“Vengeance is mine”, says the Lord
Psalm 137: 1-4, 8-9 (NRSVA)
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
This is a shocking psalm, rarely read in church. Who can read verse 9, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” without being appalled at the cruelty and desire for vengeance inherent therein? Violence against an infant always seems the most appalling, innocent and defenceless as they are. And yet, it tells us something about the human spirit which we ignore at our peril. That is, as noted by the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire, the oppressed, when they are released from oppression, very often in turn become oppressors. We see this time and time again in history. We know that abusers, of whatever description, more often than not come from a background of abuse. The need to make others suffer as we have suffered is one of the less honourable traits exhibited by humanity.
Yet, in contrast, we see Jesus, standing mute before his torturers. We see Jesus, with legions of angels at his command, permitting mere humans to visit indignities and cruelties on his person. We see Jesus, whose example shows us the only way of saving humanity from the worst aspects of our own personalities, to forgive.
forgive us when we are tempted to seek revenge
even if only in our hearts.
Forgive us when our desire is to repay evil with evil
even if only in our thoughts.
We are only human,
and sometimes our hurts seem too much to bear.
Sometimes forgiveness seems too difficult to achieve.
Help us we pray, to understand what you understood,
when you told us to forgive seventy times seven,
that forgiveness is not only for the benefit of the forgiven
but also for our benefit.
That forgiveness sets us free
as vengeance never could, Amen.