I Samuel 24: 1-22
By Charles Rush
June 24, 2007
Note: We regret there is no audio recording available.
v., years ago I was burned in business deal
by one of my partners. For quite a while after that I would have recurring thoughts where everyone involved in that deal were inflicted with medium grade, long term, torturous pain. Rev, it wasn’t like I wanted to kill them or anything like that. I would just see them before me, half buried in sand, honey dripping over their heads, with millions of fire ants all over them. Rev. what do you do with the desire for revenge?’
It’s a fair question.
past several years, we've been going to church in the morning and hearing some
good thought on why we should be nice. But on Sunday evenings before that
thought gets a chance to take root, those of us with HBO flip on 'The
Soprano's' where we are reminded that there are still enemies that we have to
kill if they cross the line. There is no real joy in it but it must be done.
Enemies are just like that.
Ours is the era where the majority of us want to go
the window and yell to the world ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it
anymore. We’ve got to take matters into our own hands. In ‘Waiting to Exhale’
one of the women is jerked around by a horrible man who treats her awfully. One
day she ‘comes to her senses’, decides she has had enough. She takes all of his
clothes and stuffs them in his Porsche Carrera and lights them on fire. It was
one cleansing blow for oppressed women everywhere. 'Thelma
and Louise' same theme.
Of course these were only possible because of a
previous two decades where our boys were fed a never-ending barrage of the
angry, vengeful butt-kicking hero. First it was Charles Bronson, then Clint
Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, right up through
Harrison Ford as the President of the United States hurling terrorists off the back of
Air Force One with the unforgettable line, "Get off my plane". This
list is endless.
The early series had a predictable plot. All have
their families destroyed, their wives or children raped. All are rebuffed by a
judicial system that is either inept or corrupt. All of them have to do
something with that rage. They check out of work for a while and go on a little
rampage to get the Evil man that hurt them. But it is never that simple. In
order to get to them they have to kill about 40 other smaller dudes, wreck half
a million dollars worth of automobiles, break all
kinds of laws. Everyone of these movies end the same
way. The great avenger is left standing, surrounded by all of these dead dudes
and all the fighting is over. Someone asks them ‘What are you going to do now
Rambo?’ And they respond with dead pan ‘I think I’ll have a beer’. No real
relief, just a purge.
Ours is an era where we have begun to push for victims
rights, so that people, where our papers cover in detail the testimony of the
parents of Megan Kanka as they pleaded for the death penalty for Jesse
Tormendequas. And if they ask the judge for more than death, if they say they
hope his torture continues after death, this is now covered as tabloid news.
That era was followed quickly by the era of terrorism
so that the daily news carries this macabre caricature of real people in the
Middle East that are enacting a badly written Arabic rip off script of these
movies, as they blow themselves up and mosques to boot, to exact some pay back.
And they happen so often that we don't ever really get a sense of the humane
and personal impact that these horrors have on those families that have loved
ones maimed and killed. After a while, they start to resemble the corpses that
litter the back drop of a Bruce Willis 'Die Hard' movie.
The sum total of all of this has got to be having an
impact on us. At the very least it makes revenge more legitimate, more
normative. It gives us a certain freedom to entertain thoughts and fantasies of
revenge. What are we to do with our desire for vengeance? Let’s go to the
biblical video tape and look at a story that covers the subject in all of its
grit and ugliness.
Saul and David
are at odds. David has married one of Saul’s daughters. So this is a
father-in-law, Son-in-law problem as well as a political problem. Saul suspects that David is going to
challenge his throne. In fact, he will. Saul has made the preemptory move to
kill David. The writer H.G. Wells said of one his strange characters he was not so much a human being as a civil
war. That is a perfect description
of Saul. He was a living civil war: miserable possessed of an evil spirit,
mentally breaking, a suspicious, angry, jealous man.
Saul pursued David for years, not months, and he had committed the entire army
to the death of David. Because of this David was forced to become a fugue in
the wilderness of Judea,
training a band of guerillas now grown to 600 men.
[At this point, we might note how little things have
changed in Israeli/Palestinian politics in the past 2800 years. Even today we
have elected leadership chasing terrorist rivals to the throne].
David and company are hiding out in the rocks and
caves of Engedi, a perfect hideout. It is in the West Bank in the desert south of Jerusalem, high above the Dead Sea. Engedi means ‘spring of the cliff’
and if you ever go to Israel, it is a regular stop for tourists
because there, in the middle of very dry and desolate landscape is a fresh
spring surrounded by lush vegetation. There are plenty of cliffs for a natural
lookout, safe, secure, and a bountiful supply of water.
What happens next is unusual for religious texts.
Hearing that David is there, Saul takes 3,000 men and chases him. Once in
Engedi, Saul goes into a cave to relieve himself. In his mad rush for
vengeance, even Saul must answer the call of nature. This is one of those Bible
stories that never gets told on the flannel board, and
it’s too bad, because it is right down the alley for Middle School boys. The
Hebrew euphemism reads that Saul went in to ‘cover his feet’. So Saul finds
himself squatting in the privacy of a cave, in a most humanly vulnerable
moment. And David and his men are right behind him. Some of David’s men say Hey; here’s your opportunity. This is God’s
way of providing you a chance to move into the kingship.
It is a universal reaction most probably. When we
really want support for our idea, we will say, “It is God’s will for us to do
this” or even “The Lord led me to this idea”. It is in this way that poor God
has been blamed for all sorts of idiotic ideas that God had nothing to do with.
But who can blame David’s men. Here is Saul on his
haunches, taking care of business, and David’s men say to him ‘David, God has put Saul right here. Here’s a
sword. And really, think for a moment about an enemy. What would you do if
you had them dead in your sights, if you ran into the miserable creep and there
was no one around but the two of you, and they were so utterly vulnerable to
boot. What would you do? [Notice that I’m not throwing this open to the floor].
We may have an illustration here of the important
difference between our fantasies and lived behavior. Fantasies about revenge
certainly serve to restore our confidence in ourselves after we have been taken
advantage of. In our revenge fantasies, we are the actors giving back some of
what we received. Fantasies are something of an instinctive protection
mechanism for the ego. They mobilize us and energize us and keep us from
feeling completely defeated or utterly the victim. But they are clearly
dangerous, not only to others but also to ourselves.
What we are doing is releasing negative spiritual energy. Usually it takes on a
life of its own and our fantasies live longer than they ought to. Often they
destroy us, as we seek to destroy others. Negative spiritual energy is
dangerous in that way. Acting on our fantasies compounds the negativity and the
odd result is that when we really do get a chance to hurt others and we really
hurt them, it is not satisfying. It is merely over and it is never clean, there
is always a new negative that is released.
Our scriptures are clear that vengeance is
self-destructive in its retribution. St. Paul says ‘Do not return evil with evil’.
In other words, do not live out of a negative spiritual center. The Chinese
proverb says ‘He who seeks revenge digs two graves’. It is dangerous to your
soul to live in the negative spirituality of vengeance, even provisionally to
build yourself up. Jesus taught ‘You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and
a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, don’t resist an evil person. When
someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other. If anyone
wants to sue you for your shirt hand over your coat as well. Should anyone
press you into service for one mile, go two miles… You have heard it said ‘Love
your neighbor-but hate your enemy’. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray
for your persecutors. This will prove that you are children of God… If you love
only those who love you, what merit is there in that? Don’t mobsters do as much?… Therefore, be perfect, as God is perfect’.
Though you are surrounded by evil, though evil arises
within your soul as a protective device, live
out of a positive spiritual center. Keep to the higher ground. Easier said than done. But David shows us one way to do it
and how that might transform both ourselves and our enemies.
What does David do? Like the Native-American tribes
who believed that there was more honor in stealing something personal than in
killing their foe, David sneaks up behind Saul and ever so silently cuts off a
piece of Saul’s robe while it is on a nearby rock. Afterwards David feels
guilty for a moment because he recognizes that he is engaging in an act of
treason by attacking the King, even by cutting a piece of his robe. He is
dissing the King, God’s anointed, so to speak.
More than that, he realizes,
that as he acts, he judges Saul and that this is really God’s prerogative, not
his. In the bible they used to say ‘Vengeance is Mine
says the Lord’. That is a recognition that our
judgments are always partial and always tainted by our own egotism. Really,
only God is ultimately just and able to restore the balance, which has been
upset by wickedness.
And so David tells his men Do not kill the king. He may have done us wrong. He may be a lousy
leader and unfair. But it is not our place to kill him. It is not our place to
act as God in judgement. This kind of behavior requires a conversion of the
heart. It is not the natural thing to do. David was confident that God was in
control of the situation and that he did not have to take the Kingship by
violence. David was living out the saying from Proverbs: When the ways of people please the Lord, God causes even their enemies
to be a peace with them (16:7). And the rest of the story is an example of
Saul says nothing during this whole exchange. He is
occupied and oblivious. Saul finishes his business in the cave and goes
outside, apparently walking down a ravine of the other side. David emerges from
the cave, clutching a piece of the king’s robe in his hand, and calls out to
Notice that he doesn’t simply alert the king, his
enemy, but he bows before him. He salutes him. He shows him respect and a
proper deference to authority. Then in a transformative moment he says ‘Why do you believe those lies about me?
Saul, I could have taken your life, but I didn’t, and here’s the proof. When
you were vulnerable, I didn’t strike. I will let God judge between you and me.
David found a surprising, transformative way to tell Saul the truth. He didn’t
hurt him and he didn’t go around talking to others about him in a spiteful and
vindictive manner. He spoke the truth directly to his enemy; the one he had a
beef with, the person whom mattered most.
And then he says this See, my father, your robe. He calls Saul ‘My father’. He doesn’t
say ‘Bonehead’. He keeps the relationship personal, and thus opens the
possibility for love and respect, even in the midst of dislike and hurt.
Look how that transforms the situation. Saul, who had
been hunting David to kill him, says ‘Is
that really you, my son David?’ David calls him ‘My father’ and Saul,
seeing the piece of his robe missing indeed, calls back, Is that really you, my son David? He calls him ‘My Son’, walking
through the open door towards reconciliation. Then Saul begins to cry. David
trumped him and he was both ashamed and overcome at the same time. And he wept.
Surprising, transformative initiatives can have that effect on a hostile
situation. They can break through the impasse and that is the power of overcoming evil with good. Now they get a
positive flow happening like a friend of mine and his four-year-old son. My
friend will say ‘Nathan, you’re the man’ and Nathan will shoot back “No, Dad
you’re the man” and my friend will say “Nathan, you’re the man’ and back and
forth they will go until finally Nathan will say “You’re right Dad, I am the
man”. David recognized Saul as the King and he showed him respect and
acknowledged a personal relationship. And Saul, in turn acknowledged him as a
Son. In effect, he was acknowledging that David would be the next King. Saul
wept because a younger man had shown himself to be wiser and more compassionate
in the midst of mutual vengeance. You are
a better man than I, Saul tells David, for
you have repaid me good for evil. And this is the heart of the matter.
Mistreatment is a part of life. If you have lived for
any time at all, it is likely that someone somewhere has done you a serious
wrong, a bad turn that cost you dearly. We Christians know about sin, both our
own and others, so we should not be surprised when someone mistreats us.
Waiters have their own lingo for mistreatment.
Mistreatment of a waiter is referred to as a darkness as in “The man on table
54 is giving me darkness.” To be mistreated is to be ‘darked upon’. And when
they spit in your soup for revenge it is called ‘dark squared’ as in ‘be
careful with this gazpacho for table 54; it’s dark squared’. We need to expect
some darkness to come our way. We should even teach our children that
mistreatment is part of our fallen life, so they will not be too hurt or
surprised when they are darked upon.
But we need to teach them that what is happening in
these moments is the release of negative spiritual energy and that negative
spiritual energy is destructive of others and destructive of self. We need to
encourage them to live out of a positive spiritual center in God to break the
cycle of negative retribution. It has been said that the desire for revenge is
the most subtle of all because we are usually at least partially right to
We all get hurt. It might be an employer who promised
you something that didn’t come through. It might be a mate who walked away when
you needed them the most. It might be a mother or father who failed you. It
could be with a friend you entrusted with some intimate information, and the
friend not only turned against you and reveled it, but
is now telling lies about you. Or maybe it is a coach who took you off the
first string and benched you because of some foolish reason. Or
a teacher or a professor who refused to hear you out and graded you down.
We are justified, to a certain extent, to return mistreatment with more
negativity. And generally, that is the world we live in- one extended chain
reaction of negative action and negative reaction.
The healing only comes when the chain is broken and
that takes a surprising, transformative, initiative. It takes a conversion of
the heart, which proceeds from a positive spiritual center in the midst of
negativity. As St. Paul wrote ‘Never pay back evil for evil.
Never take your own revenge but leave it to God. Do not overcome evil with evil
but overcome evil with good.’ And may peace and healing be with you. Amen.
 Note: A version of this sermon was preached by Dr Rush
on October 19, 1997
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