Lectionary for August 31. Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28
"Never avenge yourselves...Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." Rom. 12:19
Payback is a common theme in these passages, and a natural desire of all human beings at some time! When wrong is done to us, when we see injustice done to others, we have a gut longing (sometimes a burning drive) to see perpetrators punished. We rejoice when the 'bad guy' gets what's coming to them or the thoughtless suffer the natural consequences of their indifference. We like to lay blame and point fingers, because that is part of exonerating ourselves, laying issues to rest, and maintaining a sense of control over our lives.
This drive to set things right is too often self-serving and based on faulty reasoning/assumptions. Jeremiah says; "O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors." At first this feels like an offensive way to pray. It feels like we are trying to manipulate God the way a child would ask a parent to punish a sibling for them. When I thought about Jeremiah's words for awhile, however, I started to feel that he's on to something important.
Jeremiah acknowledges that "God knows", which implies that Jeremiah does not know all the angles of his dilemma. He is willing to concede that things might be other than his personal experience. By asking God to do the punishing, Jeremiah gives up control to God. That's a hard thing because it means accepting that the outcome might be other than what what Jeremiah would choose. (Remember the story of the labourers in the vineyard in Matt. 20? The landowners judgement was not what many of the "good" people wanted!)
Jeremiah, in fact, is frustrated with God. He wonders why he is in so much pain, and says God is like a deceitful brook and waters that fail. (v.18)
All four of these passages display the difficulty of turning over control to God, but also help me understand the rightness of it. Our own understandings are too limited to be reliable. We simply cannot know all sides and situations involved in any conflict situation. Of course, we have to do our best with what we have. We need good rules, accountability, boundaries, and ways to apply these and work with each other. But over all of that, we must "let love be genuine, persevere in prayer, find ways to bless those who frustrate us, and leave room for God to be the final judge." (paraphrased from the Romans passage.)
This summer, I've had the opportunity to listen to a variety of people, in and outside churches, talk about difficulties they face in their family and work relationships. Bosses that turn a blind eye to the struggles of employees, deceit and cover-ups in families, the pain of blatant disrespectful comments. It's so hard for people who see themselves as in the 'right' (and likely they are) to do their best and then turn it all over to God's control for the outcomes. When Peter heard the Jesus was going to surrender himself to unfair judgement, he argued with him to the point that Jesus said; "Get behind me Satan...you set your mind, not on divine things, but on human things."
This week, I think I'll try to practice "offensive" prayer like Jeremiah whenever I experience something that "isn't fair" or when I feel the urge to "set something straight." It will likely be frustrating, and sometimes the feeling that God isn't doing anything will challenge my desire to control things! Our calling is to do our best where ever we find ourselves, act honourably, and leave control to God.