Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Jesus way of getting even

Matthew 5: 38 – 48
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 23, 2014

Every night Julio Diaz, a 31-year-old social worker, ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.  One brisk night, as Diaz stepped off the train and onto a nearly empty platform, he was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy came up to him and pulled out a knife.

            The kid wanted his wallet, so Diaz just handed it over.  As the boy began to walk away, Diaz said to him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The kid looked at Diaz, “like what's going on here?”  He asked Diaz, “Why are you doing this?”

Diaz replied, “If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.  I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome.”  Being a social worker, Diaz thought he could help the guy.  They went into the diner and sat in a booth.

Since Diaz is a regular, pretty soon the manager, the dishwashers, the waiters all come by to say hi.  The kid said to Diaz, “You know everybody here. Do you own this place?”

“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz told him.   The kid replied, “But you're even nice to the dishwasher.”

Diaz replied, “Well, haven't you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”

“Yeah, but I didn't think people actually behaved that way,” the boy said. Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. The kid sat there with almost a sad face.  He couldn't answer Diaz — or he didn't want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz said to his would-be robber, “Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this.  So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you.”

The kid didn’t think twice and returned the wallet to Diaz, who gave the boy $20, figuring who knows?   Maybe it would help.  Diaz then asked for something in return — the young man’s knife —and he gave it to Diaz.

Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You're the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”  The way Diaz figures it, “if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right.  It's as simple as it gets in this complicated world.” [1]

When Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for them, he’s not really saying anything new.  Though swift justice may satisfy our immediate need for it (“an eye for an eye”, “love your neighbor and hate your enemy”), the justice of God has a longer arc and thus, we must go deeper and further that God’s justice may serve everyone and not just ourselves.  This isn’t about balancing the scales but about creating the beloved community, the kingdom of God, which is not just inclusive but expansive.  Jesus may have been remembering a quote from the book of Proverbs (25: 21-22):  “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  

Burning coals is a metaphor for purification; when Isaiah answered God’s call to be a prophet, one of God’s servants touched Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal that he could then speak God’s truth with clean lips.  When we offer the stranger, the outcast, the enemy the extravagant outpouring of ourselves, the burning coals we heap upon heads is the help of removing the barriers between them and God’s grace and by doing so, between us and God’s grace.  To love one’s enemy is to desire right relationship between them and God, for that is how we will have right relationship with God.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his book Strength to Love called it a “double victory”.  In his quest for equal rights for black Americans he was not satisfied with pressuring white Americans into giving in; he wanted more than mere retribution.  He wrote,

“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We shall meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you.  Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you.  Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave half dead, and we will still love you.  But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves.  We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.”

“Wear you down by our capacity to suffer.”  Isn’t it the other way around?  Doesn’t our capacity for suffering wear us down, let alone anyone else?  But it’s not a martyrdom of suffering that’s called for.  It isn’t “woe is me, notice me, and how you’re hurting me”, hoping they’ll quit whatever hurtful thing they’re doing.  Nor is it tolerating abuse or torture, injustice or oppressive systems.

Our capacity to love is linked to our capacity to suffer.  It all comes from the same heart.  Who hasn’t suffered for someone we love?  Sometimes, for our own survival and sanity, we let go of a hurtful relationship.  But we can still love that person or family or group or even church from a distance.  Love in the sense that we want healing for them, for their life to be made whole.  Love that helps us to forgive and sets all of us free.

Gandhi once said that the only devils running around are the ones in our own hearts and that is where all our battles ought to be fought.  We all have our own demons; we are all our own worst enemy.  Imagine the devils running around inside those who create hurtful, exclusionary policies (Arizona, Kansas), who inflict pain and violence on others (Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Central African Republic), who subsidize the wealthy at the expense of the poor, who traffic in human lives, who continue to make a profit while sacrificing the environment.  

These and many others are the most wretched, for they do not know true joy or love.  They are part of the old order of domination, and it is from within that old order that Jesus not only invites us but demands from us a generous life.  A generous life that can transform the old order into fresh, new, interconnected community; community where there are no neighbors or enemies, for all are one.  Community where there is no competition or manipulation or struggle for power, for all is shared.  Community where all are liberated, where none are slaves or prisoners, for all are free, even the enemy.

Remember that the beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”, was written by a former slaveholder, John Newton.  If grace is to be amazing, it must be extended to the most wretched, to the ones blinded by hate and bound by evil, even to those we think lost to God and humankind.

In the words of another hymn, “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

This is the Jesus way of getting even.



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