From the Iliad to Hamlet to Moby Dick, much of the world’s great literature centers on the quest for revenge. The theme appeals to us because we readily identify with that desire. Perhaps we have not experienced the same towering, all-consuming rage as Achilles, Hamlet or Captain Ahab, but we know the emotion well enough that they do not seem like creatures from another planet.
In our culture, people tend to piously deny that they want revenge: “I let go of that a long time ago; I am ready to move on. Fortunately I'm not the kind of person who holds grudges.” Popular entertainment tells a different story. Actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood have made fortunes from movies which follow a simple formula: depict a character who commits atrocious acts, who laughs at his victims and seems beyond the reach of the law; then have the hero bypass the impotent authorities to exact retribution. I have heard audiences applaud when the despicable villain gets what he deserves. (I didn't applaud, but only because I was embarrassed, being twice the average age of the others in the theater.) Let's admit it, we love the formula. Who does not relish seeing some smug creep get his just desserts?*
People in first century Palestine hoped that Jesus would be that kind of hero – that he would bring retribution against such people as tax collectors. Licensed by the hated Romans, they took away what people had worked so hard to earn. Moreover, their ancestors had once fought and died to attain national sovereignty against the Greeks. Many were now ready to do the same against the Romans.** Yet here in their midst were Jewish collaborators, living high off the hog. If anyone deserved retribution, those Quislings did.
So what does Jesus do about those betrayers? Instead of calling tax collectors to account, he invites one of them to follow him. In a gesture which appeared to sanction their behavior, he goes into their homes and dines with them. This of course shocked, even enraged, ordinary decent folk. But, you know, it must have also shocked the tax collectors and prostitutes. A number of years ago (before the sex abuse scandal exploded in the Catholic Church) I had a conversation with a pedophile.*** He was amazed that I was willing to talk with him. To be honest, he gave me the creeps and I would never have accepted a dinner invitation at his home or wished to be publicly identified with him.
Jesus went much further than I - or no doubt, you - would have been willing to go. Obviously, he did not do it to reassure traitors that everything was OK. Remember that he began his public ministry with the word, “repent!” He was not likely to lay aside that call just because he entered the home of someone well-fed and comfortable. Rather he used a different tactic to bring about their conversion. Seeing through their façade, he knew the deep misery of their hearts. In spite of their bravado they realized that their behavior was wrong. Sometimes a warm word has a more powerful impact than a ringing condemnation.
Jesus dined with tax collectors and prostitutes not only to save them, but to send a message to “good” citizens like you and me. If we don't do something about our desire for revenge, we will perish. That desire might be perfectly understandable, but by harboring it, we bring destruction on ourselves and others. And the person we wind up hurting is not the original offender, but rather the one who happens to be in our path - a family member, an unlucky parishioner, even an innocent child.
I will never forget Mother Angelica telling a man that if he kept wanting to get even, he would wind up in hell. The man sputtered, attempting to justify his rage. With a compassion based on her concern for the man's eternal fate, Mother Angelica repeated her warning. Jesus' compassion infinitely exceeds Mother Angelica. For that reason, to those who consider themselves decent people, he says:
Go and learn the meaning of the words,
'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.
*The desire is not entirely wrong. As the Catechism points out, concern for the common good requires that we catch and punish wrong-doers:
Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party. (#2266)
Notwithstanding the positive value of punishment when administered by a legitimate authority, our fallen human nature - and the influence of Satan - causes us to seek retribution for less noble motives. Jesus is concerned about how that desire affects our souls. It can lead to an obsession that the sinner - and all those associated with him - suffer not only in this life, but eternally. SNAP (Survivors Network Abused by Priest) posted this poem written by a man about forty years old, recalling adolescent horrors:
Revenge is not what I seek from you,
Justice is all that I ask.
For the rest of your life you will pay for your sins,
As I have paid for your sins so far.
You changed who I would become in my life,
Now it’s time for you to reveal who you are.
The gates of heaven will be void of you O’Donnell,
Your name will never be spoken.
For you made the choice to journey to hell,
For all those childhoods that you’ve broken.
You and the Church will walk the fiery path,
You’ll feel the heat of the devil’s flame.
Rest assured you sinner’s sinner,
The devil already knows your name. (Sinner's Due)
**In the following years, hundreds would take up arms against the Romans and would perish in the Jewish War, along with their wives and children.
***Today the law requires a priest to report a pedophile to the police, unless the admission happens during sacramental confession. The requirement holds for others in helping professions, although some organizations have gotten away with not reporting child predators.
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