Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Vengeance Is Mine, Part I

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them. [And he said, "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."] And they went to another village.

Luke 9:51-55 (NIV)

Vengeance is such a personal thing. When we've been slighted, wronged, injured, or insulted, it's natural to demand justice and it's right to want it, but too often the desire to see justice served gives way to a sense of vengeance.

In the story above, Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, and He has to pass through Samaria to get there. The problem is, Samartians and Jews weren't exactly known for their kindness toward one another. The hostility went way back - to about 500 B.C. After Judea's exile into Babylon, the remnant left behind intermarried with Gentiles and became a nation of their own, Samaria. In addition, these Jews developed their own scriptures and worshipped in their own temple. When the orthodox Jews returned from exile 70 yeras later, the hostilities began and remained strong through the day of Jesus. Each group held nothing but bitter animosity for the other, especially the Jews who held their superiority in lineage and religion over their Samaritan cousins. The hostility went to the end that any Jew on pilgrimage to Jerusalem would gladly walk around Samaria rather than through it, should the nation lie in his path.

Thus, it makes some degree of sense that Jesus (a Jewish teacher), on his way to Jerusalem (the Jewish religious center), would get anything but a warm reception on his way through Samaria. Considering the long-standing and deep mutual hostility these nations shared, James' and John's question of Jesus, "Do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" also makes some sense. The Samaritans were the dogs of Jewish culture and they'd just bitten Judea's most powerful rabbi, not to mention God-in-the-flesh.

Jesus' response (omitted in some texts, but useful for purposes of illustration here) is telling of His disciples' attitudes, "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of..."

The King James renders it "manner of spirit". Literally translated, Jesus is telling them "You don't know how serious your attitude problem is..."

So how serious is an attitude or spirit of vengeance?

Check out what God has to say in Amos 1:11,12:

11 Thus says the LORD,
"For three transgressions of Edom and for four
I will not revoke its punishment,
Because he pursued his brother with the sword,
While he stifled his compassion;
His anger also tore continually,
And he maintained his fury forever.
12 "So I will send fire upon Teman
And it will consume the citadels of Bozrah."

Here, God is pronouncing judgement upon Edom - the descendants of Jacob's brother, Esau. In verse 11, the reference to "three transgressions and for four" is the concept of a multiplicity of sin, or the idea of sin upon sin - sin begetting itself. God characterizes Edom's sin as one of vengeance and He describes four things that give us a clue of what a vengeful spirit really is.

1. Because he pursued his brother with a sword

First, Edom is pursuing a "brother". In the Hebrew this could mean "kin" or simply a neighbor with a friendly association. In any case, Edom was ignoring their relationship to the wrongdoer and having their vengeance upon them. Thus, the first sign of the vengeful spirit is a disregard for the relationship to the wrongdoer.

Second, Edom is not only pursuing a brother, but they are doing so with a sword. That is, they are using whatever means are at their disposal to effect thier revenge. That makes the second sign of the vengeful spirit is abusiveness. In our context, this may be a verbal threat, lawsuit, or the use of personal power to exact the metaphorical "pound of flesh".

2. While he stifled his compassion

In the King James, this is a "casting off" of compassion. It translates into a willful supression of any compassionate feelings or thoughts for the wrongdoer. Perhaps the wrong incurred was a result of a misunderstanding - a problem the neighbor struggled with that appered offensive to the Edomites. In our context, we may say the third sign of a vengeful spirit is a refusal to acknowledge the wrongdoer's extenuating circumstances or other issues.

3. His anger tore continually

In the Hebrew, the word "tore" means to disassemble or take apart, one piece at a time. Most people probably don't let it go that far, but a person who deals with a lot of anger eventually lets it dominate their life, leaving them bitter and complaining. Piece by piece, it removes their enjoyment of life and leaves them only with their own anger and resentment to give their days meaning. In a less extreme form, this might be the sort of anger that so completely engulfs a person's mind and thoughts that they can think of nothing else, even if the episode lasts only for a short while. To become so enraged that we are left incapable of thinking of anything but the wrong committed against us is to let anger "tear" at our life and those things in it which make it enjoyable and worthwhile. Thus, the fourth sign of a vengeful spirit is an emotional, angry obsession with the past.

4. And he maintained his fury forever

I especially like this one, probably because it typifies so much of the American "Me" culture. In our lawsuit-happy, "hey-you-get-offa-my-cloud" mentality, Self is sacred. If you wrong me, watch out, Vengeance is Mine! Thus, it's not uncommon to encounter people who live their entire lives bearing a grudge against someone who has wronged them, regardless of the severity of the wrong or time elapsed. Probably one of the most popular lies in American culture is, "I can't help the way I feel". Anyone who says this has not only succumbed to a lie, but also willfully given their emotions reign over their decision-making processes.

One of the principal teachings of Christianity is that our emotions must be held in check by our will. In this case, God is explicit: Edom "maintained" or willfully bore a grudge against their brother. They refused to let the grudget die, no matter how much time had passed. Thus, the fith and final sign of a vengeful spirit is a willful permission to let one's emotions dictate the grudges they bear. Significant chemical / mental issues excepted, such people willfully refuse to exercise their ability to control their emotional life.

Finally, verse 12 reminds us that God doesn't honor a vengeful spirit. Rather, He punishes it, sometimes severely. But we'll get into that next week.

- Graffy

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