Saturday night, about 45 of us gathered in the Bell Tower courtyard for fellowship, food, and one of the all-time great films of the late 20th century, The Princess Bride. Now, this is one of those movies I can pretty much quote it word-for-word, line-for-line, start-to-finish.
But there’s one line of dialogue from it that pretty much anyone who’s ever seen it can quote from memory. It’s the words this character has rehearsed his whole life to say when he finally tracks down the six-fingered man who murdered his father.
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
While memorable, it’s actually not the character’s most important line. At the very end of the movie, Ineego remarks now that his quest is completed, “I’ve been in the revenge business so long, now that it’s over, I don’t know what to do with the rest of my life.”
Inigo had built his entire life-his whole identity on a single-minded quest for revenge, an eye for an eye, a life for a life. But now that it was over, without his overdeveloped sense of vengeance, he no longer knew who he was.
It’s the secret truth of revenge. While it can feel really good, and even give us purpose, left unchecked, it will consume us until all that is left is the desire to even the scales.
While hopefully not as extreme as Ineego Montoya, all of us, at some point, have experienced that urge to get even, for retribution, for retaliation.
Even small injustices can stoke the fires of vengeance to roaring flames. You find yourself wronged in some way—you get cut off in traffic, you get a bad performance review, an unfair grade on an essay—and you secretly imagine all the small ways you might even the balance of things.
Nothing reveals the unexpected murky corners of our hearts so much as when we ponder how to respond to the very real sin, evil, and oppression in the world, when done to us or those we love.
Just look at the disciples in today’s gospel.
“Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
It’s a stunning response to a seemingly insignificant slight.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and, like other Galilean pilgrims headed to the City of Peace, he is traveling through the region of Samaria. So as would be common, he sends some followers ahead of him to seek accommodations in a village, but they refuse to offer hospitality to Jesus and his companions as the custom of the time demaned. The rejection so infuriates his followers, that James and John ask to destroy the village.
Now, let’s be really clear about what James and John want in this their first encounter with Samaritans in Luke’s gospel.
They want God to consume the houses, the marketplace, the community spaces. They want God to burn alive all the men, all the women, all the children, and every animal stabled within.
That’s what it means for a village to be destroyed with fire.
It’s an unholy request, dressed up as righteousness.
And so the disciples’ first encounter with the Samaritans also becomes the first time followers of Christ will justify an ethnic cleansing as an expression of righteousness.
This is the peril of righteous anger, of believing our anger is the same as God’s. Because it is a very short walk between believing that and believing we’re responsible for enforcing God’s will by whatever means necessary. Few things, though, are more perilous, more potent, and more volatile than humans -- liberal, conservative, or in between -- who believe they know God’s will with absolute certainty and are therefore empowered to act with righteous vengeance.
Beneath the disciples’ vengeful fantasy is a deep rift between the Samaritan and Jewish people, a rift over very little difference that ballooned often into great violence.
Though much has been made of Jews and Samaritans being cultural enemies with deep differences, recent scholars note that there wasn’t actually all that much dividing them. Both groups actually shared the same sacred texts—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.
The major difference, it seems, was about where the Temple should be–in Jerusalem as the Jewish people believed or on Mt. Gerizim as the Samaritan people believed. That’s pretty much it.
Essentially, the Jewish and Samaritan people are siblings who disagree about where Mom and Dad said they should attend church.
But such a small disagreement can be used as a wedge to destroy a people who should be united.
About a 100 years before Jesus was born, a Jewish high priest, John Hyrcanus, marched into Samaria and burned its Temple on Mt. Gerizim to the ground and attempted to force Samaritans to believe as he did, to subjugate them and leave them no choice but to worship in Jerusalem.
A few decades after Christ’s resurrection, a Galilean, much like our Galileans today, was going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and he was murdered in a Samaritan village. In response, Galileans marched on the village and destroyed it, causing the Roman army to get involved and suppress the violence.
We too know what it is like to be so similar to our brothers and sisters and have one or two small differences balloon into wedges that divide us to the point where things seem irreconcilable, to the point where the unthinkable, even if only fleetingly in the quiet of our own souls, becomes justifiable as righteous.
It’s why the wrath of God might be one of the most dangerous concepts in human history, if for no other reason than we want it to be true more than we want God’s mercy to be true.
It’s why God declares over and over again, Vengeance is mine, not because God is actually vengeful and plans to enact some end of time painful retribution, but because God wants to take such an intoxicating, dangerous desire and place it out of humanity’s reach.
In response to injustice, even Christians can cloak this tendency to retaliation in holy language. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians react to upsetting news with a call to “flip over some tables,” referencing Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple in the gospels and explaining our justifiable anger as righteous anger, as God’s anger expressed in us.
But when Jesus flips over the tables in the Temple, he does so not to enact God’s wrath and vengeance or even to get his own way but to initiate his own death and submit his life to those who would torture him.
The crucifixion is exactly what human retribution and vengeance looks like.
Retribution is the antithesis of the Gospel that declares at the end of all things, the purpose of all things, the reason for all things is the love of God and the love of neighbor.
“Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven and consume them?” the disciples ask.
Jesus rebukes them, we're told, and immediately moves on to another village.
But the verses immediately following this exchange about followers seem like an odd nonsequiteur and it leaves us looking for a more robust response from Jesus. Later scribes actually added a clarifying line in which they imagined Jesus saying clearly, “you do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has come not to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”
But Jesus does eventually respond to his disciples’ desire for an ethnic cleansing of the Samaritan village, but in two very interesting ways. Clearly, preaching hadn’t worked so he tried something else.
First, he engages them in some remedial lessons. Almost immediately, he sends them out into the surrounding villages, some of them presumably Samaritan, and forces them to rely on the hospitality of others, sending them into the surrounding towns with nothing in their bags, like lambs among wolves, he says, ... which is an interesting phrase given the wolfish nature his disciples have just demonstrated.
To their surprise, they report, everyone listened to them, even the demons!
Or perhaps more accurately, even the ones they demonized.
And in response to the disciples’ report, Jesus says something awfully curious and eerily parallel to the disciples’ request, "I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning."
I don't wonder, if maybe, that the abrupt fall of evil had something to do with the joyful reversal the disciples attitudes, who went from wanting to call down fire to that devilish desire falling like a flash of lightning from heaven before the revelation of the generosity of others—even those they'd turned into demons and wanted to consume with holy fire.
Jesus' second response to the disciple’s desire to destroy the Samaritan village would go on to be his most famous story, what we now call the Good Samaritan, when three Jewish people refuse to help an injured man but a Samaritan does. It's Jesus’ only parable that specifically names an ethnic group. It's almost as if Jesus has really reckoned with his own disciples' moral failings and created an eternal story intended to shut down any notion of divine retribution forever by replacing the Demonized Samaritan with the Good Samaritan.
He needs them to imagine that another reality is possible, imagine a world in which the very people they would have God consume in righteous fire are capable of greater love than themselves.
At one time or another, if we’re completely, we have all been like James and John or Inigo Montoya, consumed by a desire for revenge, to get even. Jesus knows this about us. It’s part of our humanity. We will find ourselves thinking there is no hope for those people who we disagree with, who we can’t stand or tolerate, who anger us, who we despise or who despise us. We might not want to call down fire on them all, but we’ll have dehumanizing thoughts and desires we’re not entirely proud of.
When that happens, when our righteous anger boils the world down to an us and a them, Jesus’ challenge is the same he gives to the disciples.
Go into the surrounding villages, stay in their houses, eat at their tables. Learn of your need for them. It’s so much harder to hate people up close.
And Use your imagination.
Tell a different story about others, stories in which they, not you, are not the hero.
Imagine a world where your enemy is also your neighbor, your brother, your sister, your sibling, worthy of love.