Column by the Rev. Dr. Clay Smith: Did Jesus really mean what he said?


I was the substitute teacher for the oldest ladies Sunday School class. When you are the pastor of a small church, you are also the substitute teacher for every class, as well as the part-time janitor, occasional soloist and professional exterminator.

I was called in one Sunday when the regular teacher called in sick. I think she was faking it. Sure she was 92, it was winter, flu season and there was two inches of snow on the ground, but she could have made it if she had wanted to. With little notice, I walked into a class of six older women who had braved the cold and the flu to be in church.

Any one of these ladies could have taught the class. They had all grown up in that church, accepted Christ in that fellowship and been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They had heard countless sermons, Wednesday devotionals and sat in Sunday School longer than I had been alive.

That church was near one of the finest seminaries in the world. Through the years, seminary professors had served as part-time pastors. Some of the finest preachers Baptists ever produced preached from the pulpit. Starting after World War II, a procession of doctoral students served as pastors, living in the stone parsonage the church had constructed next door to the historic building. One former pastor read the text from the original Greek each Sunday. Pastors were often measured not by how well they did as pastor, but what they went on to do afterward. These brilliant students became professors, missionaries, denominational executives and pastors of prominent churches. Somehow, I wound up in that long, distinguished line.

So, there I was, 25 years old, teaching 80- and 89-year-old women on a chilly Kentucky Sunday morning. The lesson was on the Sermon on the Mount, the part in Matthew 5 where Jesus says, "Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you." As I taught through the passage, I noticed the attention of the women was slipping. One class member looked out the window, one seemed to be studying the picture of the Last Supper behind my head, and a third was asleep. I knew this because her upper plate had slipped, and her false teeth hung precariously in her open mouth.

I knew these women had heard all this before, so I went to the tried-and-true tool of every teacher to re-engage the class. I asked them to name their enemies.

The two or three women who were hanging with me looked puzzled. One of them spoke up and said, "I don't believe I have any enemies." Something about the word "enemies" woke up the one sleeping woman. She clicked her teeth back into place and said, "Well I have had several enemas and believe they are no fun." The woman next to her poked her in the side and shushed her, saying, "He said enemies, not enemas."

Things they never taught me in seminary: how to help older women know the difference between enemies and enemas.

Sometimes when I preach or teach, thoughts come into my head. I'm not always sure if they are from the devil or from God. At this moment, a thought crossed my mind, and before I could stop, my mouth started moving: "An enemy is anyone who means you harm. Someone who gossips about you (I knew this crowd had a black belt in gossip). Someone who steals what you own or steals your husband. Someone who wants to harm your country. Someone who wants to hurt you and doesn't care that you hurt. Jesus says to love them. And Jesus said we ought to pray for them. How much of your prayer time is praying for people you don't like?"

This actually seemed pretty obvious to me.

There was stunned silence for a moment. Apparently, despite all the great preaching and teaching these women had heard through the years, this was a new thought. After an uncomfortable few seconds, Mrs. Sue Flowers, the matriarch of the church, fixed me with a stern gaze and pronounced, "Well, it doesn't mean that."

Funny how you can sit in church for decades and still not hear the plain meaning of Jesus' words: "Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you." Funny how people want to simply deny the plain meaning of words when the words make them squirm.

Mark Twain supposedly said, "Some people are troubled by the things in the Bible they can't understand. The things that trouble me are the things I can understand "

I think Jesus meant what he said. Whether it troubles us or not. So, think about the people who really get on your nerves. People who have hurt you. People who disagree with you politically. Your obnoxious neighbor. Your ex. People who want to attack our country. Jesus said love them. Pray for them. The only question left is what are you going to do?

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.