Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Sermon: Rules for Revenge

Matthew 5:38-48

Hollywood loves the revenge theme.

Your daughter is kidnapped, so you go on a crazy killing spree blasting your way through the lowlifes until you finally rescue her. Or some brute beats you and leaves you for dead, and after months in the hospital you track him down and kill him. Or you are a powerful general and you are betrayed by the son of the emperor and you end up losing your freedom and fighting as a gladiator until you can rise through the ranks, earn your freedom and get revenge.

Revenge makes good movies because most of us harbor a few revenge fantasies of our own. We would love to get even with that boss who fired us, or that boyfriend that cheated on us, that person who was texting while they dented our car, and I haven’t even mentioned the rapists, murderers, thieves, and criminals that may have harmed us or a loved one. When we are hurt by a trauma, when we experience something that disrupts our life so completely that we can’t go back to the way things used to be, we begin to fantasize about getting even.

Mardi J. Horowitz says, “Revenge fantasies are persistent because they also provide additional positive emotional effects. The victim can feel good about gaining a sense of power and control by planning vengeance and may experience pleasure at imagining the suffering of the target and pride at being on the side of some spiritual primal justice.”[1]

In other words, the idea of revenge makes us feel like we have taken back control of our lives and gotten (I love the phrase) “spiritual primal justice”. So most of us have had a few revenge fantasies along the way, but even as we fantasize about it, there is a part of us that knows that revenge is a dangerous business. You can lose yourself in it, and if you do get revenge, while it may be satisfying for a moment, it often that only leads to more retaliation from the person you are mad at. It is a dangerous cycle. “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” – Confucius.

Judith Herman, a Harvard professor who has done tons of research on PTSD actually notes that, “People who actually commit acts of revenge, such as combat veterans who commit atrocities, do not succeed in getting rid of their posttraumatic symptoms; rather, they seem to suffer the most severe and intractable disturbances.[2]

Walking down the road to revenge is dangerous business.

So in the Old Testament of the bible there were strict rules about revenge. You could only do exactly what was done to you, no more. If your neighbor poked you in the eye, you are only allowed to poke them in the eye back. You may not poke them in both eyes. Even though you may want to, you may not. The idea was once restitution was made, the conflict was over. Ended. Resolved. No more fighting about it. But that never happened. Let’s be honest, once we have got our revenge, the anger remains, the broken relationship remains. Getting even didn’t really help.

So Jesus comes along, and he says, in Matthew 5:38-48:

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well. When they wish to haul you to court and take your shirt, let them have your coat too. When they force you to go one mile, go with them two. Give to those who ask, and don’t refuse those who wish to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only 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? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete”

So Jesus challenges the rules for revenge and takes them in a whole new direction, one that is perhaps his most difficult teaching, Jesus says turn the other cheek, give them your coat, walk two miles instead of one. In a sense he is saying be a martyr, let them strike you again, give more than they expect. Don’t get mad, don’t get even.

Remember what Horowitz said about revenge fantasies?

They give us a sense of power, we gain control. But later in that paper he says, “Revenge fantasies can give a sense of restored purpose and control in an otherwise shattered life. It is important to help patients recognize the futility of this apparent utility.”[3] It sounds, good, but it doesn’t really give us control over our life. Amazingly that is what Jesus is teaching us, but in a bit different way. Rather than giving in and losing yourself in the situation, take power over the situation and choose to do what is unexpected. It is really all about power and control. Give yourself another choice in how to act. When we allow another person to make us angry, or allow another person to get a reaction out of us, we give them power over us in life. If you spend all of your time and energy working out how you are going to get even, then you have given them control over you.

So Jesus says, if you do more than they ask, if you go the extra mile, you retain the power and control over yourself. You remain free to live however you want. You are the one choosing how to react.

But Jesus isn’t just giving us a modern psychiatric help session.

Jesus is also trying to help us build God’s kingdom and do a new thing. In order to do that, he has to teach us new ways of relating to each other, and one of the most difficult things to learn in community is how to handle situations where someone hurts us.

And that is where Jesus challenges us to change our entire mode of operation. No longer are you to love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but now you must love your enemy.

He reminds us that God loves without distinction, God sends blessings on the just and unjust. The rain falls on all the fields, not just the ones that belong to nice people and good people. So it is not enough just to love our neighbor, but we must open our arms and love our enemies. And let’s be honest, that’s not popular right now.

The Seasons of the Spirit commentary points out that “In a time when technology is bringing us ever closer to one another, there are counter-movements which seem to want to return us to those “good old days“ of deep animosities between faiths, brokenness among cultures and classes, political gatherings filled with anger, assaults, and incivility, and painting whole groups of people with pejorative brushes because of the actions of a few . . . if loving our neighbor is a primary value of the Christian faith (as well as much of our society), perhaps it is time to see loving our enemy as just as much a primary value.” (Underlining mine, not in original)

What would happen if we made loving our enemy one of our primary values? Well, we might forgive them, but we might be taken advantage of, we might be hurt more, or we might be killed.

But there is another possibility. What we learn from God’s love for us is that it can overcome our sin. God loved us while we were yet sinners, while we were yet antagonists to God’s way of life, and yet God loved us and in that love our sin is not only forgiven, but it is washed clean. So what if our love can overcome the sin of others? What if, loving our enemies actually leads not just to forgiveness but to healing for them and us?

Oh, I know it isn’t easy. That Harvard professor, Judith Herman also says, “Like revenge, the fantasy of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings. Folk wisdom recognizes that to forgive is divine. And even divine forgiveness, in most religious systems, is not unconditional. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.”[4]

Jesus knows what he is saying here. He knows that what he is asking is practically out of reach for us, but he also demonstrates that it is possible with God’s help. By loving that enemy, we are opening the door to the divine possibilities, like resurrection. “Love goes beyond, love disarms. Love enables us to live remarkable lives. Be holy, be perfect, be love, for God is love.”[5] I know it isn’t popular, it isn’t easy, it isn’t even likely to be completed in this world. But it is what Jesus teaches because he has the audacity to believe that God can do what we cannot, and love can do what hate and revenge cannot. And he knows that in the next world it is the norm for all relationships, so we might as well start learning it now.

[1] Understanding and Ameliorating Revenge Fantasies in Psychotherapy, http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/ajp.2007.164.1.24
[2] Judith Herman, 1992, quoted in http://adaptivetherapy.com/Trauma-and-the-desire-for-revenge.pdf
[3] Understanding and Ameliorating Revenge Fantasies in Psychotherapy, http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/ajp.2007.164.1.24
[4] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/7427910-like-revenge-the-fantasy-of-forgiveness-often-becomes-a-cruel
[5] Seasons of the Spirit 2017

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