(This Thanksgiving Day Message is being posted to coincide with the holiday instead of Friday, when the week’s third post usually appears. It is also available on video at: https://youtu.be/VTQLnOHgkvA)
Matthew 5:43-45 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
Children often try to find ways around doing what their parents ask of them. Children of the Heavenly Father are no exception. As far back as Moses the Lord had commanded in Leviticus 19:18, “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”
For as long as the commandment had been around, people had been trying to find their way out of it. Some of the rabbis made a subtle shift in emphasis to change the meaning. Instead of love your neighbor (the emphasis God had always intended), they made it love your neighbor. Then they started to raise questions about who exactly qualified as a neighbor. Before long, people concluded that it was acceptable to do what comes naturally: hate your enemy.
Does that seem shocking to you, that people would twist God’s word so? At Thanksgiving most people will gather with family or friends. In more than a few of those gatherings this year, people will be absent because of some grudge. Some present will avoid each other because the relationships are strained. We often hear that the political positions that have so divided our nation lead family members to cut each other out of their lives. If it is not members of our own family we resent, perhaps it is the politicians, the activists, the media pundits, the rally-goers, that make us upset. Maybe we would never say so out loud, but deep down inside we would like to shift the emphasis from “love” to “neighbor,” and then ask, “Just who IS my neighbor?”
Jesus makes the answer to that question clear. “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” What did God mean by “Love your neighbor?” He meant love everybody, even those people whom you might consider enemies. He is referring to people who hound us and harass us. They go out of their way to make our lives miserable.
Love them. That means more than conjuring up some saccharine sweet emotions for them. Go out of your way to do something kind. When they say something nasty behind your back, at the least bite your tongue. Find something kind to say about them.
And when you have done your kindnesses, don’t be surprised if they don’t turn around and smother you in hugs and kisses. When Jesus fed the five thousand, didn’t most of that crowd reject him as their Savior (John 6:66)? When Jesus healed the ear of the high priest’s servant Malchus, didn’t he still help the others arrest Jesus? Remember, they are your enemies.
Perhaps you are wondering just how all of this is connected to Thanksgiving Day. That becomes clearer as Jesus points to our Father’s example. “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
Jesus calls us “sons of your Father in heaven,” and that is what we are. But we weren’t always his children. We still don’t deserve to be called his own. Our lack of love for our enemies is rebellion against God. We act like his enemies. We should be disinherited. We should be thrown out of the family.
That’s not what God does. He still calls us sons (in Bible terms, that applies to women as well as to men). His love for us led him to respond to our rebellion by sacrificing his own Son for our sins. He does this not with a grudge. It comes from the sincerest desire that his love would work a miracle in our hearts, and turn us from fear to faith in him as our kind and loving Father.
We are sons and daughters of our Father in heaven, not because we were born that way, or deserve such a distinction, but because our Father graciously adopted us into his family. Since we know that God so loves us, can our hearts be unmoved by such grace? Won’t we want to imitate him, “who causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”?
His pattern for us to follow is certainly evident in that he so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. But day by day he continues to set a pattern for us to follow in the love he extends to all people. He provides for their needs whether they are evil or good, whether righteous or unrighteous.
In my own neighborhood, on my own street, I know of a family who certainly won’t be visiting church Thanksgiving Day. Their views on certain moral issues might make you bristle. Without wishing to sound self-righteous, I would have to say that they are anything but godly.
And yet they will gather for a feast with their family, and I would venture to guess that the table which the Lord has set before them is as fine or finer than that which he has placed before me.
Why would he do such a thing? Only because he is our loving and merciful Father in heaven. Only so that he might extend their time of grace, so that their hearts might yet be touched by the gospel, so that if that time should come, they will have all the more reason to thank and praise him for being their kind Father, and making them his dear children.
Someone, somewhere, has said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” We don’t thank God to flatter him. We sincerely appreciate his goodness. There may be no sincerer way in which we can do that than by imitating his love– the pattern which our heavenly Father has set. Then we will be living like our Father’s thankful children.