One of my favorite books is “The Count of Monte Cristo” – it’s about a man named Edmond Dantes who is framed by three men whom he considered friends; they falsely accused him of being a traitor on the eve of his wedding. Edmond gets sentenced to prison where he spends the next 14 years, until he finds a way to escape. He learns that the woman he was supposed to marry has instead married one of the men who framed him. Edmond spends the rest of the book seeking revenge on the three men who had destroyed his life. One reason why I liked this book so much is that I wanted to know how Edmond Dantes was going to get justice. I wanted to see him get revenge on those three scoundrels who had pretended to be his friends. I don’t want to give anything away, but in the end Dantes finds that revenge is not sweet but bittersweet.
I think we often love stories of revenge – think of all the movies and TV shows and books that are about revenge. It appeals to our sense of justice. But revenge goes beyond justice – it is a distortion of the desire for justice.
Revenge is in contrast to the story we heard in our first reading. Saul is the first king of Israel, chosen by God. But he was a very flawed man. And so the Lord chooses another man – David – to take Saul’s place. David proves himself in battle by slaying Goliath the Philistine with a stone and a slingshot, and when he returns to the city, everyone praises him and celebrates his victory. And immediately Saul is filled with jealousy, his heart turns against David, and he begins to look for ways to kill him. He even makes several attempts on David’s life, but David is always able to escape unharmed.
But in our reading today, the tables are turned. David finds himself in a situation in which he has the upper hand over Saul, the man who has been actively trying to kill him. One night, David finds Saul asleep, completely defenseless. David’s servant Abishai whispers to David, “God has delivered your enemy into our hands. Let me kill him!” It would have been so easy to do, and then David would not have had to worry about Saul trying to kill him anymore. You could rationalize that in doing so, David would just be trying to protect himself, not seeking revenge.
But what does David do instead? He takes Saul’s spear and water jug which had been lying near him and takes off with them. When Saul wakes up, he sees that the spear and the water jug are gone, and he hears David crying out to him from a distance that he has them. David took them to make it clear to Saul that he had the opportunity of killing him, but that he chose mercy rather than revenge, and spared Saul’s life. David refused to kill Saul because the Lord had chosen Saul as the leaders of the Israelites. Even though Saul was a bad king and ruler, and was even trying to kill David, David respected the authority that God had given to Saul, and would not take his life.
And then we have Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading. This Gospel is a continuation of last week’s, when Jesus preaches the Beatitudes to his disciples and then also gives a list of woes. This week Jesus teaches his disciples what charity consists of, and what a radical teaching it is. Two thousand years later, it is still radical. Perhaps we’ve heard it so many times that its impact on us has diminished. We hear the words, “Love your enemies,” and, “Do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who mistreat you,” and we might think, “Yes, of course, no problem.” In the abstract it sounds great, doesn’t it, and it might even seem…perhaps not easy but also maybe not that difficult. Until we are in a situation in which someone has really and truly offended or hurt us. Not just out of ignorance or carelessness – although that can be bad enough – but out of genuine malice or selfishness.
I can think of situations in my own life when I was insulted or ridiculed by complete strangers. In the moment I didn’t react because I think my brain was processing what was happening, but a few minutes later the indignation suddenly flared up and I admit that I imagined myself tracking them down and retaliating. I imagined the carefully chosen insults I would hurl at them, to which they would have no response, and which would make them look ridiculous in the eyes of everyone. Their wicked deeds exposed, they would be completely and utterly discredited, and preferably shunned by all for life.
Just to be clear, this is not what Jesus calls us to do! But the point I’m trying to make is that Jesus’ teachings sound relatively simple in the abstract, but when actual, concrete situations present themselves in which we are called to respond not out of revenge but with mercy, it becomes so much more challenging. “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.” That is really, really hard. But that’s what Jesus Christ calls us to do. After all, as he tells us, how difficult is it really to love those who love us? Of course, it’s good to love those who love us; of course we should love them. But let’s not pretend that doing so means that we are good, virtuous people. If we love people who love us, there’s nothing unusual or special about that. That’s just the norm. To truly follow Christ, we have to go far beyond that: we have to love those who hate us, and wish well upon those who wish us ill.
Jesus of course gives us the ultimate and perfect example of loving one’s enemies. When he was dying on the cross, he forgave those who put him to death, “for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness is not natural – it’s supernatural. Meaning, we can’t forgive purely through our own power. We need God’s grace to do it, and we have to ask him again and again to give us that grace.
Why is it necessary to forgive? Because only forgiveness can break the cycle of sin and revenge. Imagine that someone is rude to you: perhaps a spouse, a child, a roommate, a co-worker, or a friend. You respond by being rude back to them. They up the ante a little bit. And you respond in kind. It’s like a little arms race, that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Whole nations and regions of the world have been caught up in this cycle of sin, blame, and retaliation for centuries. The only way to break this cycle is to do what Jesus did on the Cross: to ask the Lord to forgive them. If you feel that you can’t forgive someone, then at least ask the Lord to forgive him. If you do that enough, eventually you will find that the bitterness and anger and resentment that you have felt towards them no longer has power over you; it’s gone. So let us pray for hearts ready to forgive, in imitation of Our Lord.