Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in the First Book of Samuel. Here King Saul and his successor David were in conflict. David was able to sneak into Saul’s tent while everyone slept; David’s advisor suggested that he kill Saul but David refused. Instead David took Saul’s spear. Back at his camp David said this: “The Lord repays everyone for his uprightness and loyalty,” and “[t]oday the Lord put you in my power, but I would not raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed.” Luke’s Gospel picks up where last week’s Gospel ended. Jesus instructed his followers to love their enemies and do good to those who hate you. “To the man who slaps you on one cheek, present the other cheek too.” “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” He then explained that even sinners treat other sinners well. But God will bless those who treat others well.”
I think most of us know the outlines of the high point of the Old Testament: After their escape from Egypt, God anointed a succession of kings. First Saul, then David, then Solomon. After Solomon’s death things went downhill and have never gotten back to that peak. Not surprisingly it’s more complicated than that.
When we think about royalty we think that sons succeed their fathers as kings. But David wasn’t Saul’s son, he was the son of Jesse. Saul had several sons, and at least one survived Saul. According to an account earlier in Samuel, Saul disobeyed God and God chose David, not Saul’s son, to be the next king.
Our first reading describes open warfare between Saul and David, and clearly David has the opportunity to kill Saul and assume the throne.
But he doesn’t. Instead he shows mercy to Saul and allows him to live, even over the objections of one of his advisors. David must have known that he would replace Saul, but David chose to let God choose the circumstances of his ascension to the throne. This was an act of both courage and faith.
Luke’s reading also calls us to courage and faith. We have all heard the phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and (let’s face it) it makes some sense to us. Human justice, at our best, calls us to limited revenge. An eye for an eye expects that if someone takes our eye we don’t seek revenge by taking the other person’s life. We are allowed only to damage the other person to the extent that he or she damaged us.
Today’s readings have always mattered in our lives, but I write this at a time when the American President lives by the belief that “if someone hits you, hit him back harder.” Any injury you suffer gives you permission for revenge without limit.
But Luke’s Gospel calls us not to move backward in justice, but forward. If someone hits us we are not called to hit back harder. We are not called to hit back as hard. We are called not to hit back at all.
In 1962 Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. In an iconic scene, Atticus faced an evil man who spits on his cheek. Instead of spitting back or wiping his cheek he turned his face to the man and offered the man his other cheek.
In that scene Atticus showed us all how much he heard today’s Gospel. We are not called to increased revenge, but we are also not called to equal revenge.
Instead we are called to not seek revenge at all.
I’ve often spoken about the difficult journey of discipleship in Christ and this may well be the hardest part of our journey. We are called to love our enemies and do good to those who harm us.
In other words, God empowers us to advance the Kingdom. If we treat our friends as friends and our enemies as enemies our world will continue as it is. This works if we believe that God will watch us for a fixed period of time and then end the world and choose who is saved and who is not.
But I think God wants better things for us. David put his faith in God and spared Saul because he believed that his ascension to the throne would happen by God’s method and in God’s time. David was right.
And I think God’s call for us demands that we also advance justice. We all know the experience of being hurt and we all know that we face a choice: do we choose revenge, or do we ignore it, or do we forgive? And if we forgive, what does that do?
The 20th Century pastor and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King spoke often on this topic. In his quest for racial equality he not only preached nonviolence, he also preached that we should love our enemies. And let’s face it: he had a lot of enemies. Not only James Earl Ray who killed him, but also FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and pretty much any white supremacist in the 1950s and 1960s.
We can fill volumes with Dr. King’s quotations on this topic, but here’s my favorite: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy to a friend.” I think Dr. King looked at his enemies not as people who need to be eliminated or ignored but people who need to be transformed. By loving his enemies he worked to making them friends. Dr. King, reading the same Bible we read, recognized that God wants all of us to have no enemies.
We are called to live in a world with no enemies. That appears a stretch today where success often appears to come from domination, from the ability to use our power to eliminate or marginalize our enemies. Radically, we are called to choose a different path.
In the same way that David declined to use murder to achieve his calling, in the same way Jesus called us to choose love over revenge, we are called ignore what our society tells us and set our eyes on the prize of the Kingdom of God.
Only then will we achieve the Kingdom that God wants for us.