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The Lamech Strategy

February 24, 2014

“The Lamech Strategy” Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48 © 2.23.14 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved. See notes at the end for revision idea.

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.” I never saw The Godfather, so the first time I heard that saying was in Stark Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There the villain calls it “an old Klingon proverb” and adds with a sneer “It is very cold in space.” Indeed, Klingon culture as represented in Star Trek approved heartily of revenge, regarding the exacting of it as a matter of honor and right. But the actual story of the proverb is not quite as colorful.

The original version was first found in a French novel from 1841 and is translated as “Revenge is very good eaten cold.” In popular usage, it came to mean that revenge is most satisfying after being planned for a long time and exacted in an unexpected way. The one wronged nurses the hurt and lets the desire for vengeance sustain him or her until the act is carried out without regard for feeling or consequence.

If you’ve seen the wonderful classic adventure movie The Princess Bride, you know that one of its themes is revenge. Inigo Montoya, played by Mandy Patinkin, has for years been seeking the man who killed his father. He practices hours and hours with a sword so he will be ready for the moment he finds the culprit. Montoya has paid the bills by hiring out his skills to shady characters, but it’s the desire for revenge that has sustained his spirit. He’s memorized what he will say right before he runs the man through. Montoya will greet him with this: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Presumably this will strike fear in the heart of the murderer and seeing such terror will give Montoya satisfaction.

We understand that movie character and anyone else who longs for revenge for some wrong done. We have soaked up the spirit of the age; our culture and so many others are based in retaliation and violent revenge or at least vengeful litigation. TV shows draw in audiences as they celebrate people who seek vengeance. Our tendencies are enshrined in common sayings like “I don’t get mad; I get even” and “I give as good as I get.” In public, we may claim we are shocked when people get back at each other, maybe in some violent way. But who of us can really say his or her heart hasn’t been full of the desire for revenge at one time or another? I certainly can’t. Isn’t there some harm, perhaps harm that can’t be undone or repaired, some wrong that has been done to you or me or a loved one or our country that makes our blood boil? Haven’t we been angry enough at someone that we wished them physical harm, even death? Or at least humiliation, insult, loss of power, prestige, respect? When we have heard of some tragedy like divorce, illness, car wreck, defeat or grief befalling an enemy whose goal has been to ruin our lives, and has done so, haven’t we wanted to do a little dance and shout “Hallelujah! They finally got what they deserved!” “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” and I bet a lot of us like frozen treats.

But in our glee, Jesus comes meddling yet again. His specific target to start off is the so-called lex talionis, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” The intent of that rule of ancient culture was to make sure that the punishment fit the crime and did not exceed reason. If someone took your eye, you or your family could not demand both of the perpetrator’s eyes in punishment; you were only entitled to one-to-one compensation. So the rule was meant to ensure fairness and to provide legal remedies that would forestall the cycle of revenge. By Jesus’ day, the principle had morphed into a set of rules prescribing monetary compensation for an eye or a tooth rather than taking the body part. But it had also come to mean in popular imagination the exact opposite of what it originally did. Now it was warrant for taking revenge, for retaliation. Strange how we can do that with the law or other rules. We humans can pervert any good intention, can’t we?

Let’s be clear. Our Lord is not against justice or legitimate self-defense. But what Jesus is against is the constant cycle of revenge and retaliation that goes on and on and on until, as someone has put it, we are all toothless and blind. This is the disproportionate, hateful, unreasoned response which I’m calling the “Lamech strategy.”

Do you know that Old Testament character? He’s from Genesis, in which he makes a bragging speech to his wives: “‘I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold’” (Genesis 4:23,24). Notice how lopsided his action was? Killing the man who merely wounded him.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Look at me wrong, and I’ll kill you. Talk back to me, and I’ll kill you. Text in a theater, and I’ll kill you. Play your music too loud in a parking lot, and I’ll kill you. Don’t do what I say, and I’ll kill you. Here is how the thinking of Lamechs ancient and modern goes. I am an Exalted Person, Special and Unique, Indispensible to Society, so striking me, hurting me, even speaking to or looking at me the wrong way, should carry the ultimate penalty, namely, death, which I can carry out as judge and jury and executioner. I have become Exalted either because I believe that I have, on my own, achieved more than you or because I think I am entitled to benefits and privileges which I claim you have robbed me of in some way by your asking to be treated fairly. It is my right, and indeed my duty, to make the world safe for other Exalted Persons and rid it of those of lesser value who do not do what they are told and stay in their place. My soul is of more value than yours, and I am more equal before God and more loved by him than you. More on that later. (See endnote.)

As Jesus continues his criticism of the Lamech strategy, he cites some specific and problematic examples from his day, using technical legal and military terms to make his point. The translation we heard (NRSV) has “Do not resist an evildoer.” But this is not a counsel to be passive. Better is “Do not take revenge against one who does you wrong” or even “Do not resist in an evil way.” The word is best understood, though, as referring to suing someone for damages for wrong done. It also has a military meaning: “Do not offer armed resistance.” Jesus is asking his followers to renounce the right to personal retaliation.

The church fathers told us that our Lord’s call does not preclude self-defense. And it does not mean a Christian cannot serve in the military. Augustine said that the evils in war were not so much death and destruction but rather “‘love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity… and the lust of power… (see Lisa Cahill, “Nonresistance…,” Interpretation, 10/1984: 384). Thomas Aquinas said that when we defend ourselves, we must do it not in “revengeful spite.” And he told us sometimes it’s necessary to fight for the common good.

No doubt there were plenty of people hearing our Lord that day who considered themselves fighting for the common good. Judah was occupied by Rome, and there were insurgents who resisted the Romans violently. Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot, later among Jesus’ disciples, were two such men. Our Lord deliberately seems out to antagonize these people.

One particularly irksome practice the Romans had, along with King Herod’s soldiers, was called “impressing.” No, that wasn’t about a solider looking good, flashing cash or getting dates. “Impressing” meant that a the military could make civilians carry a soldier’s pack or the person’s cart or donkey could be taken for use by the army. Impressing was what happened when Simon of Cyrene was made to carry our Lord’s cross. Jesus uses the military term for such a practice. He also tells people to go not an extra stadion, which was the Greek term for a long distance, but a milion, the Latin, Roman unit, from which we get our word “mile.” It’s a term for measurement that would have sounded foreign and reminded the crowd of the language spoken by the army.

The revolutionaries would have called Jesus a traitor for such talk. How he ever got the terrorists Judas and Simon on board is a mystery. But the revolution Jesus has in mind is much more radical that overthrowing an oppressor, as wonderful as such freedom is. He has in mind going beyond expectations held by both neighbors and enemies. Radical, unexpected, incredibly gracious action. Like taking insults without responding in kind and even going beyond that to doing good to the one who insults you. That’s the meaning, I think, of turning the other cheek. Or giving up both your inner and outer garments and thus having literally nothing to wear. The coat or tunic in the text is equivalent to our “shirt,” except that it’s really closer to underwear. The cloak was the outer garment. These two pieces would be the only clothes someone owned. Jesus means his followers are to care so much even for those who mistreat them that they are willing to be without security or resources.

Whereas Lamech displayed no restraint or conscience with his strategy of violence and revenge, we are to show unbounded, unrestrained love. Jesus takes the calculus of revenge and turns it upside down, telling Peter later on to forgive not just seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22), the same proportion by which Lamech was avenged.

Jesus is asking for a bold initiative beyond business as usual. The scholar Walter Wink calls it “the third way between passivity and violence.” We don’t have to be locked into the same old options. Jesus invites us to use our imagination, to act with courage, energy, and love. He asks for creative action that breaks the ever-escalating cycle of violence, abuse, and oppression. He tells us not to be baited by our enemies; he reminds us that when we are so drawn in, we become like the one intent on hurting us. Our Lord invites us to remember that we are free people, free to choose how we will respond to insults, hurt, and pain. He wants us to act positively, for good and healing and restoration.

It doesn’t take much courage, imagination or energy to do what everybody else is doing. Jesus wants his followers to stand out. If we love those who love us, greet those who greet us, what’s so special about that? Even the worst sort of person does the same. Why should people be attracted to the Church if Christians are no different than anybody else? What’s compelling and inspiring and innovative about that?

What would be truly radical, especially in our violent, divided day? Wouldn’t it be to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Not more than yourself or less than yourself, but as yourself. That puts the neighbor on equal footing with you and me. He or she or they are the same as we are. Yes, we are different in many ways, and the world assigns status based on those differences. But fundamentally, our souls are of equal value. As someone has written, “Every soul is a thread in the fabric of the world” (K. Gear and M. Gear, People of the Silence: 351). And because our faith teaches us that humans are incarnate souls and ensouled bodies, our bodies are also valuable and not to be harmed. If our neighbors are of equal value, we do not take revenge or do them violence, but show them love beyond expectation or deserving. In our litigious, violent society, where killing and hatred are everyday news, one of the most stand-out ways to show we follow Jesus is to refuse to take revenge.

Remember the saying I shared at the beginning of this sermon? It originally meant that revenge ought not to be taken in the heat of the moment. Instead, we should wait and consider consequences and let wiser, cooler heads and hearts prevail. And then no doubt, we will not take revenge at all.

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

****

End note: the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has an important discussion of the matter of the worth of souls as it pertains to current events at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-susan-brooks-thistlethwaite/michael-dunn-jordan-davis-verdict_b_4799919.html

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