When We Want Revenge, And Jesus Says Learn
A sermon on Luke 9: 51-62
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Ilayzu on Unsplash.]
Over the past two months I have developed a bit of an addiction to a delightful new Netflix show called Heartstopper. It is, simply put, the most beautiful, pure, authentic, and heart-warming love story I think I have ever seen.
It happens to be a love story between two High School boys, which means that one of the significant plot lines revolves around bullying and homophobia. Among the bullies, the most damage is done by a character named Ben Hope, who assaults and emotionally abuses one of the protagonists out of jealousy and internalized self-hatred about his own sexuality.
I bring all of this up NOT because I want an excuse to talk about my favorite show, but because of an interesting dynamic I have seen among Heartstopper fans, which I think connects to today’s gospel reading. Almost as soon as plans for two more seasons were announced, fans started talking about whether or not the Ben Hope character would get a “redemption arc.” Some fans expressed a hope (no pun intended) that future seasons would allow for development in this character to recognize the damage he had done and to find healing from his internalized homophobia. But the overwhelming reaction to such suggestions was rejection, and even anger. Most people very emphatically did NOT want the Ben Hope character to have a chance to redeem himself.
And it wasn’t just a dynamic of “the character we love to hate.” Over and over, I saw the argument that what he had done had crossed a line, and he didn’t “deserve” to become a better person. Even statements relishing the anticipation that the character might get physically beaten in a future episode.
For a number of fans, this reaction admittedly came from their own experiences on the receiving end of bullying and abuse. They reacted – strongly – to any suggestion that the enemy could be someone for whom they should have any compassion. And I can understand that response. When we are hurt, our instinctual response is defensiveness to try to protect ourselves from future harm, but that reaction can very easily tip us over the edge into the longing for revenge. We don’t just want to keep ourselves (and other people) safe from the abuser… we want the abuser to suffer. We want him to get what’s coming to him.
Which, of course, is the link I see between this modern fan reaction and the 2,000-year old story that we read today: the universal, human revenge instinct.
Jesus (and, by association his disciples) are in a vulnerable position as itinerants. They depend upon the hospitality of those they encounter along the way for their basic needs for food and shelter.
What is more, in that cultural context, such hospitality is normal. Jesus and his team were not asking for anything other than common courtesy. So, we can understand the anger of James and John when a Samaritan village refused them entry… especially because that refusal seems to be based in bigotry.
Jesus’s face was “set toward Jerusalem,” meaning that he was heading to the center of Jewish religious practice, a location that was the major flashpoint for religious conflict between Jews and Samaritans.
So, when the town essentially says to them “we are denying you your basic needs because of something as central to your identity as your religion,” perhaps we can start to understand the urge for violence in the reaction from the disciples. They are victims of prejudice, and that prejudice represents a genuine threat to their well-being.
So, they want God to punish the people who hurt them. Of course they do!
But Jesus rebukes them. We don’t get to hear the exact nature of that rebuke, because the narrative moves on to describe a series of interactions that reveal the true nature of the discipleship that Jesus is teaching. This description boils down to: itinerancy, the up-ending of social obligations, and a commitment to follow Jesus, no matter what gets left behind.
This is probably the part of the story that sounds the most shocking to us…. “Let the dead bury their own dead”? Come on, Jesus! That’s a bit cold! But, actually, I think it’s the rebuke that’s most shocking… because even though we don’t get to hear what he says in that moment, this gospel does tell us the parable that Jesus tells in the next chapter. And even though we didn’t hear it read today, I bet most of you will recognize it when I tell you the name: it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
That’s right. Jesus and his disciples suffer religiously-motivated rejection and deprivation of basic needs from a group of Samaritans. His disciples ask if they can call on God to punish the bigots, but Jesus says no. And then, Jesus tells them a teaching story in which the hero is a member of the bigoted group!
It’s like telling a victim of bullying that NOT ONLY are they not allowed to pray for their bully to get what’s coming to them… they need to instead consider the lessons of a story about how someone from the bully-social-group is their model for how to love your neighbor.
The SALT Commentary this week softens the lesson a little bit, but still makes an important point. It states, “so far from destroying your neighbors who believe differently than you do, you should be humble enough to learn from them, and follow their lead!”
That’s a tall ask. Humility and learning are important moral goals, but times of vulnerability and conflict are a hard time to practice them. And if we take out the “softening,”... If we remember that Jesus isn’t just talking about “neighbors who believe differently,” but about a group that has actively sought to harm you… we understand how truly shocking Jesus is being here. When we feel injured, and angry, and want revenge, Jesus doesn’t just say “no.” He says, “following me means letting go of all your expectations about how the social rules are supposed to work, and that includes examining your OWN prejudices when you would far rather demonize the other group’s.”
This feels like it’s SO MUCH WORSE than just saying “no” to our longing for revenge… but, actually, I think it might be a message of grace specifically FOR those who are most hurt by the bullies and bigots of this world…. Precisely because it breaks the mold of social rules about how we are expected to deal with pain and victimization.
To explain, let me go back to the Heartstopper parallel and the question of what Ben Hope’s future storyline could be. Those in the “revenge” camp focus their argument on the damage the character did and how he doesn’t “deserve” the chance to change or be forgiven.
Of course, as a Lutheran, I can completely agree that he doesn’t deserve grace, but I also know that grace isn’t about what anyone deserves. Grace is about healing the pain that is not God’s will for the world. And, I can imagine a “redemption arc” for the Ben Hope character that isn’t just about his healing, but is actually about healing the damage he did. You see, the show is based on a series of graphic novels that reveal some pretty serious consequences from the bullying for the character of Charlie, who was the victim. And part of healing that damage, in the story-line, involves Charlie coming to terms with the truth of the trauma he experienced.
But, imagine with me what it might mean for Charlie if Ben Hope were to own up to that trauma – to confess the gravity of what he did, to actually be devastated himself by the harm he caused, and to acknowledge for Charlie how wrong he was.
That kind of a redemption arc isn’t about giving the bully the easy-way-out. It’s about breaking the social convention that says once damage has been done the bully and the victim are forever stuck in a cycle of anger and revenge. It’s about imagining a new path forward on which EVERYONE can heal… by telling the truth, and facing the pain, and finding a way forward instead of getting stuck in the past.
And, yes, this imagined character arc is probably a bit idealistic. Many bullies and abusers never do change. And – to be clear – the Parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t require anyone to extend trust or forgiveness to a person who is going to re-abuse. The Good Samaritan really is good, which is not true of all Samaritans… What the parable does do is to challenge us all to be open to seeing a path for healing where our past expeces don’rient lead us to expect one.
The SALT Commentary offers one more interpretive note that I think can speak to this current moment. It says, “It’s become quite conventional these days to look down on our adversaries, political, religious, and otherwise. But Jesus proclaims that following him involves letting go of conventions like these, steadfastly looking ahead, not backwards; proclaiming God’s dawning reign, not falling back into deadening routines; and embracing a life of getting out and about in the neighborhood, not withdrawing into our foxholes.”
When we feel vulnerable and injured, the foxhole looks protective, but it is really a trap. It keeps us locked in old patterns of enmity and distrust where the best we can imagine in revenge on those who hurt us.
But Jesus teaches us to set our face toward Jerusalem… not looking back at those who have hurt us, but looking forward on the path to healing, even when unexpected companions lead us on the road.
Thanks be to God.