Tag Archives: Vengeance

Is “Living Sacrifice” an Oxymoron?

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1 (NIV)

To Paul’s readers, the term “living sacrifice” would have seemed an oxymoron. Animal sacrifice was a common part of religion at the time. This was not only true of Judaism, but most all of the Roman cults and religions practiced some sort of animal sacrifice. So whether the followers of Jesus in Rome who were reading Paul’s words had come from Jewish or Gentile backgrounds, they would have scratched their heads.

Living sacrifice?” I can hear one say. “But, doesn’t the very notion of ‘sacrifice’ mean that something dies?”

Quite right,” I imagine Paul replying if he were there in person. “You do.”

Excuse me?” the Roman believer asks quizzically.

You are the sacrifice,” Paul says, looking the believer in the eye and offering a warm smile. “In fact dying to yourself is really the heart of your worship. Not the occasional sacrifice of an animal like all these other religions you see around us. Anyone can do that and it costs very little in the long run. Cheap and easy, really. Our Lord Jesus was quite direct in telling us that in order to be His follower we have to take up our own cross. We would have to sacrifice ourselves for others, for Him. Just as He did for us. That’s at the very heart of true worship, and being a true follower.

But how does that work, exactly?” the believer asks. “How exactly do I go about making myself a ‘living sacrifice?‘”

Ah,” Paul says, a twinkle in his eye. “I’m glad you asked.”

The entirety of today’s chapter answers that question. What does it mean to truly worship by offering myself as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God?” Ironically, going to church, singing, throwing a buck in the plate, and all the things we normally associate with “worship” are not even mentioned.

Here’s a bulleted and paraphrased list of what Paul goes on to mention in the rest of today’s chapter:

  • Don’t follow the “It’s all about me” behavior and thought patterns of this world.
  • Transform your thinking; Renew your mind with Jesus’ teaching.
  • Don’t think too much of yourself; Maintain an on-going sober self-assessment.
  • Use your gifts and abilities to serve others.
  • Hate evil.
  • Cling to what is good.
  • Devote yourself to loving others.
  • Attach such worth to others that you naturally serve them first.
  • Be zealous in serving others, and keep feeding the zeal.
  • Be joyful in hope for all God can and will do.
  • Be patient when you’re afflicted, there’s a point to the pain.
  • Faithfully maintain an on-going conversation with God.
  • Share what you have with anyone in need.
  • Practice hospitality. Seriously, practice. You need to get better at it.
  • Bless those who persecute you. Do something nice for them and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
  • If you know someone who got a win, sincerely celebrate with them (don’t envy their success or good fortune).
  • If you know someone who is grieving, be present in their pain.
  • Live in harmony with others; You might not be on the same note, but you can at least blend your differences so as not to be dissonant to everyone around you.
  • Don’t be proud; Every day you encounter people in lower, more humble circumstances than you. Be willing to meet them at their level, even if it means stooping below your comfortable social status.
  • Don’t be conceited. Consider the reality that you just might not that important in the grand scheme of things. Embrace it.
  • Evil that is done to you does not justify revenge. Let it go.
  • Do the right thing for everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • You can’t control others, but you can control yourself, so practice that self-control to live peacefully with everyone, not just your particular religious, political, tribal, ethnic or socio-economic constituency.
  • Let me repeat, give up your right to revenge. Vengeance is like drinking poison and expecting it hurt someone else.
  • If your enemy is hungry, give her some food.
  • If your enemy is thirsty, give him some water.
  • Responding to evil with your own evil tactics only escalates the situation and then everybody loses. Respond with goodness. You’ll sleep better.

In order to practice this list on a daily basis,” Paul says to his friend, “it will require some sacrifices on your part: your ego, your time, your pride, your resources, your wants, your comfort, and even your rights. That is how we worship God by being a living sacrifice.”

Ancient Vengeance Cloaked in Modern Technology

“Six of the towns you give the Levites will be cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone may flee.”
Numbers 35:6 (NIV)

Last night as Wendy and I sat on the couch she expressed grief and frustration over a pattern of behavior we’ve been observing on social media. It is quite common for the discourse on Facebook and Twitter and online forums to sink into petty jabs, unnecessary name calling, and a general spirit of anger, hatred, and conflict. And this, we routinely notice, from many whom we love and who eagerly claim to be followers of Jesus.

For the past month or two my chapter-a-day journey through the book of Numbers has taken me back to an ancient times. I’ve been mulling over the lives and times of Moses and the Hebrew tribes. It was, without a doubt, a very bloody and ugly period of human society. Ancient tribal societies lived in a time without laws, law enforcement agents, and a system of justice. It was a time of blood feuds, vengeance and “an eye-for-an-eye” free-for-all of individual retribution.

I can’t help but think of the stories we know like The Godfather in which warring families get embroiled in ever escalating acts of violence and murder against one another. The Tataglia family attempts to kill but only wounds Vito Corleone. Vito’s son, Sonny, actually kills Bruno Tataglia in retribution. But, that’s not enough. Michael Corleone also kills the man who orchestrated the plot and the Police Captain who protects him. But that’s not enough. Everyone goes to the mattresses. But that’s not enough. Michael eventually kills the heads of all the other mafia families to protect himself from retribution. The violence and vengeance never ends.

As Sean Connery famously quips in The Untouchables, “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue!”

What Wendy was observing last night is an example of the old saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” We’re still embroiling ourselves in petty, ever escalating feuds between political, religious, and social clans. Now, however, we do it from a safe distance and use words as our weapons. Somehow, we believe that this is better on the grading curve of human society. Name calling on Facebook isn’t as barbaric as literally sticking a knife in someone’s back. Or is it?

I’m reminded in the quiet this morning of Jesus words:

“For the mouth speaks [and the hand types] what the heart is full of.  A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

In today’s chapter, God through Moses is leading a radical step forward in human history. It is a formalized system of justice. The priestly clan of the Levites are scattered to live among all the other tribes. Within those tribes the priestly Levites create “cities of refuge” to which murderers and those who commit manslaughter may flee. The priests gave sanctuary so that a trial, complete with witnesses, could be conducted and a just verdict could be rendered. The accused was required to stay under the protection of priest in the city of refuge. But get this: If the High Priest died, a period of amnesty was unleashed. The accused were free. Any blood feud or vendetta of vengeance was to end.

What great foreshadowing God gives in today’s chapter for what He is going to do on a cosmic spiritual scale in the Great Story. Jesus, High Priest (Heb 6:20) in the mysterious order of Melchizedek, comes to live among us like the priests sent to live among the tribes. [cue: Silent Night] To Jesus we may flee for refuge with all the accusation, guilt, condemnation and social vengeance nipping at our heels. When Jesus, the High Priest, dies then amnesty reigns. Forgiveness and grace (literally, favor we don’t deserve and didn’t earn) are poured out to the accused and condemned. Prisoners are freed. Vengeance ends.

Wait, there’s more. Those of us who follow Jesus are called “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). Spiritually, I become a Levite of our time. I’m a priest in the order of Jesus. I am to be a person and place where “others” (even those of other tribes I don’t particularly like) may flee to find protection, understanding, kindness, mercy, grace, compassion, and justice.

So, I have to ask myself: When I allow myself to get stirred up  and let that f*ing, clueless, ignorant, MORON on Facebook know just what a #*&%-eating, #@)#-faced, #)@(#* they are… am I extending the royal, priestly rites handed down to me by Jesus? Am I being marked by the Spirit of protection, forgiveness, grace, mercy, and compassion that I claim to have received from Jesus, my High Priest? Am I fulfilling my calling to be part of that royal priesthood? Or, am I perpetuating a deep, very entrenched human part of me that is given to bloody, feudal vengeance cloaked in 21st century technology?

Ugh.

Lord, have mercy on me. Help me lay down my weaponized words; My vengeance which I try to costume as “justice” and “righteousness.” Make me a refuge for “others” – all “others.”

The Dark Turn Towards Vengeance

"Vengeance" by jbelluch via Flickr
“Vengeance” by jbelluch via Flickr

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:7-8 (NIV)

Years ago I found myself the victim of another person. I wasn’t wronged in any tangible way, mind you. It was more of the personal affront in which a person of authority demeans and diminishes  another person because he or she has the power to do so. I was hurt and my hurt became anger. Sometime later, while still seething with anger, I found myself in a unique position to wreak vengeance on the perpetrator and make this person’s life extremely uncomfortable. I had a choice to make.

The psalms are song lyrics and they express the breadth of human emotions. Today’s psalm was written in extreme circumstances that we can scarcely imagine today. Around 600 B.C. the Babylonians laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. Eventually, they destroyed the city, razed the walls, tore down the temple of Solomon, plundered the city, and returned to Babylon taking all of the best and brightest young people as their slaves (fyi: the prophet Daniel was one of them).

The writer of today’s psalm was one of the slaves living in Babylonian captivity. The lyricist had survived the siege during which, according to Jeremiah in his song of Lamentation, the residents of Jerusalem were reduced to cannibalism to survive. Perhaps the song writer had been forced to eat the flesh of his family or friends to survive. Certainly the song writer had seen his hometown and all he held dear destroyed. He had likely seen friends, family and neighbors senselessly slaughtered in sadistic ways. Then he had been forcibly taken from family to live life as the slave of those who destroyed their family and home.

With psalm 137, the writer is feeling more than just the blues. His pain was coming out in anger. I get that. My pain of being victimized is nothing compared to what the writer of this song went through, but yet the human reaction is the same. Pain turns to anger, but once anger is realized the path leads to a fork in the road. We have a choice. We can sit endlessly in the anger as it endlessly gnaws away our spirit, we can choose the path of forgiveness, or we can choose the path of vengeance. Our psalmist is struggling with feelings of vengeance and he pours them out in his musical prayer. I like to think that writing a song about it was probably a healthy outlet for his feelings.

As for me, I chose not to pursue vengeance on my perpetrator. The thoughts of revenge were sweet, but in the long run I believe it would have damaged me spiritually more than any pain and discomfort it would have inflicted on my perpetrator. Like the psalmist I expressed my anger and desire for vengeance to God and I vented with a safe cadre of loved ones. Then, I let it go. I chose to forgive and gave up any “right” I felt for revenge.

Anger and the desire for vengeance are real emotions. They need to be explored and expressed in healthy ways. Finding a creative outlet like the psalmist can be an important part of that process. The path of vengeance carries with it deep spiritual consequences. When anger makes the dark turn toward vengeance victims risk critical damage to their own souls.

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Vengeance Times Seven

lukodi drawingO Lord, pay back our neighbors seven times
for the scorn they have hurled at you.
Psalm 79:12 (NLT)

A year ago our kids, Taylor and Clayton, travelled to Uganda. Taylor put her Art Therapy education to work with young women and children in Lukodi who had been victims of local terrorists calling themselves The Lord’s Resistance Army. Taylor brought home a stack of pictures drawn by children. Mixed among the very child-like images of a soccer match, a church, or tree there were equally child-like images of their homes burning, giant men with guns hovering over them, and dead bodies lying on the ground bleeding. The reality of the horror these children had experienced drawn by their own hands is heart wrenching. My soft-hearted daughter came home with that soft-heart ripped open and the realization that there was a threshold on what she could handle as an Art Therapist.

I am blessed to have lived a life relatively free of tragedy. I cannot, and hope that I will not, ever experience the horrors like those of the women and children of Lukodi, or the horrors Asaph describes in today’s psalm of those who suffered through and witnessed the seige and destruction of both Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple.

Scholars call pslams like today’s an imprecatory psalm. It is the blues on steroids in which the song writer not only expresses their pain, but also their desire for revenge. It is an angry call for vengeance. In Asaph’s lyric scream, he calls for vengeance multiplied seven times. In God’s Message, seven is a special number. It is the number of “completion” and in calling for vengeance times seven Asaph is asking for complete destruction of his enemies. I can only imagine that the hunger for vengeance is a very real, very natural, very human emotion for those who have suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of others.

I can’t condemn victims for wanting vengeance. I think it is a very real emotion that needs to be expressed in healthy ways whether that be a crayon drawing, a poem, or a blues song. Yet, this morning as I read Asaph’s call for vengeance times seven I was reminded of Jesus’ response when Peter asked if he should forgive someone seven times to make sure he had completely forgiven the person. “Not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven.”

I’m Keeping My Mouth Shut

Detail from Netherlandish Proverbs
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is foolish to belittle one’s neighbor;
    a sensible person keeps quiet.
Proverbs 11:12 (NLT)

One the reasons I value our daily venture into God’s Message is that it often reminds and keeps me from doing stupid things that I would later regret.

For example, there is a certain fool who operates within my circles of influence. I call him a fool because his actions have been consistent with those of a fool described right in the proverbs we’re reading. A while back he put himself in a high position and caused me and my pride an invisible little injury. It was not a major wound, but one of those nagging ones that starts to itch just when you think it’s healed over. Because of his foolishness, this “neighbor” of mine has given me plenty of opportunities to belittle him, and more than one opportunity to publicly humiliate him. I confess that I spent more time thinking about it than I should, but I’ve oublicly kept my mouth shut and constrained my conversation about the matter to my closest confidants.

As much as it would satisfy my pride and ego to take him down a notch or two, I have been continually reminded that my role is to forgive and not to seek out some sort of eye for an eye vengeance no matter how small the injury or the payback. This neighbor of mine is on his own journey. God is working in his life as well. I have already witnessed the truth of the proverbs as his foolishness has and will bring upon him its own negative consequences.

God is in control of the matter, and He does not need me and my desire for payback muddying up the works. It would only bolster my neighbors belief that I deserved the original injury he caused. And, it would ultimately hurt me more than it would him. So, I will keep my mouth shut, scratch the scab on the wound that itches me now and again, and choose to forgive one more time (I have a ways to go to reach the “seventy times seven” ;-)).

Dirty Harry Blues

Chapter-a-Day Psalm 58

Then at last everyone will say,
    “There truly is a reward for those who live for God;
    surely there is a God who judges justly here on earth.”
Psalm 58:11 (NLT)

I was reading a college paper my daughter wrote just the other day about human trafficking and slavery in today’s world. The numbers were depressing. Close to two million human beings enslaved in the world and most of them falling under the designation of the sex slave trade. Even here in the “land of the free” the number of human beings enslaved and trafficked for the sex slave trade is estimated to be 10,000 or more. And, this is just the tip of the injustice iceberg when you start talking about slave labor, corrupt governments, organized crime, drug cartels, religious intolerance, and genocide. The weight of it all is enough to make a person’s blood boil with righteous anger.

Today’s chapter is what scholars call an “imprecatory” psalm. That’s a fancy word meaning to call down a curse on someone. David is calling on God to violently destroy those who do evil in this world, and it’s a bit difficult for some people to reconcile with Jesus’ call to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us.

Great songwriters know how to express the breadth of the human experience in the language of music. David was not just a warrior; He was an artist, as well. When he wrote his songs, which we now refer to as psalms, he covered his own emotional spectrum from A to Z. When David was feeling good, he wrote a rockin’ song of praise. When David got angry, he wrote the blues. Because he was both an artist and a warrior, his blues lyrics didn’t come out sounding like a helpless victim, they came out sounding like Dirty Harry.

From the time David was a kid he faced injustice with a sling and a sword.  When he saw the injustice of the way Goliath was mocking God, David killed the giant and cut off his head. David was a soldier and a warrior and his first instinct was to exact justice with capital punishment. Therefore, when he looked at the injustice of the world, his warrior heart wanted God to show up with a sword and destroy the guilty. David was expressing a very real emotion that is part of the human experience – to see those who do evil punished and destroyed. It’s the same satisfaction we feel when we see the evil villain taken out at the end of the movie.

Yesterday we talked about the fact that being a Jesus follower means choosing to swim against the tide of our emotions and circumstances. Because we’re called on to love our enemies doesn’t mean our natural emotions aren’t going want to see them dead. That’s what makes Jesus followers different. There is a difference between feeling anger about the corporate evil of injustice and acting out in anger against an individual. We may feel David’s righteous anger and desire to see all who do evil destroyed. We might even sing right along with him. When faced with how we respond to an individual who has wronged us, it our conscious choice to act against anger and vengeance and to inexplicably choose forgiveness and grace that reveals our faith and marks us as followers of Jesus. That is what Jesus meant when He said that the world will know His followers by their love.

 

Chapter-a-Day Judges 1

Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes. My-Master-Bezek said, "Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off used to crawl under my table, scavenging. Now God has done to me what I did to them." They brought him to Jerusalem and he died there. Judges 1:7 (MSG)

Last weekend, Wendy and I had a Godfather night. A friend came over, we ate a nice meal and watched the first of the three movies tracing the Corleone family and their mafioso saga. In the original film, there's a classic scene in which a certain member of the mafia family, Luca Brasi, is killed. The family receives a package. In the package is Luca's bullet proof vest, and in the vest are fresh, dead fish.

"It's a Sicilian message," they are told, "that Luca Brasi 'sleeps with the fishes.'"

"What goes around, comes around," the saying goes. In three little verses of the first chapter of Judges, we find a short story of a Canaanite King famous in the region for cutting off the thumbs and big toes of his enemies. It sounds bloody and violent, but cutting off various appendages was common in ancient times. Like Luca Brasi's fishy vest, it was a 'calling card' intended to frighten neighboring towns into submission. It usually worked for a while, but vengeance was always around the corner. What goes around, comes around.

In The Godfather, and in human history, there is no end to the cycle of violence, hatred, and conquest. Isn't it interesting that Judges lists among those ancient conflicts the familiar names of Jerusalem and Gaza. The same conflict rages on over a millennium later.

That's why we need a savior.

Today, I submit myself anew to God, who died that I might be free from the chains of destructive behaviors. I commit myself to keep working to change the toxic cycles in my own life and realms of influence.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and wallyg