Revenge Revisited, Sunday Sermon from February 24, 2019

Revenge Revisited, Sunday Sermon from February 24, 2019
Click to hear the recording of Rev. Dr. Eric Kimball Hinds re-reading the sermon.

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my Father.  Prepare to Die!

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed my Father.  Prepare to Die!

In the movie The Princess Bride, that is the famous line repeated by the character played by Mandy Patinkin as he seeks to exact revenge upon the cruel and arrogant lieutenant Count Rugen.  As far as sympathy goes—the movie audience easily identifies with the character of Inigo Montoya and his desire for revenge over the murder of his father. It is after all an almost universal experience, that of wanting to get even, to get back for a slight or to settle a score.  From ancient times the oldest law codes recognize a victims right to justice.  An idea succinctly captured in the words An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

And yet, in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus ventures to gather his followers and charges them with loving their enemies.  Love your enemies!?  It’s hard enough to love friends or family sometimes—let alone love your enemies. Can you imagine a new follower of Jesus attempting to make sense of his words Love your enemies?  Love the Romans? —who occupy the country by the point of the sword, heavily tax the population, and crucify dissenters?  Love the bandits and thieves who roam the country extorting what remaining wealth they can find?  In the not too distant future, love your persecutors??  It is more than most of us can get our minds around; and yet, Jesus has a long discourse built around loving one’s enemies.

For starters Jesus instructs:  Do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you, and Pray for those who abuse you.  And then Jesus offers up the idea of turning the other cheek.  This Gospel passage this morning forces one to ask Has Jesus provided his followers with a set of impossible standards—or—Is Jesus on to something?  Something difficult—but significant.  Something important for religious people to grapple with. Ultimately, a set of teachings one should struggle to embrace.

At the center of Jesus’s teaching this morning lies the admonition If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.  At first it seems an invitation to become nothing more than a passive punching bag—vulnerable to any amount of abuse that an assailant might choose to administer.  Upon closer examination though, there is evidence that in the context of his day and age, Jesus is speaking of the specific area of personal insult—where an adversary would registertheir disparagement by using the back side of their right hand to slap the cheek—thus asserting both their authority and dominance.  By offering the other cheek after being slapped, an individual was depriving their adversary of the normal status quo.  Turning the other cheek would force the aggressorto use their left hand, the hand used for unclean purposes, to deliver the next slap.  Thisalternative, if delivered, would acknowledge a level of equality.  And so, far from being an act of passivity, offering the other cheek in this context would amount to a determined act of defiance. A refusal to meet violence with violence andalsoa challenge for one to be recognized as an individual with equal rights and equal dignity.

With Jesus one sees the beginning of an attempt to recognize the innate worth of every person—even one’s enemies.  A venture to see the light within every individual—no matter how dim the flame may be flickering.  By extension it must be something like the way that God must view creation—with the power to love us—even when ourdisobediencetakes us far from the fold of the faithful.  From the outset one must say that this is no easy teaching.  Certainly, one does not come to loving one’s enemies naturally.  Rather, it requires a maturity and a disciplinethat at times may seem far beyond our grasp.  This notion though, of at least praying for one’s enemies, has been embodied by those who have championed non-violence as a means to resist oppression and to bring about social change.

In modern times, one can look to the example of Gandhi, who championed the use of non-violence to resist British oppression.  Those same lessons were adopted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fight for Civil rights in our own country.  And they were also utilized to combat the policy of apartheid in the country of South Africa.  In each of these cases, social change was facilitated by a disciplined approach, one that sought to transform the hearts and minds of one’s opponentswhile refusing to fuelthe flames of violence. There was a determined effort to beak the cycle of hate.

In the movie The Princess Bride, after 20 years of dreaming of revenge, and consumed by relentless pursuit, Inigo Montoya finally catches up with Count Rugen, and he extracts his revenge.  He kills the man—who killed his father.  As the movie reaches its denouement, few people remember the line delivered by Montoya near the very end of the film.  Reflecting upon the movie many years later—the actor Mandy Patinkin offers that: while theYou killed my father—prepare to die! remains one of the most memorablelines from the movie—perhaps the most significantline from the film is delivered by his character right near the end—when Montoya reflects “I have been in the revenge business so long—Now that its over—I do not know what to do with the rest of my life.”

That acknowledgement highlights the way that the anger surrounding revenge can become all consuming—crowding out one’s capacity and energy for positive emotions and action and above all for love.  Speaking about this phenomenaArchbishop Desmond Tutu reminded followers that “Before Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, (relatively) young man”—and then he spent 24 years in prison, breaking rocks, and sleeping on the floor of a tiny cell.  If anyone had reason to hate, to dream of settling a score it was Mandela—and yet to the astonishment all Tutu observed that “When he was released [from prison]  Mandela surprised everyone because he was talking about forgiveness and not revenge.”

When asked one time to explain his outlook Mandela offered that: Resentment is like an individual drinking poison and then hoping that (the poison you consume) will kill your enemies.

Do good to those who hate you
Bless those who curse you
and Pray for those who abuse you.

Love your enemies
Impossible attitudes to undertake on our own.
And yet—if we venture to turn away from revenge and to embody some measure of the love that God holds for us—the promise that Jesus offers is that:

   Forgive and you will be forgiven—
            Give and it will be given to you—
            And—The measure that you give—
                               will be the measure you receive.

Sermon preached by the Reverend Doctor Eric Kimball Hinds at the Episcopal Church of Saint Matthew in San Mateo, California, on 24 February 2019, the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C.  Lessons: Genesis 45:3-11, 15; Psalm 37: 1-12, 41-42; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6:27-38.

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