September 23, 2018

GO HIGH NOT LOW

BIBLE READINGS
Psalm 54
Jeremiah 11:18-20
Mark 9:30-37
James 3:13-4:8

 REFLECTION

We are lucky to live in a mature and modern democratic country here in Australia. Here, the pursuit and transition of political power is done peacefully.

But it doesn’t mean that our political world is free of violent language. Even in a peaceful democracy like Australia, we still hear violent language being used in the political world. We hear phrases like ‘bloodletting’ or ‘backstabbing or ‘heads rolling’ or ‘open season’. We are lucky that those words are only metaphors, not description of real events. 

But, in the past, politics could be brutal and violent. We can witness this in many parts of the Bible, including our readings today from Psalm 54 and Jeremiah 11.

Our reading this morning from Psalm 54 was traditionally attributed to David. It was traditionally believed that David wrote the Psalm during his time hiding from King Saul. But the people, amongst whom David was hiding, betrayed him and told King Saul where he was.[1]

 Now, most scholars would say that David didn’t actually write the Psalm. But his circumstance matched the circumstance that the real author of the Psalm faced. He too was attacked by his enemies. His life was also threatened by those who wanted him to fall.

The Prophet Jeremiah also faced similar situation as we can read it in our reading from the book of Jeremiah. Because of his prophecies, some people perceived him as a threat and an enemy of the Kingdom of Judah. So they devised evil scheme against him behind his back. They planned to silence him by killing him. Not only that: they tried to destroy his legacy so that no one would remember him or his message.

No wonder that both Psalm 54 and Jeremiah 11 contain strong language. Both the Psalmist and Jeremiah asked God to save them by destroying their enemies. They asked God to take revenge on their behalf.

This kind of prayer sounds quite disturbing for modern ears like ours. But by asking God to act, both the Psalmist and Jeremiah chose not to take exact revenge themselves. By providing a space for God’s judgement, they didn’t take matter into their own hands. At the heart of a prayer like this is the acknowledgement that human beings can be savage. We can be savage towards one another when we take justice into our own hands. 

You may remember about the 16-year-old boy, Elijah Doughy. He was riding what seemed to be a stolen motorbike near Kalgoorlie when a man saw him. The man chase Elijah in his 4WD, resulting in Elijah being run down by the car, killing him. The man was convicted of dangerous driving causing death and was put behind bars. Things would have been different had the man called the police instead of taking the law into his own hands.

Praying the kind of prayer in Psalm 54 and Jeremiah 11 is akin to reporting to police for a crime committed against us. When we report a crime to police, we hand over our desire for justice to the officers of the law. We provide a space for them to make the judgment, which we hope will be proportionate to the crime. 

Imagine if all of us take justice into our own hand. It will only result in chaos. Act of revenge will be met by more acts of revenge. And the problem will only get bigger and bigger, and more and more complex to untangle.

But Jesus has shown to us a different road, the high road. In the Kingdom of God that he proclaimed, there will be no room for revenge. “If someone hit you on one cheek,” he once said, “don’t retaliate. Offer him your other cheek.”[2] In other words, Jesus has taught us to be a better person than the one who wants to harm us. If we do what others who want to harm us do, then we are no different than them. We are to be perfect, just like our Father in heaven is perfect.[3]

That was why Jesus taught his disciples that if they wanted to be great, they must be the servants of all. He knew that the source of all conflict was the desire within us to be the greatest. Now, Jesus didn’t talk about healthy competition. He talked about destructive ambition that was driven by pride. He talked about the kind of desire that made people willing to destroy one another to come out on top. 

For Jesus, greatness was not about vanquishing all of our enemies; for him, greatness is about serving others, even our enemies.

We can see this life of servanthood in Jesus’ own death and resurrection. In his life, Jesus had become a threat to those with great power and privileges. They wanted to keep their power and privileges and Jesus’ growing popularity and influence was a threat to them. 

So, just like what happened to the Psalmist and Jeremiah, they started devising a plan to silence Jesus. And they made good of their threat. They killed Jesus on the cross.

But throughout the ordeal, Jesus chose to take the high road. When he was arrested, he asked his disciples not to retaliate with violence.[4] He even healed one of his attackers who were wounded in the kerfuffle.[5] And when he was hanging from the cross, dying in pain, he asked for forgiveness for those who crucified him.[6]

But his resurrection from the dead vindicated his way. His enemies could not defeat him. They may have killed his body, but they could not destroy his soul. And the road that he took must be the road that all of his disciples, including us today, must take. 

During last US Presidential Campaign, the former First Lady of the US, Michele Obama, shared her experience. Being a prominent public figure was not an easy job. Like other famous personalities, she and her family were constantly attacked by those who hated them. Some were quite personal. But she had a tip, which she shared openly, on how to deal with bullies. “When they go low,” she said, “we go high.” In other words, when others are nasty towards you, don’t be nasty like them. Be a better person.

This attitude is relevant in all communities at all times. It was relevant at the time of James, the author of the letter of James. We can see from his letter today that he was dealing with a serious conflict in his congregation. And he knew that jealousy and selfishness were at the very heart of that conflict.

As such, their prayers were not effective because their prayers were also based on jealousy and selfishness. Perhaps, the prayers were similar to the kind of prayer that was uttered by the Psalmist or Jeremiah uttered. Instead of praying for healing and reconciliation, they prayed for the destruction of their enemies.

As the result, the congregation was tearing itself apart. Instead of becoming the light for the world, the congregation had become like the world itself.

But James reminded his readers that those who followed God’s wisdom would not be jealous or selfish. Those who followed God’s wisdom were pure, friendly, gentle, sensible, kind, helpful, genuine, and sincere. They would plant the seed of peace, not troubles; seed of justice, not partiality. Those who followed the world’s wisdom were worldly, but those who followed God’s wisdom were godly. And God is a God who loves not the proud, but the humble. So James’s solution to the troubles in his congregation was simple: follow the wisdom of God not of the world.

In the end, friends, it’s all about behaving like adults. Children have less control of their emotion. I have a growing 18-month-old son, so trust me, I know what I’m talking about. See, Abia sometimes got into small arguments with other children his age. He likes to grab things that he likes from someone else. As you can imagine, he often got himself into a kind of ‘tug of war’ with the other kids over things like toys or balloons (especially balloons).

But they are little children. They don’t have much control of their emotion. We, on the other hands, are adults. And we need to start behaving like adults.

Friends, Jesus has shown to us the high road that we must take. A study once found that exacting revenge will only reopen and aggravate our emotional wounds. Revenge only prolongs the unpleasantness of the original offence and creates a cycle of retaliation. We will end up hurting ourselves because we cannot heal. Or, in the words of the English philosopher, Francis Bacon:

“A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal.” [7] 

So, let’s take the advice from the former First Lady of the US that when they go low, we go high.

Amen.
Toby Keva

[1] See the Note before Psalm 54

[2] Luke 6:29

[3] Matthew 5:48

[4] See Matthew 26:50-52

[5] Luke 22:49-51

[6] Luke 23:33-34

[7] Vanessa Van Edwards, The Psychology of Revenge, an article on https://www.huffingtonpost.com (07/13/2015 07:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017).