Vengeance is not ours

A sermon for Sunday, 29 August, 2021

From the cross, Jesus cried out against his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34)

As though God’s mercy endures even this outrage; as though Christ’s faithfulness to God’s mission of mercy were eternal, and indestructible. As though, even after all that he had been and seen and lived and taught, we still did not quite understand the enormity of God’s steadfast loving-kindness and hope for humankind.

In conversation (read, warm disagreement) with the Pharisees, who were, after all, his own people, Jesus turns to the prophet Isaiah and tells them, 

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ (Mark 7:1-8; Isaiah 29:13)

The irony that this particular scripture, from this particular prophet, shows up in this week’s lectionary is rather terrible; a little too much.

Whether our disagreements are political, petty, religious, personal, or otherwise, when we elevate our own precepts to the level of law, instead of inscribing God’s law on our hearts, we have a tendency to decline into disarray, and even violent disaster.

When I say, “we”, I do not mean in the sense of “us” and “them”. The problem appears to be, tragically, universal. Just this past week we have seen it destroy lives and bodies and families. Those who have elevated their doctrines of terror over the dictates of God, whose prophets have long preached peace have wrought havoc and will no doubt wreak more.

Last week, I preached that when the moment of crisis comes, that is when we are challenged to choose to stay with Jesus, to remain in his footsteps, not to deny his Cross.

In this moment of crisis, the human precepts articulated by we, the people may be revenge and retribution. Yet Jesus taught his disciples to love their enemies, pray for their persecutors, forgive their executioners, as he did from the Cross, lamenting our poor understanding of God’s grace.

That does not mean that we accept, let alone condone violence. We do seek to contain it, to protect the vulnerable, which is what the service members who died were doing at the gate, ironically; trying to make an end to this war. But vengeance? That does not belong to us.

It is a problem.

The disagreement that Jesus and the Pharisees had was about proper rituals, the right (rite) way to do things. It was not life and death. It didn’t rise even to the level of our arguments about masks and vaccinations. It was, in the grand scheme, a little thing.

But when we allow even these small things to breed evil intentions in our hearts, to divide us from the humanity of another, we are headed for trouble. Jesus is heading us off, reminding us to stay close to God’s law: the law that begins with loving God, and ends with loving our neighbours as ourselves. To develop and feed habits of the heart and soul that lead to life, rather than to revenge.

And so, as we pray for our armed service members, may we also pray for an end to war. If we pray for those whom our nation lost this week, and those who mourn, may we pray also for the hundreds of Afghans killed on their own soil. If we pray for our loved ones, may we pray also for our enemies. If we pray for victory, may it be for the victory of the kingdom of God, which transcends the human divisions of nations.

And may God continue to have mercy upon us.


About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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