Jesus always says the most inconvenient things. Have you ever noticed that? “If anyone would come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow Me.” (Luke 9:23)
Then there’s last prayer that Jesus prays for the disciples, “I do not ask You, O God, to take them out of the world, but to protect them from the evil one.” (John 17:15) Why doesn’t Jesus ask God to just rapture us all upstairs? It would be so much easier.
And then today’s corker: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Seriously??? Cut us some slack, Jesus!
And then there’s the person who wrote the First Letter to Timothy- probably not really the apostle Paul, but we’ll call them Paul because that’s the tradition of the church- Paul telling young Timothy to pray every kind of prayer he knows for rulers and all those in power.
Does Paul even KNOW who’s in power??? Caesar! The one who persecutes and kills those who oppose him- especially Christians. The one who demands complete obedience, or Off With Their Heads! The one who claims he’s the chosen one- or better yet, God’s own self in human form!
Pray for THAT guy!
Now if it were me, I might pray the Psalms for him: “O Lord, smite Thou mine enemies!” (Psalm 3:7) I think that’s a legitimate prayer! It’s certainly Biblical!
But it’s not what either Jesus or Paul were talking about. First, a little Roman history: Rome started out as a republic, not an empire. It was governed by two elected consuls. But starting with the rule of Julius Caesar, the republic became an empire, meaning that one emperor would rule from now on. No more elections. No term limits. And with that, Rome gradually introduced the idea of the emperor being a god.
After his assassination in 27 BCE, Julius Caesar is proclaimed to be divine, and is to be worshiped as a god. This Emperor Cult developed throughout the Roman Empire as a unifying and politically stabilizing force…
To pray to the Emperor God is to pray for the state. It is patriotic, and to not pray to the Emperor is treason.
It’s in this setting, where emperors are worshiped as gods, that Paul tells us to pray “for kings” instead of “to kings.” (1 Timothy 2:2) That means that the emperor is not a god, but depends on the guidance and mercy of God just like everybody else. (Eberhart)
To pray for the emperor instead of to him takes him off his pedestal: he isn’t divine. His power is not absolute. There is a God greater than him- the only true God- to whom even the emperor must pay allegiance. That’s the whole point of the doxology in the middle of 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is only one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, that human who gave Himself as a ransom for all.”
We don’t belong to our leaders; we don’t pay homage to our leaders. They’re not gods. But we do pray for them- for their wisdom, for their goodness, for their righteousness. And not just that: Jesus tells us to pray for their welfare, pray for their good.
First Timothy tells us to pray every kind of prayer we know for them- supplications, intercessions, thanksgivings.
- Supplication- praying for their particular needs;
- Intercession- boldly sticking up for them before God;
- Thanksgiving- giving thanks… in the midst of behavior we’re not thankful for.
It reminds me of Tevye’s prayer in Fiddler on the Roof: “Lord, bless and keep the Tsar- far away from us!” Now that’s a prayer I can get behind! But Jesus and Paul- I think they’re actually serious about praying for the well-being of our leaders, even (and maybe especially) when they make our life hard. Like Jesus said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
What would that look like today, in the midst of the partisan walls we have set up? In the midst of the name calling, gossip, and baiting which so many of us- including me- participate in?
Whether we listen to Fox News or MSNBC, there is very little grace said about The Other Side. So much bitterness and downright hatred. What would be the effect if in the midst of it all, we pray for the good of the other side? First of all, what might it do to us?
Maybe it could soften our hearts so we can see our opponents as fellow human beings who are seeking many of the same things we’re seeking? Security, a sense of home, a sense of self, a sense of community? Maybe we could begin to have compassion upon their fears. Could prayer do that for us? Soften our hearts?
This doesn’t mean we should ever stop standing up for justice; but rather, realize that our leaders and others we might disagree with are human, and we have more in common than we do apart.
Demons don’t change; humans can. Demons are not morally bound; humans are. So if we want to stand up for justice, the first thing we have to do is remember that they are human like we are, with good and bad flowing through their veins even as we do. We’re not always the good ones! A little humility may just be in order!
What might our prayers do for our opponents? If we prayed for the welfare of their families? If we prayed for their wisdom, their insight, their good? If we prayed that their hearts would soften, so that we could talk to each other instead of talking at each other? If we prayed that they might be brought closer to the God of transformation (okay, that one has more than a little vested self-interest in it, but who’s to say it’s wrong?)
Could prayer soften the space between us, and allow a breath of compassion to enter?
We are in such a vulnerable state in every aspect of our lives together:
- The environment being gutted, and the momentum of climate change increasing;
- The rise of hate groups and extremist politics all around the world;
- The rise of economic inequality, bringing some to the stars and leaving others in the dirt.
It is beyond us, dear friends, and there are so many good reasons to lose hope.
- But what if there really is a God who desires justice?
- What if prayer really could help to heal the world?
- What if we actually are called by God to pray for the good of all, even those whom we believe are deeply flawed and causing harm? And by praying for them, we might all be transformed into instruments of healing?
If there is a truth to God, to prayer, and to transformation, I’m willing to lay my heart there. Love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.
In the name of the One who will never let any of us go; even Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Resources: workingpreacher.org, September 22, 2013, Christian A. Eberhart
SCRIPTURE FOR SEPT. 22, 2019
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught,“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God in heaven. For God makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good alike, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have. Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the unbelievers do the same? Be whole, therefore, as your heavenly Parent is whole.
1 TIMOTHY 2:1-6, 8
Paul wrote to his spiritual son: First of all, I urge that that you pray- with supplications, intercessions, and thanksgiving- for everyone you come across, but especially for kings and all who are in high positions,
so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires that every person come to know God… For there is only one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, that human who gave Himself as a ransom for all. So pray with a sincere heart, not arguing and shaking angry fists at enemies, but raising holy hands to God.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.