Anonymous Hate: A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Readings: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-17; Matthew 5:38-48]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our readings this morning might all be considered edifying and instructional, providing us advice as to how we might live worthily in the sight of God. The reading from Leviticus for example takes the baldness of the Ten Commandments giving them some humanity of spirit beyond mere obedience. Listen to these particular verses:

You shall leave (some of the gleanings of the harvest and grapes of the vineyard) for the poor and the alien. [vv9-10]

You shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning [v13]

You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind [v14]

The first reading about the gleanings of the harvest reminded me of a visit I paid to the farm of Ray Preece, a cousin of my mother, who with his family has farmed at Coligny in South Africa for more than sixty years. As we strode through a harvested field of wheat, I noted the amount of grain that had been left behind; a deeply religious man, Ray responded that some of the harvest should always be left – in this instance he had been thinking of the need to provide some of God’s bounty for the birds of the air.

Apart from letting some of the abundance of our own gardens be available for the birds of the air, we don’t generally seem to have much chance to share our personal bounty with either people or God’s creatures other than through donations. One more recent additional avenue we have is through such things as the idea of ‘suspended’ coffees or meals, where customers can pay forward for someone who is homeless also to get some refreshment, an anonymous person we will doubtless never get to know.

Returning to Leviticus, one verse in the reading has stood out for me, one normally associated with Jesus when he cited it as being the second greatest commandment:

You shall love your neighbour as yourself. [v18b]

This verse is a touchstone of faith, isn’t it? It is both obvious to us and yet just as much oblivious of the world’s reality. How can we possibly do this? The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard seemed to highlight the difficulty when he suggested:

The ideal neighbour that we should love is a dead one.[1]

Pat as this solution might seem, indeed it is one often reflected in the benign obituaries we so often hear from former bitter enemies when one predeceases the other, Kierkegaard had written this not because he believed it but to confront us with a deep challenge, to move it from mere sophistry to uncomfortable reality. This is what he wrote in this regard:

Yet the true love is love for the neighbour …  it is not to find the lovable object but to find the unlovable object lovable.[2]

In our Gospel reading this morning, we heard much the same viewpoint from Jesus:

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?

Indeed, every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we are again confronted with the same challenge from another angle:

            Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

It should go without saying that those who sin against us covers not only those who have annoyed us over the previous day but absolutely anyone who might wish us ill, even when they may not know or care of our specific existence.

None of this is easy. Maimonides the C12 Jewish sage is quoted in the rabbinical commentaries to the Chumash, (which contains the Torah and some other key Old Testament material), this way:[3]

(explaining) that it is impossible for all but the saintliest people to feel literally the same love for others that they feel for themselves.

The citation then went on in a way which may tempt us to heave a sigh of relief:

(but) the Torah does not demand that.

Alright then, we can relax. If Jesus had intended these all-loving, all-forgiving sentiments in the same way apparently as the writer of Leviticus, we are off the hook, aren’t we? But, just as in the K-tel ads of years ago – there’s more; for there are some sharp, theological steak knives waiting to cut into our comfort. The citation continues:

God demands that we want for others to have the same degree of success and prosperity that we want for ourselves and that we treat others with the utmost respect and consideration.

In the Chumash commentary, it is noted that it is human nature that while we might wish others well, we would still want less for them than for ourselves; however, the commentary continues:

The Torah says no. A Jew can and should condition himself (sic) to want others to have the fullest degree of success (which) he wants for himself.

So, we turn from the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, hoping that Jesus might soften the exigency of that command. But he didn’t. Let’s remind ourselves what he said according to our Gospel reading this morning:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven …’ [vv43-45b]

This echoes the other half of the verse from Leviticus this morning which contained the neighbour-loving reference:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge. [v18a]

The pages of history reveal that this commandment is a challenge of profound proportions which Christians of all persuasions have struggled through dark nights of the soul to resolve, myself very much included. Returning to the commentary from the Chumash, there was this comment:

If someone is in danger, his life comes before that of someone else.

A reasonable compromise, though seemingly an antithesis of witnessing to faith; it was not a compromise that martyrs through the ages have chosen. For some, such a compromise might be made as a witness to faith; though not for others who kept to a purist interpretation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer made such witness to faith through compromise by abandoning his pacifism and becoming, effectively, a terrorist; while on the other hand Franz Jägerstätter (the hero of the recently released film A Hidden Life) chose to stay a pacifist right through to his execution by the Nazis. This diversity of possible faith responses has continued to be an unresolved debate amongst Christians and doubtless ever will. Implicit in this ongoing debate must be the question of how to see the ‘other’, the ‘enemy’, for only then can we begin to approach the words we pray in each of our services of worship together:

… as we forgive those who sin against us.

I spoke earlier about the idea of someone who may be our enemy even when he/she may not even know that we exist. A dear friend of mine, Gill Hicks, who I know is also known to many here, has said this about the suicide bomber who back on 7th July 2005 entered the London Tube carriage where she was a passenger and who, moments later, would change her life forever:

I know it wasn’t personal. He didn’t set out to kill or maim me, Gill Hicks. I mean — he didn’t know me. No. Instead, he gave me an unwarranted and an unwanted label. I had become the enemy. To him, I was the “other,” the “them,” as opposed to “us.” The label “enemy” allowed him to dehumanize us. It allowed him to push that button. And he wasn’t selective. Twenty-six precious lives were taken in my carriage alone, and I was almost one of them.[4] 

‘The label ‘enemy’ allowed him to dehumanise us’ – does that not bring us right back into the heart of our readings this morning? Gill was without name to her attacker – she was anonymous. Our word anonymous comes from the Greek ἀνωνυμία [anonymia], it literally does mean ‘without name’. The great joy we have in and through Christ, is that we are not without name to either him or his Father:

The very hairs on your head are all numbered [Luke 12:27]

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you [Jeremiah 1:5]

Both these readings should remind us that we are not without name to God. While we cannot know every name as God does, we can identify everyone as human, that is to say individual, and consequently recognise their God-given humanity even if not their individual identity. The readings I started with from Leviticus were about giving a humanity to unknown innocents – the hungry, the unpaid labourer, the deaf and the blind. But what about the unknown guilty?

Regarding her attacker, Gill Hicks has said:

I wish I could have looked him in the eyes and had the opportunity to say, ‘I am not your enemy, I wish you no harm. I am a person, a human being just like you’.[5]

She never had the chance to meet him again, for he is dead; but she has forgiven him by giving him humanity.

This year is the 26th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. I visited Rwanda three years later and was told a moving and true story by John Steward who was World Vision’s person charged with assisting reconciliation programs, in other words promoting a faith-based forgiveness of the guilty. He told me of a woman, whose son had been murdered in one room of her house whilst she had been praying in another – it must have seemed that day that her prayers had failed. Sometime later, one of her son’s killers came to her to give himself up; for he said he had been haunted ever since the murder by the sight he had glimpsed through an open door of the woman praying. The only way he felt he could expunge the haunting was to ask the woman to hand him over to the police. Her response was ‘no’. She went on to say that he had killed her only son, now he should become her son; he should move into her house and she would cook for him, clean for him, treat him as the son she had once had. She gave this unknown man a name – ‘son’; by so doing she evoked the action of Christ on the cross.

I truly don’t understand such forgiveness and yet I must. Jesus knew of my difficulty in such forgiving, of all of our difficulty and that is why he crafted the Lord’s Prayer the way he did:

Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others.

For in just such a way, he has forgiven us.

[1] Kierkegaard S, Works of Love, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (1995), p.75

[2] Op.cit. pp 373-4

[3] The various citations relating to Maimonides come from a commentary on Leviticus 19:18 in the Chumash: The Torah: Haftaros & Five Megillos with a commentary anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings, Mesorah Public., 1993, pp 661-2