Sunday, June 26, 2022
By: Kilpy Singer, Associate Rector
James and John, two disciples of Jesus, are on the road with him, headed towards the place where he will eventually be crucified, resurrected, and ascended. They are making this long trek from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they need places to stay along the way. So Jesus asks James and John to go ahead to a Samaritan village, but the village doesn’t receive Jesus. They want nothing to do with this man or his friends. The disciples, what do they do but ask if they can burn the place down. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Well, that’s one option…I kind of imagine this devilish grin on their faces, reminiscent of their days of boyhood pyromania.
James and John, and that deeply human part of them, want to see judgement cast upon this Samaritan village. Jesus, the Son of God, is on a journey, and with each step forward he is another step closer towards his brutal death. He’s done nothing but teach good news and heal the people. And these people have the audacity to close their gates in his face. Well then, they’re gonna get what’s coming to them. Call down the heavenly fire!
If I’m being honest, it’s a little satisfying to give people what’s coming to them. If my two older brothers trip me, then I push them. Judgment, payback, feels good and even right. It keeps people in line, it shows us that our actions have consequences. It’s been a part of the way the world has worked as long as we can remember. Like the ancient concept of karma. What happens to you is a direct result of what you do to others. Or the biblical law from Exodus, an eye for an eye.
We are accustomed to the world working this way, to judgement, to punishment, on a small and large scale. In our friendships, our families, our workplaces. At the state and federal and international level. And James and John were accustomed to this too. It was deeply embedded in their 1st century worldview. But when they suggest vengeance to be brought down up the Samaritan village, Jesus will have none of it. He turns and rebukes them. I imagine Jesus sort of wheeling on them like a parent does when their child has just said something they shouldn’t have. But while his disciples seek vengeance, what does Jesus do but continue on his journey without even a word against those who do reject him.
That isn’t the end of the story with the Samaritans though. We don’t hear about it here in this particular section, but the gospel writer is careful to close to the loop later on. And it’s important. The Samaritans, they encounter Jesus again, and they keep bumping into his disciples, and eventually, they receive Jesus. With a little time, they are brought into right relationship with God, through the Gospel, the good news of Christ the Messiah. Now, think about it. If left up to James and John, the Samaritans would not have lived to see another day. But Jesus, see, he’s in the business of giving life, not taking it. And he’s much more interested in restoration than in retribution.
It’s the very stuff of his being, his incarnation. God became one of us, a human, and Jesus bore our wrongdoings and all the judgment that we deserved, so that we could be restored to God, and given life. In his life on earth and in his death and resurrection, he taught us that the old ways are gone. No longer an eye for an eye. He showed us, instead, that mercy takes the place of judgment. Reconciliation, not vengeance. Life instead of death. This is the way of Jesus.
So what if we, a people who know and have received Christ’s undeserved mercy, were to live it out in the world? Is it even possible, or too lofty an idea?
The late Desmond Tutu, as you know, was a Bishop of South Africa as well as an avid activist. He wrote many profound books, essays, and speeches about his experience of apartheid, the system of institutionalized racial oppression in South and Southwest Africa that lasted over 40 years. During these years, White Africans denied all other races basic rights life voting, housing, marriage. Black Africans were placed on the lowest societal rung, and they were criminalized, treated as sub-human. Thousands and thousands died, with even more wounded, whether in body, spirit, or mind.
In a 2004 essay, Tutu recounts how he and other leaders were reckoning with how to treat those who had done them so much harm, now that apartheid was over. Tutu was chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, a commission established by Mandela and post-apartheid government. It was created to move the country beyond cycles of retribution, to prevent violence from begetting violence. The commission granted perpetrators of apartheid crimes the opportunity to give a truthful account of their actions and to ask for forgiveness, then to be restored in right relationship with their country, and those they harmed.
Reflecting on this experience, Tutu writes “For our nation to heal and become a more humane place, we had to embrace our enemies. True enduring peace, between countries, within a country, within a community, within a family, requires real reconciliation. For retribution wounds and divides us from one another. Only restoration can heal us and make us whole.”
Instead of giving them what they deserved, sentencing them to death because of the death they caused, and allowing violence to beget violence, they stopped the cycle of hatred and gave restoration a chance.
To me, this story shows that reconciliation, over and above judgment, is not too lofty an idea for us, the people of God. The work of the Commission is proof that mercy has no limit, and it is sweeter than any vengeance. Tutu and his fellow leaders lived out the reality that we are all able to receive and extend God’s mercy, no matter what has been done.
This is the way of Jesus. And Jesus beckons us to join him, to move beyond our impulses towards judgment, and instead, to lean into the hard, but life-giving work of forgiveness… In all places and all things, within ourselves, and our relationships, and our family systems and our institutions, we are called to be tiny pockets of God’s mercy throughout this world, working together for the restoration of all people to God and to one another. Amen.