Retribution and reconciliation

Rev Hugh Perry – February 2019 – St Martins


Genesis 45:3-11,15

Luke 6: 27-38.


Writing of our Genesis reading in his book The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand Maurice Andrew says:

This is the Joseph story’s version of one of the Bible’s most salient characteristics: that life for all can emerge from the wrong that people do to each other. A people can continue when those who have been wronged look beyond this and go to great lengths to resolve conflict. God’s role in such a process is revealed in the experience and interpretation of those most clearly involved.1

Like the story itself those are wise words to cherish at a time when the world seems to have its fair share of chaos caused by the wrong that people do to each other.

It is also worth reflecting on the reality that it is the genesis of the Exodus Saga where an alien people are welcomed into the land because of the skills a member of the family brings. But future generations of that family will be despised and exploited as slaves. Eventually they will become so numerous that they will be perceived as a threat to the ruling elite. Because they were Egyptian born Pharaoh couldn’t build a wall to keep these surplus aliens out, so he reverted to infanticide in an attempt to control their numbers. It wasn’t till they actually left that he realised they had a massive labour shortage and sent the army to bring them back.

We face similar dilemmas in our contemporary world. We don’t want immigrants because we fear they will take our jobs. But without immigrants Pharaoh didn’t have enough workers to build pyramids and we don’t have enough workers to harvest crops and build homes for the homeless.

What we easily forget is that we are all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. That is more apparent in New Zealand with our relatively short history, but history and anthropology tells us that, with the possible exception of a few hunter gatherers in Central Africa, all Homo Sapiens have at one time or another come from somewhere else. Along that journey and probably for good reason, we learned to be suspicious of people we did not recognise as ‘us’ and to seek retribution against those who did us harm.

According to Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens2 that ‘them and us’ response to others along with a system of limited retribution for wrongs worked fine while humanity wandered around in small groups. However, when agriculture drew people into settled locations and towns and villages replaced temporary camp sites, people needed the structured organisation and laws that eventually led to the global community we now live in.

This formation of cities and empires needed religion to pull diverse people together and religion was created and supported by stories.

Judaism, Islam and Christianity were three such religions that provided the laws and ethics that significantly contributed to the formation of a global human community. According to Harari Christianity, with its Pauline evangelistic focus, was the most significant. Our two readings clearly show the development of ideas that support a wider community over clan and reconciliation over retribution.

From Hebrew text we have the story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers. That story of reconciliation sets the scene for the Jewish Jesus to move ethics and empathy to an unexpected level in Luke’s ‘Sermon on the Plain’.

In his book Harari follows the development of early humanity through the ‘in group’ ‘out group’ response of small family clans. In that context violence was limited by a retribution systems like the Maori Utu where revenge was limited to mirroring the violence committed.

If your cousin killed a member of another clan that clan is intitled to kill you, your sibling or another cousin to restore the balance. The retribution does not have to target the actual killer as long as the clan suffers a similar loss.

It does not take much imagination to see how such an arrangement could escalate into intergenerational vengeance. One reprisal just needs to be judged excessive for a new reprisal is instigated, which in turn is deemed to be unjust.

In her biography of Muhammad renowned religious writer Karen Armstrong quotes the limitation of tribunal vendettas as one of the motives for the uniting of the Arab tribes under Islam.

But that’s not just an ancient Middle East phenomenon. In his autobiography Drawn Out Tom Scott draws himself into a cartoon of an Irish Pub where someone is telling him of the atrocities committed against his family and promises that if he gets the chance, he will tear their hearts out with his bare hands. The cartoon Scott is horrified and asks, ‘When did this happen.’ To which his drinking companion responds, ‘About four hundred years ago’.

We can laugh about that except that when the sentence is announced after most high-profile trials the news media hounds those who feel affected by the crime and asks if they feel ‘that they have closure.’ The answer is usually ‘no’.

We still struggle to understand that justice and revenge are not the same thing. Our society seeks to rehabilitate those who have committed crimes, but our instincts want retribution.

It was not until religion created stories like the rehabilitation of Joseph that convinced people that the divine plan was for people to reconcile their differences. It was only then that humanity was able unite clans into tribes and tribes into nations.

The story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brother might seem obvious, or even trivial in the grander scheme of things. But grudges are still held within families in our time. By the time I was married both my parents had died so my father in law asked my uncle who he knew if he and his wife would stand in for my parents at the wedding. Unfortunately, my other surviving uncle felt that as the older brother he should have stood in for my Dad. Those two brothers had been best mates and regularly visited each other throughout their lives but from that point on they never spoke to each other again. That was a sad but violence free family tiff but if you have ever watched a number of episodes of Midsummer Murders you will understand that most murders occur within the family. Furthermore, New Zealand has an appalling record of violence within intimate relationships.

The rules spelled out in Leviticus strongly condemn family violence in line with our reading from Genesis. The classic line quoted in Jesus’ response to the lawyer in Mark and Matthew is Leviticus 19:18 which states ‘you shall not take vengeance or bare a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am Yahweh your God.

We can see by that final phrase that this is not recorded as some tribal rule that can be up for debate. It is a divine command. We should also note that it is about the way people must treat family and neighbours because the Hebrew Scripture is full of stories about how those who are not part of the family or the neighbourhood can be treated.

In fact, if we allow our imagination to take us inside the story, I think Joseph’s brothers were most concerned that, in selling him into slavery they had cast him out of their family. Therefore, he was free from any constraint to revenge that family obligation and the laws of Leviticus might provide.

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount Jesus quotes the tradition of his time as ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ (Matthew 5: 43)

Jesus then goes on to say, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 4:44)

We are focussed this morning on Luke’s alternative ‘The Sermon on the Plain’ where, in the opening verse, Jesus repeats the verse from Matthew and then goes on to command that we are to ‘do good to those who hate us and bless those who curse us. Then in verse 29 he suggests that ‘if anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.’ So not only is retribution out generosity is in.

Much as these statements from Jesus in Matthew and Luke are revolutionary, they went a long way to make Christianity important in facilitating humanity’s move towards the global village we find ourselves in today. But people spend an awful lot of effort finding their way around regulations. It is therefore not surprising that we find lawyers drawing these statements out of Jesus. It is also a lawyer’s question in chapter 10 that prompts Luke’s Jesus to tell a story, ‘The Good Samaritan’, (Luke 10:25-37) to ground and fill out the essence of the regulations from our reading.

A story can always carry much more information and elicit a deeper response than bland statements or regulations. Furthermore, a story can be a complete figment of someone’s imagination but it still produce a response in the imagination of the listener. A response that changes people’s behaviour for generations to come.

That is why the gospel writers took the sayings of Jesus and wrote stories around them. Even today’s reading from Luke, which reads like a list of instructions, belongs in a story context.

Jesus went up the mountain and prayed all night and in the morning he called his disciples together and chose twelve which he also named apostles. Then he came down the mountain with them to a level place and a great crowd gathered round him. They came to hear him and to be healed. They all tried to touch him because power came out of him.

Jesus then looked at his disciples and began the instructions for Christian living we have read from.

Framing these rules within a story gives them a place in the development of the revolutionary ideas that became Christianity. A religion that united people and empires across Europe and out into the wider world with European colonialism. The Christian faith helped build empires that, for all their brutality, saw it as their duty to not just conquer diverse peoples but to bring the benefits of empire to the conquered people.

India were pleased to throw off the yoke of the British Empire but it had united diverse tribes into one nation, and as we have just been reminded they still play cricket with skill and passion.

But more important than the power of Institutionalised Christianity and its often-brutal contribution to the development of a global human community is the contribution of individual Christians.

Throughout Christianity’s two thousand years history there have been individual people inspired by the stories that are the foundation of the faith. The sayings of Jesus, the stories he told and the stories of Judaism in which Jesus own religious understanding was grounded. Such people have kept the faith alive in its darkest times and been true beacons of hope that have contributed not just to the development of humanity but, a more compassionate and caring humanity.

It can be argued that Friedrich Nietzsche’s statement that God is Dead meant that Christianity was replaced by humanism. But things are never that simple and humanism was grounded in Christianity. Furthermore, Christianity exists alongside humanism and as the influence of humanism fades to be replaced by capitalism, consumerism and the communication revolution, individual Christians and the Church still have a part to play.

The worldwide human community is evolving, and the influence of the church has certainly diminished within that evolution. But the fact that Jesus named only twelve apostles reminds us that small can be good.

We are still called by the Christ within us to be the salt that flavours the journey of humanity towards the people we are all divinely called to be.

1 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999)p.80

2 Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (London: Vintage Books 2011)