February 23, 2020
(1 Corinthians 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48)
It's a standard movie plot: A vulnerable hero is wronged or hurt by some sinister person or force. He or she gains strength from their anger at the injustice and sets out to get revenge. In the end, the villain is vanquished, justice is done and the credits roll.
Revenge fantasies are so common in the movie industry that they have become a genre of their own. Liam Neeson is always looking to use his particular "set of skills" to avenge the kidnapping of a family member in the Taken movies. Who can forget Carrie, based on the famous Stephen King novel, in which a bullied high school girl gets her revenge?
Revenge is the plot of nearly every Quentin Tarantino movie, and it's no coincidence that one of the most popular film franchises has to do with The Avengers. We love the idea of retributive justice. It appeals to our sense of fairness and the idea that everyone finally gets what they deserve.
Some psychologists suggest that these revenge fantasies are actually good for us. They're products of an often overlooked emotion called "embitterment" -- a feeling produced by victimization coupled with the desire to fight back. Because the person feels helpless, however, it leads to fantasies of revenge or aggression. Psychologists think that these accompanying revenge fantasies actually serve as buffers against the negative feelings associated with victimization, which is why people love revenge movies. We don't have to actually do anything vengeful; it's the feeling of justice that counts.
We've all had these fantasies, albeit on a smaller scale - one would hope at least. You imagine getting back at the person who cuts you off on the road, for example. You might envision an elaborate plan of retribution on a boss who unjustly reprimanded or fired you. You may harbor plans of revenge over the actions of an ex-spouse. Maybe you're just thinking of tapping out a snarky retort to that person who heckled you on social media. Point is, we tend to run to revenge fantasies whenever we sense an injustice has been done.
Jesus warned us, however, that even harboring such fantasies can give birth to actions - bad decisions - which, in turn, can lead to our own destruction. In this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reframes the retributive justice of the law of Moses and calls his disciples to turn from "embitterment" to embodiment of the way of the kingdom of God.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,'" says Jesus, pointing to the law of Moses and its judicial system. Unrestrained revenge was ruled out by the law codes of many other ancient Near Eastern cultures, and the commandment of God was already designed to limit retributive justice to the severity of the crime committed.
But rather than merely restating a law that gives the plaintiff the right to ensure that the offender gets at least what he or she deserves, Jesus overrules even that law for his disciples. For Jesus, it wasn't just about limiting revenge; it was about rejecting any kind of retaliatory violence. Jesus wanted his disciples to reject the revenge fantasy in favor of the redemption factor for both the offended and the offender.
Revenge is all about making ourselves feel better and superior to the one who hurts us. Jesus, however, calls his disciples to lean into the hard work of redemption through suffering love. Disciples of Jesus aren't to go about asserting their personal rights when affronted, but instead, they are to respond in terms of the good and needs of the other, even when that other commits evil against them. Radical love indeed!
The examples of Matthew 5:39-42 would make for a very different kind of movie than we're used to. In a Tarantino movie, for example, a backhanded slap across the right cheek would warrant an epic beat down in return. That kind of slap was an ultimate insult in Jesus' day -- a forceful dismissal of one's personhood. But rather than retaliating, Jesus urges his disciples to "turn the other" cheek also. Almost as if we would turn the other cheek, point to it and ask, “May I have another, please?”
If you are "losing your shirt" in a court case, the standard movie response would be to find some hotshot lawyer to turn the tables on your accuser or, failing that, to set about ruining them in some other way. Jesus tells his disciples, however, to "give your cloak as well," meaning that they should prefer the shame of being naked to getting revenge.
Some argue that these commandments of Jesus actually turn his disciples into doormats for evil people who will take advantage of them. Standing there and just taking whatever it is that our enemies dish out is a sign of weakness. We're culturally conditioned to fight for our rights. No wonder that Jesus' approach seems unrealistic and even dysfunctional to many. Humility is difficult.
But rather than seeing these actions as signs of weakness, Jesus asserts that they're positions of strength. The way that Jesus confronts evil is not through violence, but through nonviolent resistance that will confound, shame and disarm the aggressor. Jesus' commandments are thus a foreshadowing of his own actions on the cross and of the kind of cross-bearing discipleship that is required of his followers. We do not trust in our own abilities to set things right, in other words. Instead, we trust in God's ultimate justice.
It's that knowledge of God's justice that enables us to follow the command of Jesus to "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." For Jesus, this kind of love resembles the love of the Father and makes us look more like his children. God's provision of life is available to the evil and unrighteous as well as the good and the righteous.
Ultimately, however, judgment is God's prerogative and we can hardly claim to be better than the other person when we're just as big a sinner. Bigger sinner sometimes! So, Jesus says we need to love people, especially our enemies - because it doesn't take much moral force to love a friend, now does it?
So, Jesus asks us to do something counterintuitive: love those unlikely to be loved. Love the poor, love your enemy, love the co-worker, love the conservative, love the liberal, love the person least like you.
This is the love of God. And if this love is extended to us, who are we to not extend it to others - even those who have sinned against us?
It's not that God is soft on evil. God will ultimately avenge the evil in this world. But unlike the swift vengeance laid out in a two-hour movie or in our own revenge fantasies, Scripture tells us that God is a slow avenger -- "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" as attested in multiple biblical texts (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 86:5, 15; Joel 2:13; Nahum 1:3, among others). God's slowness is not weakness, but a sign of perfect love. God withholds wrath so that all people will repent and return. If God gives us that chance, God will give it to our enemies as well, because, well, from their perspective, we are the enemy!
So, revenge is never up to us. As Paul explains to the congregation in Rome, "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, '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.' Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17-21).
Bottom line is that we are not to dish out to offenders what they deserve. For, indeed, this is not how God has dealt with us. Instead, we're to be the embodiment of Christ in forgiving and loving them.
We don't deal with evil by indulging in revenge fantasies, but by living the vision of God's offer of love and redemption to all. Jesus demonstrated this all the way to the cross, refusing to take revenge and, instead, offering his forgiveness and love to those who nailed him there. He overcame evil with suffering love; he overcame evil with good.
Next time you watch a movie, ask yourself how this situation might have been handled differently by a disciple of Jesus. What would happen if the hero chose vision over violence? Redemption over revenge? And then take it down to a personal level: Who are the people in your life over whom you fantasize about revenge? How would the situation be different -- how would you be different and your enemy be different -- if you chose perfect love instead?
This is the kind of action hero that Jesus is looking for. A challenge for each of us this week. Think of someone who you feel has wronged you or that you dislike, and say something good about them behind their back and only that.
Let us pray.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In this way we will be children of the Father. As we reflect on these words, we pray for the grace to make our peace with all and to answer the Lord’s call to love Him and love our neighbor. We pray to the Lord.
On this day when Jesus calls on all his followers to love their enemies, we pray for an end to war, violence and murder in our country and throughout the world. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for those who are struggling with addictions. We pray that they find the courage and support to overcome their affliction and renew their lives. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for families where addictions or intemperance are causing pain and hardships that the Lord give them the patience, the energy and the spiritual support to live through their difficulties. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for our young people that they be given guidance in their lives and an understanding of the dangers of drugs and excessive drinking. We pray to the Lord.
On this coming Ash Wednesday, when we will be reminded that we are mortal, let us pause and reflect on our lives, remember where we are going and pray to the Father that we live a life that is worthy of the reward which He has promised to those who follow His way. We pray to the Lord.
That as we continue our building and repairs a benefactor or benefactors will be led to our humble parish as we look to obtain the funding needed to finish the rectory and necessary repairs. We pray to the Lord.
For those on our parish prayer list, that they may find consolation through Christ’s healing presence. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Heavenly Father make us not so quick to desire revenge so that we can become quicker at forgiveness and humility. How we underestimate your compassion, Jesus. We are too easily convinced that you frown more than you smile, that our weakness and ignorance, our mistakes and sins, guarantee nothing but judgment from you. Yet, time and again, you show us that this picture is unworthy of you. After all, you said it — you didn’t come to judge but to save! And so, we thank you and celebrate you. Your compassion is limitless, and your love is unfailing. Your welcome is gracious and extravagant and all-inclusive. Your embrace is healing and transforming, and your commitment to us is costly and eternal. Maybe we will never really understand how you can be so totally for us, but maybe, as we learn to trust, and to lean into your love, we will find the peace and wholeness that you desire for us. And so we come, we worship and we open ourselves to your surprising compassion again. We ask all these things through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
++ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Chapel
San Diego, CA