September 3, 2017

13th Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Romans 12:9-21

Matthew 16:21-28


Lately, I have been bingeing on what many people today consider as the most successful television show in history. Yes, I have been watching Game of Thrones. The show is rated R18+, which means that it is not suitable for the faint hearted. The show has been criticized for showing too much violence and nudity, but it’s a fascinating show that mixes fantasy genre with political intricacies.

For those who are not familiar with the show (which I assume the majority of people here), the show is about different powerful families competing against one another to sit on the Iron Throne and become the ultimate ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. To reach this objective, members of those families have to outmaneuver one another using tricks, deceptions, manipulations, betrayals, even violence. As such, these families commit atrocities against one another and they all get tangled in unending cycles of revenge and counter revenge.

The basic premise of the movie is made clear when the Queen, Lady Cersei from the richest family, Lannister, threatens the Hand of the King, Lord Eddard from another powerful family, Stark. The Queen explains the ‘rule’ of the game to this second most powerful man in the Kingdom. “When you play the Game of Thrones,” she says, “you win or you die. There’s no middle ground.”

The premise is further stressed when another important character, Petyr Baelish, member of the King’s powerful Small Council, asked Lord Eddard Stark to outmaneuver his enemies in the wake of the King’s death. His rule was simple, yet potent: strike first or your enemy will strike you later; kill first or be killed.

Survival is indeed the only thing that matters. And those who try to live honorably by holding on to moral codes, values, or traditions will perish.

Reality is different from the movie though: it is worse; much worse. In fact, Game of Thrones is inspired by historical events mainly in Europe, especially in England, in the middle ages. The writer of the novel, which was adapted into the show, was inspired by the time in history when powerful families fought against one another to claim the throne; the time in history when manipulations and violence were necessary tools to defeat ones’ rivals and achieve ones’ ultimate goals.

The Prophet Jeremiah also lived in this kind of political environment where rivals sought to destroy one another, either figuratively or literally. Yes, he too had to live his own version of Game of Thrones.

He was an important political figure in the Kingdom of Judah in 7th century BC. The Kingdom of Judah was theocratic and Jeremiah, as a Prophet who delivered God’s words, played a significant role in the Kingdom.

Yet, he was not the only one with political influence. There were other powerful figures around him; some opposed him and his message. He had many enemies in the royal court, competing with him to get the King’s attention. Some even tried to murder him.

This was the reason for the strong words that he uttered; the words that we read today in our passage this morning. Jeremiah had come to the end of his patience. His enemies were closing in on him and he had had enough of their political maneuvers and manipulations not only to outdo him, but also to harm him. The rule that had governed many politicians spoke loudly in his head: strike first before your enemies strike.

So he asked God to take action against his enemies. He asked God to be his political ally who would protect him by destroying his enemies.

But God’s words back to Jeremiah must have surprised him. Instead of affirming his thirst for his enemies’ blood, God asked Jeremiah to repent. God asked Jeremiah to look at himself. As God’s prophet, Jeremiah was not to worry about his enemies. His focus should not be on how to destroy his enemies; his focus should be on how to be God’s faithful servant who would deliver God’s words to the people. God, in God’s righteousness, would be the one who would deal with his enemies.

The same kind of theme occurs in our reading from the Gospel of Matthew. It may not be obvious in the passage, but Jesus’ disciples lived in an environment that was also fraught with political tensions, waiting to explode. The Roman Empire had occupied the territory where the Jews had lived for many generations. And they were well known for ruling with brutality. As such, the local population had so much hatred towards these foreign invaders. They wanted to kick them out of the land. Many wanted to take revenge for all the atrocities that this foreign superpower had done to the local population.

Peter and the other disciples were products of this environment. Like their fellow locals, they too must have wanted to take revenge on the Romans for years of brutality and violence against their own people. And like their fellow locals, they had been waiting for a liberator who would defeat these foreigners and free their homeland. They called this liberator, Messiah. This Messiah would come from the line of their greatest King, David, and he would destroy the Romans and rebuild Israel as an independent Kingdom.

The disciples had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah that they had been waiting for. He was the descendant of David and the miracles that he had performed were proofs that he truly was the Messiah who had come to liberate Israel.

So we can understand their disappointment when Jesus told them that he was going to die in the hands of the leaders. Simon Peter represented what the other disciples must have felt when he took Jesus aside and rebuked him for what he said. In Peter’s mind, the Messiah could not be killed. After all, how could Jesus liberate the people of Israel from the powerful Roman army if he was dead?

But Jesus was offering a different way; a way that none of the disciples could understand at the time. He was offering the way of the cross. The disciple had looked for a way to avenge their fellow countrymen and women who suffered under the Romans. Yet Jesus was offering a way that began by sacrificing one’s self for others, even for one’s enemies. The way of the cross is the way that loves one’s enemies, does good to those who hate, blesses those who curse, prays for those who abuse (see Luke 6:27-28 and Matthew 5:44). This was definitely nothing like the way of paying back one’s enemies for their atrocities; the way that the disciples had envisaged.

Indeed, friends, it’s easy to be self-righteous and judge others unfavorably, especially those who disagree with us or those we don’t like, even hate. It is easy to think that we are right and justified to seek retribution against our enemies.

But our judgement can be wrong. Our judgment is often clouded by our own biases, preferences, desires, personal-conflicts, upbringings, traditions, educations, environments, personalities, etc. As such, we can easily misjudge others and only make the situations worse.

That’s why Paul, in his letter to the Romans that we read today, reminded his readers not to think too highly of themselves. He reminded them not to think themselves as wise because they may not be better than those people whom they judged. By saying this, Paul out himself in the same tradition with Jesus who once warned people to worry about the log in their own eyes before worrying about the speck in other people’s eyes.[1]

Indeed, Paul asked his readers not to play the role of a judge and to leave judgement to God. He reminded them about a passage in the book of Deuteronomy (32:35) that reminded the people of Israel that vengeance is God’s. God was the ultimate judge. God and God alone could judge people justly and purely. As such, the Romans were to show not judgement, but love. They had to repay evil not with evil, but with goodness.

Friends, we all live in our own ‘Game of Throne’ We may not be fighting others to sit on the ‘Iron Throne’ or rule the ‘Seven Kingdoms’, but, in one way or another, we have our own battles to fight.

Yet, today we are reminded not to follow the world and its ways. We are to follow Jesus Christ and his way of the cross. We are not to think too highly of ourselves, but provide ample space for God to take action. Even more, we are to deny ourselves: our pride, our desires, our agenda, so that we can learn to see others as who they are: the subjects not of our revenge, but of God’s love and mercy.

May today we learn to be prophets of peace not only to our community and wider society; but also to the ones closest to us. Amen.

Toby Keva

[1] Matthew 7:3