Year A Proper 17, 30 August 2020
Video Service from St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“Contra Legem Talionis”
Collect: Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
Good morning. Coming hot on the heels of last week’s triumphant declaration by Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, we go immediately into this story, where Jesus has to shut down a train of thought, and he needs to make it clear once and for all that that dog won’t hunt. It is a non-negotiable; it is a non-starter.
We have two thousand years of Christian mythologizing to get out of the way. Most people think of Satan as a guy in a red suit, with horns and a pitchfork. That is mythologizing. The name comes from adversary, opponent, tempter. Evil, probably, but one who gets in the way of God’s plans.
Jesus prophesied what was about to happen in Jerusalem. And Peter says this:
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Hence, Jesus says to Peter, the one who just declared him the Christ,
But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Jesus is not snapping at Peter, but he needs Peter to see, for us to see, that anything that derails God’s work is the wrong way to go.
Peter wanted a Messiah, the one that he had heard about from his earliest days. He envisioned, because it was what had been taught to him, that one was to come who would kick out these Roman occupiers, that would bring glory back to Israel just like it was back with King David. He took no guff from anyone and was a mighty warrior who could back up his words. You see, that is what Peter expected. That was his understanding of what a Messiah would and SHOULD be.
Peter was saying what a good righteous, faithful guy would have expected. It was not that Peter was evil. It was Peter caring deeply, about Jesus and about the concept he had been given his entire life.
But Jesus knew that this is not what was needed or what was to come. God had his sights set on something bigger, something better, something eternal. Jesus used language to make sure that Peter could be shaken out of what was and be invited into a new way of seeing things, and more importantly, a new way of being.
We have a lot of arguments being bandied around right now about what should be the direction of the country and our people. The problem is that like Peter, people have set their sights on things lower than what could be. Caught up in political party, or winning, or getting back for what has happened (and I have heard this coming out of Democrats’ and Republicans’ mouths) maybe we can get back on God’s path and hope for us. I hear people passionately caring for the country mostly, and the disagreement is how we care for the country and the nature of the country we want to have.
As Abraham Lincoln said when asked if he thought God was on the side of the United States during the Civil War, “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.”
This day some people are looking to hit back at their supposed enemies. And it seems that the language is about hitting back harder to supposedly “stop” the violence. Hitting begets hitting, not peace. Not ever.
That is why people rejoiced in this approach of hitting back fairly when it was introduced thousands of years ago. It is an appropriate response. It is “fair.” And for much of human history this has been seen as justice. It created a situation of fairness. Look at much of the rules delineated in the Hebrew Scriptures and it was about establishing a “fair” society. It was the beginning of the rule of law. If someone took your donkey, they owed you an equitable donkey and nothing more. If someone tore down your wall, they owed you an equivalent wall and nothing more. If someone plucked out your eye, you could only take their eye so that it would be “fair.” Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The words that are used to sum up this fairness doctrine is Lex Talionis, the Law of the Claw. It limits the use of force. And creates a system that basically promises a never-ending cycle of hurts and “just responses.”
But most people cannot stop at that. As was said by Gandhi, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
Jesus calls us, like he did Peter, to let go of the status quo, the way things have always been, and step up and reframe the problem from a high perspective. Jesus told the Adversary to get back, he invited people to follow him and not try to lead him down a false path. The higher path was the call of God.
Jesus speaks to this explicitly about his way versus the long-standing way in the Sermon on the Mount:
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
It was summed up in our Romans readings as well. Brothers and sisters, the Adversary is going to be trying to lead us down false paths, and it may seem like the best of intentions. The Adversary may look like our dearest friend, like Peter was to Jesus. It may take the form of a common adherent to our politics. The Adversary comes in many forms.
From Jesus own mouth, “Love your enemies.” Never in my life have I felt like I have had enemies like I do in this climate. We are being divided so that we can be controlled. One of the oldest axioms of politics is still true. Jesus said it, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Matthew 12:25) Or as Hitler instructed his minions in Mein Kampf and in Nazi pamphlets. (Source from NY Times Mar 29, 1942)
Division is not of Christ. Those that lead us to division could be like Peter, pushing us off the higher path of God out of care, concern, or commitment to what they value. Or division could be a means to other ends. Friends, when we face these divided days ahead, we can disagree without being disagreeable. People disagreeing with us are not inferior, less than, and definitely not our “Enemy.” It is so easy to go to that language. It is not of Christ. We are called to love our enemy. We are called to do good to those who hate us. Anything less than that is not of Christ. Anything less than that needs to lead us to say, “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
Our commitment to Christ, our commitment to each other MUST BE, ABSOLUTELY MUST BE, greater than our commitment to anything else. Our country, or our party, or to our electoral choice is far inferior to our first love, our first allegiance, Christ and following him. Amen