Violence

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Last Sunday took us to the fourth in our Sunday preaching series on the sweep of the Biblical narrative and how it points to the truth of sacrificial love embodied in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The God who called a good and beautiful world into being by his word (week 1: Creation), who breathed into the first humans his breath/spirit and set them in a garden (week 2: Garden), endured their broken relationship and continued to protect and care for them (week 3: Fall). Now God speaks with Cain about the murderous jealousies of the human heart, urging humanity to choose reconciliation over revenge.

Below are the pictures and text from the booklet we handed out following worship last Sunday. This coming Sunday, Pentecost, takes us to the Holy Spirit that is our first breath and ultimate life.

Image: William Adolphe Bouguereau, The First Mourning, 1888
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bouguereau-The_First_Mourning-1888.jpg  William-Adolphe Bouguereau [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Genesis 4


Now Abel was a keeper of sheep,
and Cain a tiller of the ground.


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File:Wechselburg Lettner detail 04.jpg

One of the oldest divisions in human society is between ranchers and farmers, those who tend flocks and those who till the ground. The mere mention of this brings a haunting note to the opening of the narrative.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wechselburg_Lettner_detail_04.jpg https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wechselburg_Lettner_detail_05.jpg Photo by: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The LORD had regard for Abel and his offering,
but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.


Each offers the first fruits of their labor to God. The story says nothing about the qualities of the two brothers. There is no discerning of the heart, no judging of moral worthiness. God picked the aroma of the roasting lamb over the roasting grain. God smiled on Abel’s gift, but on Cain’s gift he did not smile. It does not say that the gift was defective. It does not say that the gift was rejected. It only says that God favored Abel’s gift.

We get ensnared in the symbolism of things. That God liked Abel’s offering more than Cain’s becomes in our minds –and apparently in Cain’s mind – that God liked Abel more than Cain. Children think they can read this in the faces of their parents. It’s a pretty universal sentiment that the parents favored one over the others. It often leads to petty vindictiveness, sabotage, striving for attention. But we have no reason to say that God loved Abel more. Maybe Abel taunted his brother. Maybe he claimed that God liked him more. The text tells us none of this because the emphasis is not on Cain or Abel but on God’s choice and how Cain will respond.

All the conversation in this story occurs between God and Cain. This is a story about these two, God and Cain, not Cain and Abel. It is not a story about a good man and an evil one; it is a story about choices, and sin, and redemption.


“Why are you angry,
and why has your countenance fallen?

If you do well, will you not be accepted?”


There are so many resentments born out of the randomness of life’s favors. “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise,” observes the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, “time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). There are inequalities to life. Injustices. Randomness. One prospers another fails. One is born to privilege another to poverty. And what shall we do with life’s vicissitudes. Resentment, bitterness, revenge is one choice. It is not the only choice.

If you do well, will you not be accepted? If you do what is right. If you do goodness. God’s favor roots in the choices we make not the sacrifices we offer, not the liturgies we sing, not the customs we follow. If you do right towards your neighbor, if you show justice and faithfulness, if you care for the sick and comfort the afflicted, will you not be honored?


“Sin is lurking at the door;
its desire is for you, but you must master it.”


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The death of Abel is not inevitable. Neither are any of the other woes we inflict upon one another. The angry word. The hateful speech. The stolen chances. The cheats and deceits. The crimes of passion and despair. The decisions of war. They are choices. The dragon crouches like a tiger waiting to pounce. But we must master it.

A Lioness (Panthera leo) in Serengeti
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Serengeti_Loewin2.jpg By Ikiwaner (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Cain said to his brother Abel,
“Let us go out to the field.”


The field is Cain’s space. He is a man of the soil. He knows dirt. He knows what it will hide. What he does not know is that blood soaked ground will turn against him. The words of God are ignored in his anger, resentment, envy. Perhaps it is even God with whom he is angry. God chose his brother. God favored his offering. He cannot bear the presence of the favored one. And now there is violence.

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There is a weight on Cain, a burden, a crushing burden of resentment. Cain is the firstborn. To Cain belongs the privilege. But God has chosen the second born, the unlikely.

God has a troubling habit of choosing without regard for the rules. He chooses the younger Jacob over the elder Esau. He chooses Abraham and promises blessing for no apparent reason. Moses was not the only child cast into the Nile, but he is the boy who lived. God takes up the cause of the foreigner, the outsider. Elijah provides for a widow of Zarephath, not Israel. Jesus invites himself to banquet at the home of Zacchaeus the tax-gatherer. He rescues the woman caught in adultery and treats the shunned Samaritan woman as a woman of his own house. And God has favored Abel’s gift.

Sculpture Abel by Karl-Heinz Appelt; Gera, Germany, 1983
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gera_Abel.jpg By Steffen Löwe (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze sculpture Cain and Abel , Bernau bei Berlin, sculptor: Michael Klein, 1994
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bernau_KainundAbel3.JPG By Catatine (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.


Then the LORD said to Cain,
“Where is your brother Abel?”


God keeps asking this question, “Where?” He asks our first parents “Where are you?” when they have eaten the fruit and are hiding in the bushes. And now he asks Cain, “Where is your brother?”

These are the two most fundamental questions God asks of the human race: “Where are we?” and “Where is our brother? Where is our sister?” If we cannot speak the truth of ourselves we will not be able to care for others. They will be “others” rather than brothers. They will not be part of us. Women will be trophies and toys not sisters. Children will be seen and not heard. The poor will be “the poor” rather than people whose names and stories we know and whose lives matter. Then it will be “every man for himself,” rather than strength in numbers.

And if we cannot speak the truth concerning our neighbor, we will not know the truth of ourselves. We were made for community, but community is broken.


He said, “I do not know;
am I my brother’s keeper?”


Yes. It is what brother means. You are created to belong. You are bound together. You are made to care and be cared for.


“Listen;
your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”


God’s statement to Cain should be punctuated with a colon not a semi-colon. The cry of his brother’s blood is what Cain is summoned to hear, the consequences of his deed what he must see.   The sufferings of the abandoned, the sorrows of the neglected, the cries of the wounded: Listen!


“When you till the ground,
it will no longer yield to you its strength.”


File:Agropyron repens on field after winter ploughing.JPG

The strength of Cain over his brother has planted blood into the ground. Now the strength of the ground will profit him not. There are no riches to be harvested from this field; the dirt itself resists him. There are no riches to be gained from the destruction of Aleppo. There is no strength to be gained from weapons of mass destruction. There is no life to be gathered from ground that is ravaged or the community plundered.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Agropyron_repens_on_field_after_winter_ploughing.JPG By Agronom (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“My punishment is greater than I can bear!”


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“Punishment is not quite the right word. These are consequences, the harvest of violence: alienation, exile, shame, isolation, a lost ground, a lost life.

Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris_Tuileries_Garden_Facepalm_statue.jpg    By Alex E. Proimos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/proimos/4199675334/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”


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The ground was Cain’s life. Now he is cutoff from it. And he is cutoff from the face of God. He is rootless. He is without community. He is vulnerable in a world made dangerous.

Tuareg on the dune of Timerzouga, place named Tadrart in the town of Djanet, wilaya of Ilizi 20km from the Algerian-Libyan border (Cultural Park of Tassili).
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Esprit_nomade.JPG By Hamdanmourad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The LORD put a mark on Cain,
so that no one who came upon him would kill him.


It is not a mark of shame; it is a mark of protection. He wears no scarlet M for murder; he wears a reminder that even Cain the killer bears the image of God. God will be his family to protect him. God will be his redeemer to save him. God will be his advocate to avenge him.

So why do we dance at the death of the murderers? Why do we boast of the death of Bin Laden? Ought we not weep that those for whom God weeps have perished so far from God’s presence?

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ashenda_Girl,_Tigray,_Ethiopia_(15363919671).jpg By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Ashenda Girl, Tigray, Ethiopia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. [cropped]


Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD,
and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.


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East of Eden. Away from the garden of God. Away from the rich and abundant soil, the life-giving rains, the well watered garden. Away from the sacred forest. Away from the tree of life. Away from the community of family. Away from the fellowship of the familiar. Away from the presence of the Lord.

And there he builds a city. Cain builds the first city: a gathering of the scattered, a place not of soil or pasture but iron and fire. A place of creativity and life but also destruction and death, human inventiveness for good and for evil.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syrian_Desert_(5079180729).jpg By yeowatzup from Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany (Syrian Desert) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Zillah bore Tubal-cain,
who made all kinds of bronze and iron tools.


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In the city tools are made. Smithing. Bronze. Iron. Tools to plow the ground and weapons to wound.

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Migrant_worker_of_china.jpg   By 枫彩 (http://cc.nphoto.net/view/2008/11733.shtml) [CC BY 2.5 cn (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5/cn/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Bronze Age swords
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apa_Schwerter.jpg By Dbachmann
M1A2 on the streets of Baghdad.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J2500x1661-05540.jpg  By Lukethornberry (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for striking me.


The world’s first poetry is a celebration of violence, a trumpeting of strength and power, a vaunting of the self even over God, a fearless disregard of God’s command not to kill.


“If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.”


File:Fear of Terrorism.jpg

Violence multiplies. Fear and intimidation become part of the social fabric. Overwhelming revenge becomes the rule. “Hit me and I’ll hit you harder.” It’s not yet Mutually Assured Destruction, but that is the path. At least until Jesus dares to answer Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” by saying “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

File:US Navy 090418-F-7923S-023 A Haitian woman waits her turn for treatment at the Killick medical clinic site during a Continuing Promise community medical service project.jpg

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows that we wreak on one another. The pictures could multiply of the bodies of children neglected in the streets, the triumphant march of military parades, the weeping mothers, the angry fathers, the disconsolate siblings, the shocked neighbors who never had a clue, the bombastic threats of politicians seeking to profit, and the lawyers running to claim a prize.

At some point we run out of words for the sorrows of the world where bones creak and diseases waste and drought devours. At some point we run out of words for the favelas and slums and the distorted bodies of the starving. At some point we run out of words for the raped and abused. At some point we run out of words.

We can understand if God should desire to wipe clean the face of the earth. It is the way the ancient cultures around Israel told the story. But our story tells us of a child: Seth. There is no great saving destiny appointed to Seth. He is just a child. Babbling, cooing, clinging, crying, sweet with the aroma of newness, abounding in curiosity, smiling, laughing, tasting everything with his mouth, studying faces, clinging to fingers, sucking feverishly at the breast, gazing into his mother’s eyes, tender, warm, connection, grasping for language, striving to crawl and then to walk. A child. New life. Image of God. Child of sorrow. Hope of tomorrow.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fear_of_Terrorism.jpg By Dolat khan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_090418-F-7923S-023_A_Haitian_woman_waits_her_turn_for_treatment_at_the_Killick_medical_clinic_site_during_a_Continuing_Promise_community_medical_service_project.jpg By U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Benjamin Stratton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Adam knew his wife again,
and she bore a son and named him Seth,

for she said, “God has appointed for me another child.”


God is not done with us. God continues to give life. This is not a replacement for Abel or for Cain. But he is new life. He is grace.


To Seth also a son was born


And then grandchild. Joy. Continuity.


At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.


The LORD. The name that will be revealed to Abraham as the one who gives a future. The name that will be revealed to Moses as the one who delivers from bondage. God is not just creator; He is redeemer.

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A reminder about the nature of the Biblical text: There are problems if you read the text literally. How can Abel offer a sacrifice of a lamb when humans have not yet received permission to kill? (This doesn’t happen until after the flood.) Why is Cain afraid of being killed when there are yet no other people? But the narrative is not history; it is commentary on human existence. And it is preaching. It bears to us the voice of God who asks these terrible, haunting questions: “Where is your brother?” Where is your sister? “What have you done?” What have you failed to do?

But this God of the haunting questions is also the God who does not abandon his troubled creation. God is faithful and continues to provide and protect and call us into the life and love for which we were created.

Biblical text: New Revised Standard Version
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

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The Red Wings, the Avalanche and Jesus

Friday

Mark 9:30-37

File:IginlaDraperFaceoff.jpg37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

This word ‘welcome’ represents much more than a smile at the door should they show up at church. It means to extend hospitality, to take someone under your protection.

It is used especially with respect to travelers. It is dangerous business being in a place where you are a stranger. Ties of family and kinship are the guarantees of safety. If a member of your clan hurts me, my family will avenge. They will come hurt a member of your clan.

It’s why there are enforcers on ice hockey teams. You come after our star player and there will be consequences beyond two minutes in the box. It keeps the game relatively even. And a big hurt will be remembered even from one season to the next. Ask any veteran Red Wings fan about the war with the Colorado Avalanche over the cheap shot that broke Kris Draper’s jaw.

It’s hard for the fans when former enemies become members of your team, but once they join, they come under the team’s protection.

To ‘welcome’ is to extend the circle of your clan’s protection around a vulnerable person. And in an honor-based society, the payoff for the one who extends such hospitality is that the recipient will sing your praises wherever he goes. To show hospitality increases your own honor and standing in the community.

But what is to be gained by showing hospitality to a child? It doesn’t really make sense in the quid pro quo world.

Unless the child belongs to someone important.

+   +   +

I would prefer to stop right there and let you recognize the crucial conclusion. But, sometimes we need it spelled out for us: the child belongs to someone important. The child, the weak, the vulnerable, those on the bottom of the social hierarchy, those without power or influence – these are members of Jesus’ household. To receive even the least, is to receive Jesus. To fail to extend your care and protection for the lowliest slave in the king’s household is to betray your king.

We can argue about our relative importance in the pecking order all we want – as the disciples were doing – but the least member of the royal house is to be honored above us all.

 

Photo: By JamesTeterenko (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The day of vengeance?

Friday

Isaiah 61

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The prophet Isaiah

1The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;

When Jesus reads this text in the synagogue in Nazareth and declares it fulfilled, he leaves off the last line about the day of vengeance. Or, at least, when Luke writes about that sermon, Luke leaves that last line off.

Luke, however, is not doing it out of our modern sensibilities that routinely edit texts read in worship to leave off things that sound harsh. He is concerned with the punch line that with this Jesus dawns the year of grace.

Isaiah feels no such compunction. Neither does Mary when she sings of the rich being sent empty away. They understand better than we the grace in this message about the ‘day of vengeance’.

For us, ‘vengeance’ is a dark, troubling emotion: wanting to make other people suffer as we have suffered, wanting to strike back, wanting to ‘get even’.

The problem of ‘getting even’ – is that ‘even’ never feels even. We seem to need to add a penalty and make the person hurt a little (or a lot) more than they hurt us. This is why the cycle of revenge always escalates, and why, in the Mosaic Law, God had to say [only] an eye for an eye. God wasn’t endorsing revenge or instructing us to get even, but prohibiting the altogether too common practice of avenging a wrong beyond what was necessary to keep the peace (or neglecting a wrong done to one who was weak).

And this wasn’t personal revenge; it was corporate. It wasn’t Lamech declaring “hurt me and I will hurt you worse!” It was “hurt our tribe and we hurt your tribe.” It wasn’t individuals “taking the law into their own hands” but communities requiring that the ledgers be balanced.

The problem in such a system of social order is with those who are weak and vulnerable. Widows and orphans, the poor, have no one to stand up for their defense, no one to call the community to avenge the wrongs done to them.   So God lays that burden on the community by declaring “I will avenge.” Thus, under threat of divine wrath, the ‘weak’ become a protected class instead of being easy marks for social predation.

But if God never comes to judge, the threat becomes meaningless.

So the day of grace is a day God acts: to forgive, to heal, to reconcile, to restore – and to avenge: to set right the twisted scales of a world where the weak are victimized and the poor are plundered.

In the era of Jim Crow, where communities of people where suppressed by threat of violence against which there was no defense other than submission – to declare that God is come to set them free must mean that their avenger has arisen to right the world, to fight on their behalf, to wrench from the hand of pharaoh their liberty.

This is the hidden sweetness in the phrase a “day of vengeance of our God” – it is a day God restores the lost balance of the world. And so Mary sings about the greedy rich who have plundered the vulnerable – that they are “sent empty away.”   She is not exulting in their suffering, but rejoicing that the world has been rescued from their hands.

Brothers

Wednesday

Matthew 18

15If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault.

© dkbonde

© dkbonde

© dkbonde

© dkbonde

I understand why the editors of the New Revised Standard Version chose this translation, but it distorts the text. Wanting to avoid the problem of gender specific language, they chose a neutral term with which to translate the Greek word ‘brother’. But the phrase “member of the church” brings to our mind the local congregation with budgets and meetings and called or appointed pastors. It doesn’t call to mind the mutual obligation of a household or extended family. It doesn’t remind us here, at the beginning of this teaching on sins, that we are bound together in the household of God. It doesn’t evoke the power of the word ‘love’, the mutual concern, solidarity and bond across time and distance that defines the ancient ties of kinship. Before Jesus says anything else about handling ruptures in our relationships, he reminds us that we are brothers and sisters.  It is your brother, of whom we are speaking; not a rival, not an enemy, not a competitor in the field of social honor. It is your sister. It is one with whom you share an eternal bond in Christ.

We are far from this in the normal worshipping congregation. On the scale between a family and a theater crowd, we are more like the theater. We tend to come as consumers of a religious ‘show’ than as a family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner. We listen to the preacher with critical ears. We scowl at the families of children who make too much noise as if they were talking during the movie. We feel free to discuss the appearance or behavior of other patrons as we do of strangers. We do not typically see the Sunday congregation as our extended family. It is why we are content to let others cook rather than coming to the kitchen to help carve the turkey. It is why we have a guild set the table and wash the dishes rather than ask what we can bring and how we can help.

But the vision Jesus has for his followers is a community that reflects and anticipates the dawning reign of God. It is a community that bears witness to a redeemed world. It is a community where breaches are healed rather than perpetuated. It is a community where the breaking of bread gathers us into the presence of God.

The word ‘brother’ is not from an inherent sexism in the faith, but from the facts of life in the ancient world. It was men who dealt with one another in the public sphere. It was men whose words and actions would sometimes dishonor one another – an honor challenge that required a prompt and zealous response. Every slander must be met with slander. But such is not the kingdom of God. Such is not the world redeemed. Such is not to be the pattern of life among Jesus’ followers.

“If a brother sins against you…”

Watching for the morning of September 7

Year A

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

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Macrocranion Tupaiodon Weitzel, 1949. Photocredit: H. Zell

We are on dangerous ground, this Sunday. Jesus is talking about sins. We don’t like people talking about our sins.

We have trouble getting this right in our time and place. We tend think about sins as personal acts or failings. We speak of sins as if they were disconnected from the larger human community. If I drive too fast I get a ticket for violating the law, the written rule; I do not imagine that I have betrayed or dishonored others.

Adultery is not a personal moral failing; it is a rupture in the human community. Gossip is not a guilty pleasure; it is a poisoning of the social fabric. Sins involve others. It rends the network of relationships that give life its strength and goodness.

So what is to be done when there is some rupture in the human community? Revenge is the classic answer. I make it right by harming you the way you harmed me. I balance the equation. And the fear of revenge restrains us. On an international scale we called it Mutually Assured Destruction. It may keep an outward peace, but it is not the peace of God. It is not the kingdom. It is not the way of life.

Jesus chooses the way of reconciliation.

And he teaches us to do the same.

The Prayer for September 7, 2014

Almighty God,
you call us to walk as children of the light
and set before us the command to love one another.
Turn us back when we stray and lead us in your pathways
that, clothed in Christ, we might bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 7, 2014

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:1-11
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” – God compares the prophet to a watchman against hostile enemies and charges him not to remain silent when God has given him a message of warning for the nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – Another segment of this magisterial psalm celebrating the gift of God’s Law/Teaching.

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
“the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
– Paul urges his hearers to live the life to which they have been called in Christ where love (the solidarity of regarding others as members of your own family/kin) is the heart of God’s commands.

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you…” – Following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the declaration that God does not want any to be lost, Jesus instructs is followers on seeking reconciliation in the community.

An eye for an eye

Wednesday

Matthew 5

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Fossilized shark tooth

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Before we hear what Jesus is going to say about revenge, it is important to recognize that the Old Testament doesn’t teach revenge.  It teaches a form of communal justice that was intended to stop the spiral of revenge.  The responsibility for enforcing “an eye for an eye” is taken away from the injured party (and his or her kin group) and given to the community.  They are to act to balance the equation when harm has been inflicted.  In a social context without a police force and jails, revenge is the normal method of policing: you hurt us; we hurt you.  And in a world where the strong get away with injuring the weak (of which there are many stories, not least Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Israelites) Israel was called to a different pattern of justice – one that does not favor the rich or powerful.  Instead of individual retribution, God declares that “Vengeance (holding others accountable) is mine.”  Where justice needed to be enforced, where the scales needed to be set right, God entrusted the exercise of that accountability to the community as a whole.

So before we yield to the common prejudice of a barbaric Old Testament, we should recognize that where effective policing is absent in our own communities, we typically find people taking the law into their own hands and gangs operating on the principle of intimidation and revenge.  However tough some of the Old Testament laws may first appear to us, they are in fact preferable to gang warfare and extortion.  And it is worth noting that even our society, with a more or less effective legal/policing system, still controls behavior with the threat of revenge in the form of a lawsuit – and our lawsuits include punitive damages!  There is no room among ‘moderns’ for an attitude of superiority.

Human beings find ways to hurt back.  By nature, we want to even the score.  Even children on the playground know that cheating leads to cheating, and excessive roughness to ever increasing violence.  Our problem is that our sense of ‘fairness’ always tips slightly towards ourselves.  We all want the last licks, so we take the phrase, “an eye for an eye” out of context and use it to justify our acts of revenge that often start a cycle of escalating conflict.  When Jesus takes up the law of revenge, he returns it to its original core – reconciling the community.  If I refuse to start down the path of revenge, I leave open the possibility of reconciliation.  Jesus is not suggesting that we (as a community) not resist evil, only that we (as individuals) turn back from the path of Cain and Abel and not create enemies.