Modern Samaritans

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Today’s readings:
Psalms 43; 149, Deuteronomy 11:18-28, Hebrews 5:1-10, John 4:1-26


During our two year journey through the Daily Lectionary, we return to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well eight times.  When she first meets Jesus she has no idea who he is, and she would have been scandalous by the standards of first-century Jews. First, she was a Samaritan, a people who shared common ancestry but a bitter feud with the Jewish people. Second she’d had five husbands, and her current companion was not her husband. Yet when she learned Jesus was the Messiah, she became an evangelist to her people, who then invited Christ to teach them.

Eight times a year we are reminded that Jesus fostered reconciliation with his people’s enemies and outcasts.

That’s probably not enough.

One sad truth about human nature is that we segregate ourselves into tribes and consequently define the world as us and them. Team Us likes to blame all our problems on Team Them; after all, why wouldn’t any and all decent people be part of Team Us? A common enemy gives Us purpose, and sometimes even helps Us survive. Team Them takes our jobs, our land, and our self-respect … or at least we know they’re trying to! So that justifies why Team Us – naturally the more righteous side – needs to do those things first.

Are there people who really intend us harm? Certainly. But statistically speaking we’re in more danger physically and economically from those like us or close to us than from outsiders. We don’t like to admit that our wisecracking, churchgoing uncle is more likely to assault us than is a stranger in a bathroom, or a Sikh we’ve mistaken for a Muslim. Samaritans didn’t crucify Jesus – his neighbors did.

Historically there has always been a new group of ethnic, political, religious, or sexual Samaritans we can dehumanize to serve as scapegoats for our fears and as distractions from our own failings. We always believe we have a good reason to consider them the villains of Team Them.

The history (and present) of all nations and cultures (including our beloved US of A) is riddled with examples of not just disproportionate responses to real and imagined threats, but preemptive attacks and domination of people who had nothing against Us until we moved into Their territory (be it physical, political, or spiritual) … and then declared them dangerous enemies for defending themselves. Creating a “Them” is an awfully convenient way of justifying our own sins.

If Christ is our example, shouldn’t we be doing good to them even when we are afraid?

No matter who our newest Samaritans are, Jesus died for them too.

Comfort: Jesus doesn’t require you to have enemies…

Challenge: …but he does tell you to love the ones you do have.

Prayer: God of peace, teach me to take the plank from my own eye before condemning the specks of others. Amen.

Discussion: Has your view of any social group evolved from unfavorable to neutral or even favorable?

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Schadenfreund *

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Proverbs 25:15-28, 1 Timothy 6:6-21, Matthew 13:36-43


Schadenfreude is a German word which roughly means “finding joy in the misfortune of others.” It’s not properly used to describe being happy about random misery like starving children or disaster victims – there are other words for that, some of them in English – but reserved for the misfortunes of our enemies, rivals, or people who just plain irritate us. It’s not very Christ-like, but it’s human nature. When we want to think of ourselves as too enlightened for that sort of pettiness, we may call it “poetic justice.”

Proverbs 25:21-22 advises us: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you.”

“What?!” you may be asking yourself. “I can please God and honk off my enemies at the same time?” Technically, yes. Once we’ve nursed a good grudge against someone – be it a person, nation, or rival bowling team – we don’t want them to reveal any redeeming traits, because that really sucks the joy out of hating them. It may even force us to examine our own motives. So loving your enemy (which is how you act toward them, not how you feel about them), while the right thing to do, may be exactly what they don’t want.

But how long is it possible to think of someone as an enemy if they continually show you kindness?  And how long is it possible to think of someone as an enemy if you see them hungry, thirsty, tired, and in need of all the same things you are? Unless one or both of you intentionally stokes those coals of fire, they will cool and vengeful kindness becomes simply … kindness.

By the time Paul quotes this verse from Proverbs in his letter to the Romans, Jesus has taught and shown us what it means to love and pray for our enemies. Revenge masquerades as human justice; God’s justice is about reconciliation and forgiveness, and he’s not above subverting our baser instincts to help us get there.

Comfort: You don’t have to feel good about your enemies to love them as Christ instructs.

Challenge: Examine how you treat your enemies or rivals in the workplace or social situations.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to love my enemies and take joy in their well-being. Amen.

Discussion: Where have you seen the healing power of reconciliation? Did one or more parties have to demonstrate worldly “weakness” but faithful strength?

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*not a misspelling; an attempt at a German pun

Sleeping with the Enemy

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Today’s readings (click below to open in a new window):
Psalms 56; 149, Genesis 12:9-13:1, Hebrews 7:18-28, John 4:27-42


How do we approach people we assume to be our enemies? Today’s readings feature two stories about people traveling through presumably hostile territory. They start with very different mindsets, and have very different results.

When Abram and his beautiful wife Sarai arrived in Egypt, he instructed her to pose as his sister so the Egyptians who wanted to woo her would treat him well. Otherwise, he feared, they might murder him to take her. Word of her beauty reached Pharaoh and soon she was living in his home. Displeased with this situation, God afflicted Pharaoh’s household with great plagues. His lie thus revealed, Abram was forced to flee with Sarai.

While passing through Samaria, Jesus stopped at a well. He had a very candid though compassionate conversation with a woman he met there. Once he revealed himself to be the messiah by showing he knew undisclosed details of her life, she was not afraid to challenge him about his relationship with non-Jews. After the people of her town heard her story, they invited Jesus to stay and he spent two days with them. As a result many Samaritans became believers.

Abram told an easy lie, and Jesus told hard truths. The Egyptians treated Abram well for a while, but no relationship was established. In the end, the lie forced him away. The Samaritan woman respected Jesus because he told the truth, and returned his frankness. The initial conversation between them does not read as comfortable, but in the end he formed an unexpected and important relationship with the Samaritan people.

The world tells us never to trust our enemies, and to do unto them before they do unto us. Jesus teaches and shows us another way. It is a more risky path, as we can never be sure of our enemy’s intentions, but it also opens a door to the possibility of reconciliation. If we refuse to hear someone’s story, or respond with judgment, that door stays closed. Being the first to offer a hand in peace is not a sign of a weak resolve, but of a strong faith.

Comfort: Jesus doesn’t want a relationship with your Sunday best, he wants one with your honest everyday self.

Challenge: Do you have any enemies you could get to know better? Try to do so.

Prayer: Prince of Peace, teach me the ways of peace. Amen.

Discussion: Who do you consider your enemies? How do you communicate with them?

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Love Selfishly

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Readings: Psalms 50; 147:1-11, Amos 8:1-14, Revelation 1:17-2:7, Matthew 23:1-12


In the midst of adversity, we may find it difficult, almost impossible even, to practice love. Imagine being a widow or beggar during the time of Amos, when the religious leaders were “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat*” (Amos 8:6). Consider what it must have been like for the faithful of Israel when their leaders put heavy burdens on the people while never inconveniencing themselves (Matt 23:4). Why would the common people bother loving their enemies when their own leaders preached righteousness and practiced hypocrisy? Can we imagine? Or do we call that “the evening news?”

Yet in both eras (and may we assume today as well?) through his prophets and the messiah God cried for redemption through justice, mercy, and charity – the practices of agape love.

One stumbling block to practicing this type of love is the notion that the recipient should deserve it. We may understand on an intellectual level that all people are deserving because they are children of God, but part of us chafes at the idea that not only have some people not earned it, but they have squandered any right to it. Vindictive ex spouses. Violent criminals. Hate mongering racists. Duplicitous politicians. In human terms, none of these people may merit mercy, but the divine demands it.

It can seem so very unfair. But is it?

What if the command to love our enemies – foreign, domestic, and familial – isn’t just about the dignity of our enemies? What if it is also about the state of our own souls? In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche said “be careful when you fight monsters lest you become one.” Fred was no friend of Christianity, but he wasn’t wrong. When we allow feelings of fear or anger to override the convictions of our faith, and when we sacrifice those convictions of peace and love to protect our money, our homes, or even our lives, we have lost what God values most in us.

We love our enemies not only for their sake, but for our own.


* When the harvest was taken, the scraps were supposed to be left in the field to be gathered – or “gleaned” – by the poor and alien in the land.

Comfort: We are not burdened with determining who deserves our love.

Challenge: For an entire day, when you wish to complain about an enemy, instead say a silent prayer for them.

Prayer: O Lord, teach me to rely not on my limited capacity to love, but upon your unlimited promise of love. Amen.

Discussion: Do you pray for your enemies? If so, how? If not, why not?

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Dignity

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 67; 150, Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14, Acts 16:6-15, Luke 10:1-12,17-20


But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the LORD on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
– Jeremiah, 29:7

You can’t attend church or Sunday school for very long without hearing about how Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. On the other hand, you don’t have to experience the world for too long before realizing Christians in practice do not necessarily prioritize praying for them over defeating, humiliating, or killing them. Whether it’s our rival in the neighborhood association or a dangerous, despotic regime rattling its sabers, wishing them well does not tend to be our go-to response. Rather, we go through some serious ethical and moral contortions to justify treating them like we want to. And it almost never occurs to us that our own defeat might be the better outcome in the long term.

Yet centuries before Jesus, God was telling the people of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah to pray for Babylon, the empire which had defeated and exiled them. Praying wasn’t just the kind, sacrificial thing to do: the welfare of the two nations was interdependent. How the people of Israel responded to their captors would be instrumental in the eventual welfare of both.

What’s in our own best interest … isn’t always in our own best interest. The Gospel isn’t specific about how we are to pray for our enemies, so naturally we resort to praying for things like their conversion, or at the very least that they see the world more like we do. But what if we prayed for the things we want for ourselves? That their children do not know hunger. That their citizens do not live in fear. That peace reigns among them. What if we prayed – or better yet wanted – these things for them regardless of whether they never came around to our point of view or even wanted these things for us? What if we worked toward it?

If this sounds like passive acceptance, it’s very different. Enmity relies on us dehumanizing each other. If an enemy can claim we have no regard for his life, he is excused from having regard for ours. Refusing to deny the dignity of personhood of each of God’s children is how we retain our own. The first shall be last is more than a Christian motto; it’s how we save each other.

Comfort: Your dignity is yours to cherish or abandon.

Challenge: Be careful how you speak about your enemies, for God loves them, too.

Prayer: I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety. (Psalm 4:8)

Discussion: Do you think loving our enemies really accomplishes anything?

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War and Peas

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 65; 147:1-11, 2 Kings 6:1-23, 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:11, Matthew 5:38-48


The Arameans and the Israelites were frequently at war. Because the prophet Elisha seemed to always be one step ahead of the king of Aram, the king sent an army of Arameans to surround the city of Dothan, where Elishah was dwelling. As the army approached, Elishah prayed the Lord would strike them blind, and they were blinded. Then Elisha tricked them into believing he would lead them to the man they sought, but instead led them back to Samaria and the king of the Israelites. The Lord opened the army’s eyes and they realized the tables had turned and they were surrounded in the heart of enemy territory. The king would have been happy to kill the Arameans, but instead Elishah directed the king to unleash the full fury of … soup and salad.

That’s right, Elisha had the king invite the Arameans to a feast, and then release them to return home. Afterward “the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territories.”

Could this be the sort of thing Jesus was thinking of when he told his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you?” In Luke’s gospel, it’s even expanded to doing good to them and lending to them without expecting a return. When’s the last time you lent something to an enemy?

Whether our enemies are personal, political, or global, one sure way to keep them enemies is to keep treating them as enemies. Elishah’s example, and Jesus’s words, are also echoed in Proverbs and other scriptures: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” Humanizing our enemies leaves them vulnerable to humanizing us in return, and that’s probably the last thing they want. Yet it’s the first step toward loving them.

Enmity may be forced on us by circumstances beyond our control, but how we treat our enemies is up to us. Whether you’re more motivated by burning coals or cooling tensions, loving our enemies is the path to eliminating them.

Comfort: You don’t have to return hate for hate.

Challenge: Invite an enemy to dinner.

Prayer: O divine master grant that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever been shown kindness or love by someone you considered an enemy? Did it change you?

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Grieving our Enemies

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, 2 Samuel 17:24-18:8, Acts 22:30-23:11, Mark 11:12-26


After David won back the throne of Israel, it was a case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

With master strategy and a bit of luck, David’s forces defeated the forces of his son Absalom, who had forced his father off the throne and into the wilderness.  David had instructed his soldiers to let Absalom live, but as with all violence the consequences were unpredictable and Absalom was killed. David was distraught and retreated into isolation to mourn. Joab, the captain of his army, eventually approached him to say, “Look, we saved your life and won you your kingdom back and now you’re acting like we’re nothing. Acknowledge your troops or they’ll abandon you by morning.”

David was deeply experiencing an inescapable truth: any victory through violence is also a failure. A failure of life, a failure of love, and a failure of peace. David felt this because Absalom was his child,  but every slain enemy is somebody’s child. Every slain enemy is still God’s child. Does that feel like something to rejoice about? While it’s natural to celebrate victory, we should remember we are called to do good to those who would persecute us. Demoralizing our foes doesn’t eliminate them; it alienates them further. Had the Allies not been so punitive following World War I and allowed all of Europe to recover economically, who knows how things might have turned out?

Seeing our as enemies as fellow children of God, let alone grieving for them, makes it much harder to justify violence against them. The people knew David had lost his beloved son, but even that relationship was not reason enough to allow grief to exist alongside victory. Its very acknowledgment offended them into claiming David would have preferred them all dead if it meant Absalom could have lived. Allowing someone to humanize the enemy forces us to face uncomfortable truths, so David had to be dragged from his mourning chamber.

Doing violence, even when it seems necessary, damages us. If we must contemplate it, let’s also remember every one of our enemies is loved by Christ.


Additional Reading:
For thoughts on today’s reading from Mark, see Our Neighbors, Our Selves.

Comfort: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. 

Challenge: Pray for your enemies – personal, national, and global.

Prayer: How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 36:7)

Discussion: Have you ever learned to see an enemy as more than just an enemy?

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Killing Blows

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 135; 145, 1 Samuel 24:1-22, Acts 13:44-52, Mark 4:1-20


David and his men were hiding in a cave when Saul, taking a break from his murderous pursuit to relieve himself, entered the cave and left himself vulnerable to attack. Despite the urging of his men and the weight of prophecy (“I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it seems good to you”), David spared Saul’s life and instead cut off a corner of his cloak. Then David used the corner as evidence that he could have killed Saul, but meant him no harm. Saul repented (for a while).

If we want to be peacemakers, we have to resist the temptation of using a killing blow just because the opportunity has presented itself. We may not be pursued by a mad king, but many people who view us as enemies – whether it’s in politics, religion, social circles, or business – do so because they misunderstand us. And we do the same. Some enemies are unavoidable, but many are created in our own minds. In many situations, such misunderstanding is more assumption than fact. When that’s the case, our best chance of de-escalating hostilities may be laying down our arms.

Have you ever had an argument with someone you loved, or maybe a co-worker, and said something you wish you hadn’t? An emotional killing blow that hurt them in ways you couldn’t fix? We do that because in the heat of the moment it promises to help us win … though the resulting prize is a damaged – sometimes broken – relationship. We do that because in our anger or fear we assume they seek to emotionally destroy us, and we want to get there first. It is a feedback loop of regret.

Like Saul, we can ruin our reputation, relationships, and legacy overreacting to mostly imaginary enemies. Better to be like David who, in the face of actual danger, sought understanding more than victory, and offered humility rather than defensiveness. Even when we are in the right, we should ask ourselves whether our goal is to annihilate our enemies or to make peace with them.


Additional Reading:
Read more about today’s passage from Acts in Shaking the Dust.
For additional thoughts on Mark, see Fertile Ground and Seeds of Faith.

Comfort: Misunderstandings can be cleared up.

Challenge: Sometimes you have to be the first to offer an olive branch, even if you’re not in the wrong.

Prayer: Help me, O Lord, to recognize my enemies, and to love them. Amen.

Discussion: Are you someone who has to have the last word?

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Loving Our Enemies

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 99; 147:1-11, Jeremiah 30:18-22, Colossians 1:24-2:7, Luke 6:27-38


When Christ tells us to love our enemies, the underlying assumption is that we will have enemies; none of us gets through life without a few. How are we to love them? As usual, Jesus doesn’t tell us how to feel but how to behave: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” This sounds like the ultimate in selflessness, but we engage in these actions to transform ourselves and our relationships with the world.

Unless we are engaged in a war, calling someone an “enemy” can seem melodramatic. To put Christ’s words into action, we might define enemies as anyone we don’t feel like blessing, praying, or doing good for. Maybe our enemies are social – the people challenging us at work, school, or other social groups. Maybe they are political; few things set us at odds so quickly, even when we share common goals. Maybe our enemies are inherited through longstanding cultural grudges, and we don’t have any firsthand reason to clash. In all these cases, society teaches us to distrust, outmaneuver, or outright harm. Television reality shows turn strangers into enemies for entertainment. Our hearts can war even when our hands are at peace.

If we love our enemies only to change them, we are missing the point. While a move from enemy toward friend is great, harboring any purpose for love other than love itself will eventually frustrate and disappoint us – and short-circuit its power to change our own hearts. How should we pray for our enemies, if not to change them? Just like we pray for our loved ones. Such prayer may take immense effort when we have been wronged, but if we wait until we feel like praying for them, that day may never come. Kindness toward those who anger us isn’t hypocritical, it is a discipline crucial to re-shaping our hearts to better resemble Christ’s heart.

Loving those who love us is nothing to brag about, but loving those who despise us – while expecting nothing in return! – changes both our hearts and the world.

Comfort: Loving our enemies gets easier with practice.

Challenge: Pray for your enemies – and mean it.

Prayer: Teach me, Lord, to love my enemies as Christ loves me. Amen.

Discussion: As you go through life, do you find you have more or fewer enemies?

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Burning Love

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 51; 148, Joshua 4:19-5:1, 10-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 26:17-25


Who are your enemies and what are you doing about it?

According to Saint Paul, you should be stepping up to meet their needs. In Romans 12 he says “bless those who persecute you” and “do not repay anyone evil for evil” and goes on to quote Proverbs: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Paul tells us: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

In the middle of all this he says: “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.” Think about that for a moment: when we avenge ourselves on our enemies, we crowd out God.

Do we really live as if we believe, as Paul teaches, evil will be overcome by good? Not in the sense of the good guys outgunning, outlawyering, or outthinking the bad guys, but in the sense of good showing mercy to evil? Whether we are advocating for public policy, going about the business of the church, or conducting our personal lives, Christians can’t – with any integrity – cry for punishment of wrongdoing without equal enthusiasm for doing good to those who wrong us. We’re not talking about giving aid and comfort to enemy forces so they can destroy us, but leaving room for God to mete out any wrath on His own terms and timeline. Does that sound potentially dangerous? Well, Christ doesn’t command us to be safe; he commands us to love.

Do we fear our enemy’s repentance? Jonah (of “and the whale” fame) didn’t want to offer mercy to the people of Nineveh because they were his enemies and he was invested in hating them. He was miserable when they repented. Shouldn’t our Christian desire be that even our enemies find salvation? When our vengeance preempts the Lord’s wrath, it also preempts His mercy. Woe to anyone who has to own up to either of those.

Who are your enemies?

Are they next door? Overseas? Thirsty? Hungry?

And what are you doing about it?

Comfort: Foregoing revenge does not make you weak; it makes you faithful.

Challenge: In the news an social media, watch for examples of either/or, us/them thinking and talk with friends about how to overcome such thinking.

Prayer: Gracious and Merciful God, grant me the patience to put aside my ego and self-righteousness so I may do good to those who persecute me. Amen.

Discussion: What wrongdoing, personally or generally, do you have trouble forgiving?

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