August 2020

The Silent Satisfaction of Divine Payback

13th Sunday After Pentecost, August 30, 2020
Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas –

The disturbing element of any faith tradition is its desire for divine payback, the need for vengeance against callous injustice and heartless brutality inflicted on innocent lives. We wonder where the God of righteousness is when such evil endures without punishment.

The story is told of a man who owned every person and piece of property in his town, whose daughter, in her walk to school each day, would pass a pet shop. In the store window was a parrot who would squawk all manner of obscenities at her every day she passed by, until she finally grew fed up and complained to her father to do something. The miser privately confronted the store owner and told him that if he didn’t alter the bird’s behavior, he would repossess the store and burn the building to the ground. The next day, as she passed the store, the parrot called out to her. “What do you want?” she said. The bird quietly stared at her, then said, “You know.”

The fascinating feature of this story is that there is no fully good or bad side. The owner of the store is at fault for not properly training his bird, and the father is certainly at fault for bullying people into submission. However, it is the daughter who most resembles the ill-treated child of God who complains to her father for relief from her pain and humiliation expecting her father, in the words of the Prophet Jeremiah, “to bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.” (15:15)

None of us can deny the impulse for vengeance, especially when wrongful acts are committed against those we love. Our rage is often impatient for the process of justice to be pursued when the process is as flawed as human behavior. And sometimes we wish we could take action into our own hands pursuing a vigilante or mob style of justice. But when we lack the power or influence to carry out this impulse, does God become our sacred bully and righteous thug?

Have you ever felt so angry at someone or some action taken against you that you could explode? What prevented you from exploding? How do you channel your rage in ways where it is unleashed without harming you or others? Maybe you’re harboring the sort of anger that is not satisfied until you’re able to inflict as much pain on others as you felt was inflicted on you. “An eye for and eye; a tooth for a tooth” (Leviticus 24:20) may be the motto by which you live. But Mahatma Gandhi said that “If you practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, soon the whole world will be blind and toothless.”

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say do not resist an evildoer…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be called children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:38-39, 44) So, when he further said that God “will repay everyone for what has been done (Matthew 16:27); and the Apostle Paul said, “never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19), what is divine payback or vengeance?

Vengeance with God is not retribution, or payback for harm done; but penance, a heartfelt awareness of the wrong committed that makes the offender desire forgiveness and healing.

To what extent has our religious understanding of divine judgment as payback, painful retribution, hell fire and eternal torment affected the way we relate to others with whom we disagree religiously or politically? Well, religion and politics are once again starting to merge as the upcoming presidential election is being seen as a battle for the soul of our nation.

“What will it profit to gain the world and lose your soul?” said Jesus (Matthew 16:26). More than any presidential campaign, life as a whole has always been such a battle in which the rules of engagement for Christians are most accurately expressed by Martin Luther King, who said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

“Do not be overcome by evil,” says the Apostle Paul, “but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) Amen.