Sunday, September 17, 2017

Digging Two Graves

What do these four movies have in common?  Ben Hur, The Godfather, The Count of Monte Christo, and Kill Bill?  The answer is revenge – getting even.

There are many current TV shows also focused on revenge such as Game of Thrones which has a huge following all over the world.  Revenge through violence is one theme that runs throughout the plots.  For those of us who are honest about ourselves, we tune into this and other shows like it to witness the evil ones get their just desserts – in spades.  We want to see and cheer revenge, and for the bad guys and gals to fall, and fall very hard. 

Many of us want those who have harmed us to be punished and to suffer the same way we have suffered at their hands.  Revenge is a powerful, difficult-to-resist motivation.  It’s compelling and hard to resist like iron filings to a magnet.  The expression revenge is sweet has a ring of truth to it for those of us wanting so-called justice – in other words, an eye for an eye.

Revenge through terrorism haunts the world, and it hit us very hard on September 11, 2001.  It was an example of the demons released through revenge. Three day ago Britain’s terrorism threat level was raised to “critical” after an explosion on a subway train injured 29 people.

Because seeking revenge is so compelling, our first reading from the Book of Sirach has special meaning that we must take to heart.  It tells us to do that which may seem impossible – forgive great injustices or wrongs.  It gives us reasons why.

The author tells us that (1)“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight…(2) Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven…(3) Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; and (4) remember the Most High's covenant, and overlook faults.”

Now that sounds like Jesus speaking about forgiveness.  How so?  Let’s turn to our Gospel reading from Matthew to find out.

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?"

Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but 77 times…Each of you must forgive your brother from your heart.”

Ever wonder why we must forgive 77 times?  Most of us find it difficult to forgive even once, never mind 7 or 77 times.  Jesus’ point is that there should be no limit to the number of times we must be willing to forgive those who have offended us. 

The number 7 and then 77 have surprising biblical meanings.  In the Old Testament they refer to the number of times we should seek revenge.  Matthew cleverly turns these times for revenge into times for forgiveness. How?

Matthew referred to the Book of Genesis to get the 7 and 77.  We all know the story of Cain and Abel – Adam and Eve’s sons.  After Cain killed his brother Abel, and God passed sentence on that crime, God said, “If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold.” God seems to be promoting revenge, not mercy and forgiveness.

Then, the story of Cain and Abel continues with little known characters Lamech and his wives. Lamech said: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, listen to my utterance:  I have killed a man for wounding me, a boy for bruising me.  If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-seven fold.” This is where the number 77 was picked, and again it stresses revenge.

But let’s not forget that men said those biblical words claiming that God was the speaker.  The word of men is sometimes passed off as the Word of God, and that has caused a world of trouble over the ages, including right now in our times.  The Word of God is about forgiveness, not revenge.

Some us you may be thinking right now: “Easy for you to say.  We are told to forgive, but there offenses or hurts so grave, so great that forgiveness is unthinkable.”  Yes so it seems, but we all must consider the following before giving up on forgiveness.

The famous Christian author C.S. Lewis in his book “The Great Divorce’ pictured hell as a vast, gray city inhabited only at its outer edges.  There are rows and rows of empty houses in the middle.  They are empty because everyone who once lived in them quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved on and on until there was no one left.  That, says Lewis, is how hell got so large. People chose distance over dealing with one another and learning to forgive.  It is learned behavior.

Here’s a Chinese proverb:  “If you are not willing to forgive, you’d better get ready to dig two graves.” 

Finally, there’s advice from the Mayo Clinic in its article “Forgiveness: letting go of grudges and bitterness.”  These medical researchers said forgiveness can lead to greater psychological well-being, less anxiety, less stress and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, and lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse.  Forgiveness is a prescription for good health no doctor can provide.

So let’s heal ourselves by forgiving and look to Jesus as our primary care-giver.  Although some say revenge is a dish best served cold.  Jesus would say forgiveness is a dish best served hot.  

Like Matthew let's shift from revenge to forgiveness.  We may have to forgive 77 times, perhaps more.  Jesus tells us to just keep trying.  If not, we might as well get those shovels and dig those graves.

Deacon David Pierce

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