him? Who among us would have responded any differently at the time, but 15 years later it was eating him alive. Tom had thrown himself into work and volunteered hours and hours at the church so he would be too busy to have time to think or feel. In preparation for a Bible study he was leading on forgiveness all these many years later, he had a sensation of a voice ask him if he was also going to forgive his sister's convicted murderer. That was something he was not prepared to do. That evening in the Bible Study, he talked the talk. But then a woman raised her hand and said, "This is all too easy. What if someone killed your children or your wife or your husband?" Tom said he felt as if he'd been hit. They didn't know about his sister until that night. During the course of the rest of that evening, the rest of the Bible study, and the worship service that followed, Tom finally realized the price he was paying for his anger. He realized he must and could let go of his anger toward his sister's murderer. It wasn't dramatic, he said. It was a simple release of anger he didn't know he still had; and, finally, after all those years, he had a real sense of peace.
To love your neighbor as yourself does not mean that you must have a cozy, warm feeling in your heart toward those who have inflicted the greatest pain on you or on your loved one. God knows that feeling of love is sometimes simply not possible. What Leviticus and Jesus both are talking about, though, is not love the feeling but love the action. The action of love is what is required here-letting go of the hatred, letting go of the bitterness, letting go of the self-righteousness that, in fact, is eating you alive. Leviticus speaks of other actions of love:
* You shall not steal.
* You shall not deal falsely.
* You shall not lie to one another.
* You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.
* You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.
* You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.
These are the actions of love. They do not condone the wrongs of someone else. They prevent those wrongs from eating you alive. Sometimes these actions of love can take time, as in the case of Tom. It can take time to come to terms with one's anger. This commandment is not given to force anyone into the actions of love. It is not given for an outsider to point accusatory and judgmental fingers at another, telling that person you must love your neighbor as yourself. It is not given to make the suffering person suffer more because that is one more thing he or she is not doing right. This command to love your neighbor as yourself is given as a gift, for our all-knowing and all-loving God knows that this is the only way to true joy and true happiness and peace. To let go of the anger, to let go of the bitterness, to let go of the self-righteousness does not right the wrongs that have been done but is the door God has opened for joy and for peace in your life.
And now may the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Let us pray.
O Lord our God, how easy it is, how easy it is, to hold the grudges, the resentments, the self-righteous air. It is easy to believe in our unwillingness to let go that we are somehow settling the score. Give us the eyes to see that that behavior really is only a slow death for us and then give us the strength to let go and to know true joy and true peace in our lives through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.