Posts Tagged ‘revenge’

Ending the cycle of violence

July 22, 2017

Pentecost 7 – 2017

Matthew 13

Marian Free

In the name of God who has no scores to settle, no records to keep, and who knows that goodness will have the final word. Amen.

On my father’s side my family tree is littered with convicts – transported for any number of things from petty theft, to bigamy to high treason. As was often the case, many of these men (they were all men) went on to lead respectable lives after they had served their time or were pardoned. One such man had been send to Van Dieman’s Land when he was just a teenager. As an adult, he decided to stand for Mayor in a town in country Victoria. During the campaign his opponent threatened to expose my relation’s convict past. Instead of being threatened or nonplussed by the threat, my ancestor simply said something to the effect that someone standing for public office could expect that his past would become public knowledge. This apparently silenced his opponent, who realised that if he went down this track there was a possibility that he too might be exposed to embarrassment if elements of his own past were revealed.

Trying to embarrass, intimidate or humiliate another person comes with the attendant risk that not only might it backfire, but that it might also lead to an endless stream of mud-slinging, trading of insults, character assassinations and put downs in which no one ends up a winner. By refusing to get caught up in the game, my forebear put an end to such behaviour before it had an opportunity to take root. His refusal to play the game left his opponent with nowhere to go.

Such might be the point of the first of today’s parables. If we leave aside the interpretation, that almost certainly does not go back to Jesus, we have a tale of a farmer whose enemy has attempted to ruin his crop by sowing weeds in a field of wheat.

As we see day after day on the news the Middle East is no stranger to conflict. In the first century as now, conflicts constantly flare up and grudges are held against those who cause offense – often for generations. It would have been no surprise to Jesus’ listeners that the farmer who had an enemy. In this instance the enemy is not a foreign power, but someone who lives close by. In this case it is possible that the enemy refers a member of a family with whom the farmer’s family may have been feuding for so long that they may well have forgotten what started it all[1].

In a culture bound by the notions of honour and shame, an effective way to get the better of another person was to bring shame upon them. The plan in this case is to make a fool of the farmer by planting zizinia or darnel among the wheat. This would either force the farmer to pull out the crop (wheat and darnel being indistinguishable when seedlings) or to leave both wheat and weed together until it was possible to recognise the difference. No matter what the farmer did he would be exposed to ridicule – either because he had been forced to destroy his entire crop, or because he had allowed weeds to grow up among his wheat. Jesus’ listeners may have laughed to themselves sensing that the farmer has been exposed and brought to shame.

But the farmer has the last laugh. He knows that he will be an object of ridicule whatever he does, but is confident that the wheat will be able to survive the competition represented by the weeds. What is more, if the darnel is left to grow to maturity, it will provide much-needed fuel. At harvest time it is not the farmer who looks foolish, but the enemy. Instead of causing inconvenience and embarrassment, he is exposed as the more foolish of the two. Instead of causing the farmer’s crop to fail, he has provided him with a bonus – fuel to stoke his fires during the cold of winter.

This very different look at the parable reveals it as something of a joke. We can imagine Jesus’ listeners smiling to themselves or laughing out loud at the enemy’s prank (“what a good joke”). We can guess their bemusement and confusion when the farmer refuses to retaliate or to extract revenge on his enemy, but not only goes about his business, but profits from the enemy’s actions. Seen in this way, and without the interpretation, this is a parable that confronts the existing cultural norms and that shows a way out of the vicious cycle of retaliation and revenge. By refusing to react and to pay back his enemy for what he has done, the farmer has broken the cycle of violence. He has demonstrated that a quiet confidence in himself, that does not come from humiliating, injuring or intimidating another has a greater chance of ensuring that his endeavours are successful, that his status in the eyes of his neighbours is not compromised and most importantly that by demonstrating the impotence of the enemy he has exposed the foolishness of perpetuating violence for the sake of violence.

This interpretation of the parable may seem a little far-fetched until we realise that in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-end) there are six other illustrations that show how someone can break the pattern of violence that characterized first century existence. “You have heard it said: You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “You have heard it said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer.”

Repaying evil with evil ensures that evil will continue to thrive. But if, like the farmer, we have the courage and the self-confidence to say: “Enough is enough”, we will not be condemned or shamed for our weakness, but we will be commended for our restraint. More than that, our own lives will be the richer for it, and our forbearance will have made our neighbourhood, our community and the world a better place.

[1] I am indebted to John Pilch for pointing me in this direction.


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