Tanya and I attended a dinner with some of her coworkers some years ago. Twelve or fifteen of us gathered at the home of the owner of the business.
It was an interesting mixture, in terms of faith. We were a combination of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The hostess asked me if I would offer the prayer of blessing for our gathering and the meal. We have some differences in our prayers and I asked her what she was expecting from me, in terms of my prayer. She graciously said, just pray how you would normally pray. It was fascinating to gather around that dinner table and talk about our faith and other topics, especially when, in some places, such a gathering could not occur. In too many places, people who are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim are considered enemies, and a gathering for dinner would be impossible.
As we continue our study of the 23rd psalm, we come to what I think is the toughest verse in the psalm, verse 5 – Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.
Why would the psalmist mention bring up the subject of enemies, and what does it mean that God is preparing a table before me in the presence of mine enemies?
1. It reflects God’s desire for reconciliation.
When I read the 23rd psalm, this verse always seems to me to come out of nowhere, and seems out of place. In fact, for a long time when I read the 23rd psalm at funerals this verse seemed totally out of place that my temptation was to leave it out altogether, or at least mumble my way through it.
But perhaps this verse should be clearly enunciated above the others, because if there is one lesson we should learn by the end of our lives it is that we shouldn’t reach the end of our lives without making peace in fractured relationships, and not just with family and friends, but even with our enemies.
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I want to nurture my hurts. I don’t want to let them go. I want to return hurt for hurt. I want to plot some revenge. But I also remember the words of Confucius – Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
What does revenge really accomplish? I know it may bring some level of satisfaction for a few moments, but does it really solve anything? What does it accomplish to hold onto a hurt? What does it accomplish to nurture a hurt, keeping that wound ever fresh and tender? What does it accomplish to maintain the brokenness in a relationship?
The heart of the gospel is reconciliation. This is one of the foundations of the ministry of Jesus – to bring reconciliation. Jesus brought reconciliation between humanity and God, but not just between humanity and God, but also among humanity.
This is one of the primary reasons why I believe so strongly in the church. I’ve never been able to adopt the theology of the lake and the golf course. You know that theology – I can worship God just as well at the lake or on the golf course. A lake is very relaxing for me, but a golf course does absolutely nothing for my faith, I can tell you that. I come closer to losing my faith on a golf course, although my dangerously errant shots do encourage a lot of praying on the part of others on the course. I need to be in a place where I will find not only comfort and encouragement, but also some difficult truths. And one of those difficult truths is that I need to love my enemies. I don’t have a natural inclination to love my enemies, I can tell you that, and I doubt that most of us do. But if I want to be like Jesus, I need to hear what Jesus was like, how he lived, and how he wants me to live. I often hear his name at the lake and on the golf course, but not in the way I need to hear it. And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with hanging out at a lake or golf course; I’m just saying I think it is an inadequate substitution for the church.
2. Reconciliation asks us to step across the divide.
Henry Hitchings has written a book with a fascinating premise. The book is Sorry! The English and Their Manners, and Hitchings traces the development of manners to the medieval days, when dinner tables often hosted enemies. There were kings of different countries, or a collection of tribal leaders, or other gatherings of competing groups who would come together around a dinner table to work out treaties or other important matters. At those dinners, people tended to have very sharp knives, swords, and other weapons, so codes of conduct were developed as a way of regulating violence. Every meal became an opportunity for violence to break loose.
I think this verse could be read in a couple of different ways. It can be understood in a human or a divine manner. Perhaps David meant that his enemies would have to watch while he feasted at God’s great table. It could thus be a taunt – God is preparing this bountiful table before me and my enemies are there to watch me enjoy it. They get to see my blessedness but not partake in it. David was not always forgiving of his enemies, and that could have been his attitude. But God’s definition of this verse would be different. In God’s view, it is a banquet table around which are seated enemies, and in God’s kingdom perhaps what he is doing is seating enemies together at the table in an effort to have them work out their differences and bring about peace, so they will become former enemies. It becomes that step across the divide of brokenness – God has prepared this bountiful table for me, but he has also invited my enemies, and we are called to sit down together at a meal and work out our differences.
God asks us to step across the divide of brokenness and take part in his ministry of reconciliation.
I received a blistering phone call once from a person who was disappointed in the church where I was serving at the time. When you’re the minister you sometimes get those kinds of phone calls. I sat and listened and didn’t say much, because sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you say. Sometimes, people need to vent, and that’s what this person did. I don’t know if it made them feel any better, but it didn’t do much for the way I felt. I felt pretty terrible after listening to all they had to say.
We cannot live in this world without the kinds of experiences that drive wedges between people. We cannot live in this world without suffering hurts, conflicts, and betrayal. But we cannot let those experiences dictate how we will respond and how we will live. The standard by which we are called to respond is the words of Jesus on the cross – Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Wow, that’s tough, isn’t it? Can you imagine that level of grace and reconciliation?
3. In God’s kingdom, there are no enemies.
We live in a world full of enemies. There are people who consider us enemies simply because of our nationality. Others may consider us an enemy for other reasons. And when someone considers us their enemies, it’s a natural response to consider them an enemy in response. And it’s not just from one nation to another, but among our own society. We hear an increasing amount of language that reflects how we see others as our enemies because they have a different point of view politically, religiously, or in some other arena. The church is the body of Christ, and thus should reflect the nature of Christ, but in some corners of the church world we hear words that are more representative of division and rejection than reconciliation, unfortunately.
Jesus had enemies, obviously. His teachings so enraged people they put him to death. But Jesus did not name anyone as his enemy. What Jesus did was to show a different way. We generally want to do one of a couple of things when it comes to our enemies – we want to flee, but they remain our enemies and stay so in our hearts and minds; or, we can fight them, in which case we take on their character.
This verse is a mirror – it shows the ugliness and the hatred and the hurt and all that is broken about humanity. We like to polish ourselves up with beautiful theological language and use these great clichés but deep down there is a different reality. When Jesus calls us to love our enemies, that is, not a cliché; that is a cold, hard truth.
I am often amused that people think I have a good memory because I don’t often refer to my notes while preaching. I write a manuscript each week and also make a “cheat sheet” of notes that I carry around with me, and I scan those notes on Saturday and early on Sunday morning. But trust me, my memory, in general, is not very reliable.
But I do remember some things, even when they go back a lot of years. I remember all too well the times I walked down the hallway at school and felt the anger and shame as someone made fun of me and embarrassed me in front of others? I imagine you have a good memory for such events as well. Do you remember when someone took credit for something you did at work? Do you remember when someone said something about you that wasn’t true? Do you remember the hurt someone inflicted on you?
It’s a hard truth that God is asking for reconciliation, and that he asks us to step across the divide of separation, but when we do so we take on one of the greatest of God’s characteristics.