As we begin to wind down this series, we come to one of the most difficult and important teachings that our Lord has for us. I feel grateful to God this morning for bringing inspiration in the form of pain. I pray that as I share my own grief with you that my words will bring you courage and strength to not just hear Jesus’ call for us all, but to find ways to be vulnerable and honest with the people with whom God has brought you into relationship and called you to serve. Sometimes as preachers, we have to put our own hard truths and struggles out there to illuminate a path of healing for others.
I was struck this morning reading my colleague Taylor Burton-Edwards’s words in his Worship Planning Notes on this passage. Taylor wrote,
There is no reward either in loving those who love you already (Matthew 5:46) or in taking even proportionally limited revenge against someone who has harmed you (Matthew 5:38 ff.). Both reflect an imperfect righteousness, the righteousness of this world, this age, even the righteousness of the best of the religious people in Jesus’ day. He calls us to a righteousness beyond that. Living out of that righteousness does generate real reward.
Yesterday I learned through Facebook that a person I used to know had died. As I read the witnesses to the ministry of this man, and the celebrations of his life, and the heartfelt words of grief, I found myself in a difficult position. While I, too, celebrate the accomplishments of this man, at the same time, I grieved for what he took from my life.
Like so many other women, I have found this election season difficult as I have witnessed a number of women from both sides of the presidential race step forward to share that they had been sexually abused in the past. Whether or not the abuse was years and years ago or more recent, or whether the women had told someone or not, or whether or not the abuse was documented in a way that would hold up in a court of law, the fact that these women took the risk to come forward and speak their hard truths aloud, voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way for all kinds of unwanted attention, accusations, and potential lawsuits, really struck a chord with not just me, but many women. I don’t believe that any of these courageous women did it for notoriety. They came forward because they believed it was the right thing to do. The experiences these women shared brought to the fore my own experience as a young and vulnerable woman who was taken advantage of by a repeat sexual predator. For the last two months, these feelings have been bubbling just below the surface of my consciousness.
The truth is, I don’t want to think about what happened to me all those years ago. (I suspect the same is true for others who have experienced sexual harassment of any sort.) I don’t want to be reminded of it. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to tell people about it. And most of all, I don’t want to deal with the feelings of anger and shame and resentment that emerge when I am forced to remember. I would rather just leave my experience in the distant past and spend my time enjoying the wonder of my present, in which I am happily married to a loving and kind and generous man.
But alas, this election season had already had the unfortunate effect of reminding me of this man. And now he has died. I am unable at this point to avoid dealing with my feelings. They are flowing out of me like a waterfall that cannot be stopped, even as my own tears of grief are flowing down my face as I write these words.
I am angry, and I don’t want to turn the other cheek. I want revenge. To use my colleague’s words, right now I am sorely tempted to take “proportionally limited revenge against someone who has harmed” me. More than anything, I want to tell these people who are celebrating the life of this man and sharing their stories about the profound meaning that his ministry brought to their lives, that like everyone else in this world, he was not perfect. In my experience he was an evildoer. He not only struggled with some mighty demons, but he brought those demons to bear on others.
But alas, my colleague, and Jesus, are both right. My desire for revenge is but an unpleasant reminder of my own imperfect righteousness and the righteousness of this world, this age, and even the righteousness of the best (and the worst) religious people of our day.
Jesus is calling me, and you, and all of us who would call ourselves his disciples, to move beyond that way of responding. Because a righteousness that only involves loving those who are easy to love, while at the same time feeling hatred and wishing vengeance upon a person who has brought us harm, will not generate a real or lasting reward, nor will it generate a real or lasting society. Seeking revenge will not satisfy my longing for the innocence I once enjoyed. It will not bring justice. It will only bring more harm, especially to those for whom this man’s ministry really was a Godsend.
I know the reward I seek is much greater than any temporary reward that would come from tarnishing someone’s legacy. But I have to say, today it doesn’t feel like much of a reward.
And yet, I know in my heart that it is the ultimate reward.
I simply cannot say it better than Jason Byassee, writing in Feasting on the Word:
We are called here to love as God loves. This cannot be done out of our own resources. So this is no admonition to try harder—if it were, it would indeed be recipe for despair. It is a plan of action rooted in the promise to be made "children of your Father in heaven" (v. 45). The Sermon here and elsewhere is a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable, comes among us in Christ, suffers our worst, and rises to forgive us. Turn the cheek, give the cloak, go another mile, lend, love the enemy—because that is how God loves. If you want to follow this God, fleshed in Jesus, you will be adopted into a life in which you find yourself loving this way before you know what you are doing.
(“Theological Perspective” on the Gospel reading for the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 382. Italics mine.)
It is not easy, this being a disciple of Jesus thing. It would be easier, and perhaps even feel more satisfying, at least in the moment, to live by the saying, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” But I believe, I really believe, that this is the better way. It is the only way.
For me, Jesus is not some character in a story. He is not a sage from the past. He is not a wise and important teacher. He is my Savior. He is the Messiah. He is the Son of the Living God. And so, not only do I believe him when he says that seeking the reward of my Heavenly Father is worth more than any temporary human feeling of worldly satisfaction, but I believe that the really difficult teachings like this one give us a portrait of the very heart of God.
My friends, this, not that, is what God wants for me, and for you, and for this world that God has created.
I seek a kind of healing that can be accomplished only by the hands of the one who made me. I know I can’t do it on my own. I can’t generate the healing I need. Healing can come only by way of the paths Jesus has laid out: forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation. I can’t do this for myself, and I can’t get there on my own any more than I can be perfect in my own righteousness. But God can show me the path to healing, and God can make what is imperfect in me more perfect, just as God can heal you and make you more perfect. God can bring true, deep healing to anyone and anything. That is the true miracle, the true reward.
The good news of Jesus Christ is that his way comes from the very heart of the God who made us, and who knows each one of us to the core. It comes from the God who has counted and knows the number of hairs on each one of our heads. It comes from the God who loves the unlovable, and who makes the sun rise on both the righteous and the unrighteous, and who sends the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike.
I am not saying that predators should not be brought to justice. But I am saying that becoming fixated on anger and pain and a desire for retribution is not a path to healing for victims. It is not a way to finding a peace that is lasting. I believe with my whole heart that Jesus is right about that.
Jesus Christ IS the way and the truth and the light. He is the only way for me. He is the way forward today and the way to everlasting life. And I’m going to follow him and trust in him and know that the reward in heaven that we will all one day receive will indeed be great — greater than any of us can imagine.