Reading Matthew 16: 21-28
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
‘Revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold’. So says the main protagonist, played by Dennis Price, in the film Kind Hearts and Coronets, as he kills off a number of his relatives, all played by Alec Guinness. It’s a beautifully acted and a very funny film. I watched it the other day. I recommend it but there are, I warn you, some not very PC moments – which I won’t go into.
Now, I don’t know who these people of taste, these vengeful epicures, might be but I wouldn’t say that they were people of discernment, because there’s nothing tasteful about taking revenge – not in real life.
It’s perhaps understandable if someone takes revenge in the heat of the moment but to nurse revenge in your heart for a protracted period waiting for the moment to pounce – well, I would say that that was extremely unhealthy, to say the least of it.
Perhaps I lack imagination but I can’t think of any situation in which revenge – whether served hot or cold – would be a right response. Or put it another way. Can you think of any situation to which Jesus’ response would have been to exact revenge? I think not.
We see the results of revenge all around us. We’ve seen an example in and around Gaza recently. One side launches rockets at the other side; the other side responds with violence; more rockets are launched; another violent response ensues. And before you know it, people who hated and distrusted each other before now hate and distrust each other even more. And a solution is more out of sight than ever, though thankfully we do now have a cease-fire – more the result of war-weariness than anything else.
Evil is not conquered by retaliation. It is made worse.
Paul, in that letter to the Romans that we heard, says: ‘Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’. That sounds to me like plain common sense. It’s the only really positive thing that can be done.
But hang on a minute! He also says: If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing so you will heap burning coals on their heads.
By doing so you will heap burning coals on their heads! That’s a rather odd phrase. You might argue that it actually sounds like exacting revenge, only using a more subtle and convoluted method. Make your enemies aware of your moral superiority. Twist the knife of inferiority and guilt in their hearts.
I suspect we’re all capable of that kind of revenge – the revenge that pretends to be something else.
Well, I don’t for a moment think that that is what Paul meant, but I do think he expresses himself, shall we say, a little infelicitously. He’s actually shoe-horning in a quote from the Book of Proverbs. He might have done better to use his own words.
What he means, I take it, is that we should be generous to our opponent. That is our task in any such situation – nothing else. And, who knows, it may change the opponent’s heart. It at least gives your opponent an opportunity, a space in which that might happen.
You sometimes hear it said that being a Christian doesn’t mean you have to be some kind of doormat. Jesus may have said things like ‘turn the other cheek’ but that doesn’t mean we should let other people trample all over us.
Well, I think that’s basically right. If we’re a doormat and we let people walk all over us, we’re not actually doing anything to overcome evil. We’re certainly not overcoming evil with good. We’re being merely passive. Paul says that we should be combating evil. Being a doormat allows evil to flourish. Mere passivity allows evil to flourish.
What do we say then about Jesus and his going to up Jerusalem to die? From one perspective it all seems very passive on his part. He knows, at least in outline, what’s going to happen to him.
Things are going to be done to him by others and he’s not going to lift a finger to stop it. He’s going to be turning the other cheek with a vengeance – although of course vengeance is entirely the wrong word.
But this passivity is only an appearance. He knows what needs to be done and he chooses to do it deliberately and consciously, in the full knowledge of what it will involve. Jesus is not being a doormat.
It’s illuminating, I think, to reflect on the fact that in all three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – Jesus predicts his own death three times. For Jesus and the gospel-writers his death and his embrace of the knowledge that he was going to die were highly significant parts of his ministry – in fact the most significant part, for which the rest was a kind of preparation.
Going up to Jerusalem was no spur of the moment whim. This was a chosen course of action to which Jesus could see no alternative. He could have changed course and gone somewhere else. He could have lain low for a while. He could have gone to live quietly again in Nazareth. He could have emigrated. Any of those options might have been the prudent thing to do. He had a choice. I’m sure he was tempted.
It’s not that Jesus wants his death to happen but to go anywhere except Jerusalem would have been an act of cowardice and of self-betrayal, because going up to Jerusalem to die was his way of overcoming evil with good – without hatred, without violence, without a hint of vengeance.
Christians disagree about all sorts of different things but all Christians believe, I take it, that in some way Jesus was and is the decisive self-disclosure of God in history. And if he is the decisive self-disclosure of God, he would overcome evil in a particularly universal way.
And we believe he did just that by rising to new life after his death.
If Jesus hadn’t gone up to Jerusalem in the knowledge that he was going to die, we wouldn’t be here today, able at any and every moment to be united with God through him.
As for us, well we can’t change things in such a universal way when we confront evil. But we can make our own more local contribution.
It would be a big mistake to think that you and I and any of us can’t play a part in overcoming evil. We all have the ability to break the momentum, the domino effect of evil, when we are confronted with it. It may not always be our natural inclination. The instinctive human reaction is often one of retaliation. But we do have a choice. We are more than our instincts.
In my sermon last week I suggested that we shouldn’t try too hard to be good. Rather, I suggested, it’s rather a matter of allowing God to change us. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for will-power and effort. Revenge may be our natural human instinct but we are not obliged to give in to it. We have the choice to respond to evil with further evil or with good. We are capable of both. We can go one way or we can go the other way. We always have a choice.