Thursday, July 19, 2007

“Mischief’s Course”

Psalm 5; Luke 7:36-50[1]

In the funeral scene from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, after Brutus justifies his murder, Mark Antony rises to eulogize Caesar. Antony takes advantage of the situation to incite the very crowd that was about to crown Brutus to run him out of town. It’s clear that Antony does so intentionally, for after his speech he remarks that the mischief he has let out will now take its own course. But what Antony doesn’t know is that mischief’s course will lead to his own death in the end!

There is something inherently self-destructive about evil. When you choose to do what you know to be wrong, you give away a part of yourself. If it’s a little thing, you don’t necessarily notice it. But when it’s something big, it’s another story. Unfortunately, little compromises tend to lead to big ones.

There seems to be something programmed into the nature of life itself that eventually undoes evil. I think part of the reason for this is that when we choose to lie instead of speaking truth, when we choose violence over peace, when we choose selfishness over love, we are only hurting ourselves in the long run. When we choose actions that destroy the net of human relationships, we are cutting the very cords that support and sustain us. When we spew venom and hatred at someone else, we are poisoning the very waters we live on.

We live in a world that sometimes seems as if it has gone mad with greed and hatred and selfishness and lies. It’s all too easy to be frightened by it all and simply hide away. Unfortunately, however much we hide we cannot escape it. The problem with evil is that it spills over onto everything and everyone. It ultimately affects many more than just a particular “victim” or “perpetrator.”

When evil gets around to assaulting us individually, we can easily find ourselves taking the viewpoint of the Psalmist in today’s lesson. The setting of Psalm 5 is one of a hearing in the Temple precincts, where the victim of slander seeks to be exonerated by God. He sees himself as innocent of the slander, and as one who is in the right in God’s sight. By definition, therefore, his opponent must be in the wrong, and therefore must be “evil.” Not only does he assume that God will favor him in the outcome, but also that the “evildoer” cannot even appear before the Lord.[2]

Anyone who has experienced slander knows the feelings that the Psalmist is expressing. When you’re the victim of slander, there’s really nothing you can do about it. That’s why slander is so evil—you can destroy a person’s life simply by saying something they cannot refute.[3] And that kind of helplessness in the face of slander fuels the rage we can sense in the Psalm.

Although he is confident of vindication, the crisis is so severe that the Psalmist seems to think that the only way for him to be satisfied is for his “enemy” to be destroyed![4] The Psalmist takes comfort at the prospect that the “wicked” will be destroyed—in fact, he seems to positively gloat about it! We may find ourselves taking comfort from similar thoughts in view of the problems in our world today.

But that is not the truth of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ! A look at our gospel lesson for today shows us that “righteous” and “evil” are not necessarily what we make them out to be.[5] As Jesus dines at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a woman who is simply identified as a “sinner” approaches Jesus and washes and anoints his feet. Of course, the fact that Simon is a Pharisee means by definition that he’s “righteous.” I’m sure that Simon thought about as highly of the woman as the Psalmist thought of his “enemy.” I would think that he had already relegated her to the fires of perdition.

But Jesus responds differently, and in so doing turns the tables. He responds to the sinful woman with compassion and forgiveness, and her reaction makes it clear that Jesus’ kindness has brought healing to her.[6] Jesus turns the tables on Simon by showing precisely that his hateful disdain for this woman is in fact an evil that is far more destructive than any “immorality” she may have committed. In essence, the “sinful” woman goes away restored, and Simon is left to stew in his own bitterness! So who is truly “right” in God’s sight and who is truly “wicked”?

One thing that the Gospels make clear is that there is no place in the kingdom of God for a self-righteous attitude that spews hateful venom on anyone—no matter how appalling their “sin” might be! No one who has had a life-changing encounter with Jesus the Christ can pray the way the Psalmist does—presuming to be right with God while calling down destruction on the “wicked”—without feeling the pangs of hypocrisy.[7] Just like the evil of the “wicked,” so also the self-serving indignation of the “righteous” must submit to God’s kingdom.[8]

Elsewhere the Gospels tell us that Jesus shows us a different way to resolve the problem of evil than simply designating the “wicked” for destruction!

Jesus shows us the way of reconciliation; he shows us the way of forgiveness.[9] I think we can take comfort that Evil will not stand—not because it will be destroyed, but because it will be redeemed. Yes, even a “sinner” thought to be beyond hope and help will be redeemed. And yes, even a self-righteous Pharisee eaten up with hatred and bitterness will be redeemed. That is the way of God’s “righteousness”—to bring evil to its end by redeeming it![10]

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/17/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] H. –J. Krauss, Psalms 1-50, 154-58.

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 58.

[4] Mays, Psalms, 59.

[5] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 114. He wisely points out that our definitions of “righteous” and “sinner” usually reinforce social values that empower the “righteous” and oppress the “sinners.”

[6] Paul Tillich, “To Whom Much is Forgiven …,” in The New Being, 9-10: “Forgiveness creates repentance.”

[7] Mays, Psalms, 56.

[8] W. Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 85-86.

[9] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 130-31; Paul Tillich, “To Whom Much is Forgiven …,” 7-8: “Forgiveness means reconciliation in spite of estrangement; it means reunion in spite of hostility; it means acceptance of those who are unacceptable, and it means reception of those who are rejected.”

[10] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.”

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