I spent a couple of years teaching at a school for gifted and talented students. Many of these students came to the school because they were bullied at their previous schools. One such student was Brandon. Brandon was a 5th grader who had left his previous school because not only was he bullied by the other students – he was also bullied by teachers. Teachers who were threatened by Brandon’s intelligence. Because Brandon would correct a teacher if they were legitimately wrong. Brandon meant no disrespect by correcting the teacher, yet his teachers took it so personally, they retaliated. Embarrassing Brandon whenever he made a mistake – “I guess the smart guy isn’t so smart after all.” Even looking the other way when the kids bullied him for making the top score in the class. By the time Brandon arrived in my classroom, he walked around with his head down and hardly ever spoke – having lost all sense of self-worth.
After a few months Brandon started to improve in his self-confidence. He started to hold his head up again. He started talking to people and making friends with the other kids at the school who were much like him. Then things started to change. Brandon started to bully people. Teasing them for the slightest imperfections. The littlest mistakes. He even got physically violent. I knew that there was more going on than simply a “mean kid.” So I took Brandon aside and spoke to him about what was going on. About why he was hurting others. About how he thought they felt being bullied. He shrugged his shoulders. So I asked him, “Do you remember how it felt when the kids and teachers would bully you at your old school?” He immediately broke down into tears. He was still holding on to all that anger and pain. The rage was absorbing him, draining his heart of compassion, clouding his eyes of their humanity. Brandon was becoming his enemy because he had not learned how to let go. He had not learned how to show mercy.
In 2 Kings, God tells the Prophet Elisha the battle plans of the Aramean king, which Elisha passes on to the King of Israel. The King of Aram is enraged that his plans keep getting thwarted. He is sure there is a spy among his advisors. However, his officers inform him that Elisha the Prophet is the one who is sharing his secret plans. So the King of Aram reacts by sending an army to Dothan to capture Elisha in retaliation. But when the army attacks, Elisha strikes them blind and then uses a Jedi mind-trick on them, saying “Not that way! Not this city!
Follow me and I’ll lead you to the man you’re looking for.” (“These are not the droids you are looking for.”) And so Elisha leads the blind and disoriented Aramean army on an 11 mile hike from Dothan to Samaria – the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Once inside the city gates the Arameans regain their sight and find themselves surrounded by the Israelite army. They are done for. The King of Israel says to Elisha, “Father, shall I massacre the lot?” But Elisha chooses mercy over violence and tells the king –
“Not on your life!... You didn’t lift a hand to capture them, and now you’re going to kill them? No sir, make a feast for them and send them back to their master.”
And so the King of Israel gave the army of his enemy a great feast. And no longer did the Arameans raid the land of Israel.
But why does Elisha do this? Why does Elisha forgive the Arameans? The people who were sent to capture him – even kill him? Why does Elisha show them mercy? Why does he force the King of Israel to show them mercy? After all, they were enemies of Israel! Wouldn’t it have been a better idea to enact vengeance upon them? To slaughter them all and show the King of Aram that you can’t mess with God’s anointed prophet? I mean, the King of Aram reacted out of violence because he wasn’t getting his way – because his secrets were being shared – and so he tries to get rid of Elisha. So why does Elisha choose to show mercy? Why does Elisha choose to forgive?
One of my favorite pastors and preachers is Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber – the founding pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO. She shares the importance of forgiveness – of showing mercy – in a recent video entitled “Forgive Assholes.” In the video, Pastor Nadia makes a powerful statement about how forgiveness isn’t, “an act of niceness. It’s not about being a doormat,” but instead, forgiveness is saying that what the other person did was so NOT okay “that I refuse to be connected to it anymore”… that “forgiveness is about being a freedom fighter” – fighting the chains of resentment that enslave you to that event. That forgiveness is “an act of fidelity to an evil combating campaign.” Because retaliation and revenge only feeds evil instead of fighting it. And as such, just might turn you into your enemy – just as Brandon became the bullies that once hurt him. Brandon could not break free from the chains of resentment. Blinded by revenge, his heart hungry for retaliation, Brandon could not choose mercy. Because only clear eyes and a full heart can chose mercy.
When was the last time you were blinded by revenge towards someone else? When was the last time you were so angry with someone that you couldn’t see straight? When was the last time that you were so hurt by someone that you felt in your heart was a desire for retaliation? What did you do? How did you chose to react?
When you look at them is rage and revenge all that you see? Did you respond to what they did to you through physical, social, emotional, or even spiritual vengeance? Or, like Elisha, did you choose another way?
Did you ever stop and ask, “Where is God in all this?” Instead of retaliating, did you try reflecting – even pray – so that God’s presence could be revealed? Perhaps maybe even pray for God to help you see the pain your enemy is experiencing? The pain that they are taking out on you? This happens all the time. If they don’t find a way to heal from their pain – hurting people hurt other people. Like an injured animal who bites the hand of someone trying to help it. And so often what happens is, a hurt person finds something or someone else to be upset about, to be the object of their pain – because the actual cause of their pain is too great bear.
Pastors talk about this all the time. The common phrase we use is, “The issue is never the issue.” In other words, when people are upset about something, especially something that seems trivial to you, it’s often a reflection of something else more painful in their lives. And you’ll never be able to resolve the presenting issue – no solution will ever be good enough – until you get to the bottom of the underlying issue. And in order to do that, you have to approach the person with clear eyes and a full heart. Eyes that see, not through revenge, but through Jesus. And a heart that is full of the presence of Christ, not retaliation, so that you can offer Christ’s mercy, love, and grace.
It is through the eyes of Christ that God sees us as beloved children instead of eternal enemies. To see the struggles, suffering, and sorrow behind our sinfulness. It is through the broken heart of Christ that God’s mercy freely flows to us instead of God’s wrath. And Christ’s clear eyes and full heart gives us the ability to see our enemies with clear eyes and full hearts – so that we can offer mercy and reconciliation instead of judgment and vengeance – which belong to God alone.
Even when we ask God to “smite” our enemies – God doesn’t do that. Instead, God puts us in a position to confront our enemies, drawing us closer to them – physically, spiritually, and emotionally – even bringing us around the same table to feast together as an act of reconciliation. A place where the violence our enemy inflicts upon us is no longer that which connects us to one another. To where that violence no longer defines us – because if we remain connected through that harm, if we remain defined by that violence – we will become the one who causes harm, who causes violence. We become our enemy, and the cycle of violence perpetuates, generation after generation.
Elisha broke the cycle of violence between Israel and Aram NOT because he wanted something from the Arameans, but because he wanted something better for the Arameans and for the Israelites. Elisha broke this cycle of violence through an act of mercy and a feast of reconciliation. And Jesus Christ does the same for us through a feast of reconciliation that reminds us of his act of mercy every time we partake of it.
Today we participate in World Communion Sunday. We share in this meal of reconciliation with our siblings in Christ all around the world. However, if you come to the table of mercy without mercy in your heart, you can’t be part of that communion. I’m NOT saying I’m going to ban you from the table. I’m saying that you ban yourself from communion when you choose not to be merciful. That you can’t see the presence of Christ in the communion moment when your eyes are clouded with revenge. That you can’t filled by Christ if your heart is full of retaliation. That we, as the church, can’t be the one Body of Christ, if we are divided by anger towards one another. So before you come to this table today, search your heart. Search your soul. What is it that fills that space? Is it Christ and his mercy? Or is it anger and a desire for vengeance?
Choosing mercy over revenge isn’t simple. It’s always easier to respond to violence with violence, but as Christians we are called to a better way. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King taught us,
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
May Christ grant us clear eyes and full hearts, so that mercy becomes the way in which we live together. AMEN.