Golden Rule or Golden Scale?
Our lessons for today come from a difficult place. It’s a place I think we all recognize within
ourselves but often a place in our hearts that is buried so far down and is so dark, we often do everything we can to lock it away. This is the part of us that we fear because like most things we fear in life, we can’t quite understand it ourselves. We spend our time trying to convince ourselves that this space in our hearts doesn’t exist, that we’ve rooted it out, evicted it back to the darkness from whence it came. But we all have this place, and some simply keep it more buried than others…but we all have an ability, a potential, for hatred, for resentment, and for revenge.
I know this will come as a surprise to all of you but people, human beings, do bad things. Human beings are capable of some of the worst things to ever happen on our little blue planet. We hurt and kill and destroy just about anything we can get our hands on and our track record, unfortunately, doesn’t show much sign of improvement. We like to look back throughout our history and point to some of the more egregious events, to reflect back on how bad things used to be and to convince ourselves that we have changed; but all you have to do is turn on the nightly news or open up any social media app to know that hatred is still alive and well in our world today.
Now I apologize if this is not what you come to church to hear, but I will not apologize for how our texts speak to the human condition and the truth of what we are really facing today. Too many lives are at stake and our futures drastically depend on getting this right.
Joseph’s story is admittedly one of my favorites from our Hebrew Bible. It is a narrative filled with dreams and fantasy, betrayal and forgiveness, certainly many of the qualities of any good suspense or mystery novel. We are probably familiar with the story of Joseph in some way or another, the youngest miracle child, and most beloved son of Jacob. Joseph was a dreamer and found himself on the bad end of some family jealousy, a family who sold Joseph to some slavers on their way to Egypt. Joseph becomes close to Pharaoh but eventually finds trouble, spending a few years in prison before earning Pharaoh’s good graces again. We know from our text that Joseph was then placed into the second most powerful position in Egypt and at 30 years old, was tasked with overseeing the famine crisis soon to begin in Egypt.
Our particular text comes at the end of this story, many many years after his brothers had thrown him into the pit and sold him into slavery. I can imagine quite a few thoughts that may have ran through Joseph’s mind over those long years, most of which are probably not appropriate things to utter in church. I think of his thoughts of family and thoughts of home but also at the anger and feelings of betrayal that Joseph must have initially had towards his brothers. Having three brothers myself, I was angry with them when they would mess with my things, let alone trying to imagine such an act of betrayal.
But what we see, is that instead of holding on to that resentment, instead of turning his brothers away, or worse yet, having them jailed and executed, Joseph does something amazing. He takes the events that have happened to him, all the bad that was done, and he looks into his brother’s faces, into their hearts and knows the pain and hurt that they must feel, and he tells them “to not be distressed or angry with themselves”. Joseph felt that God had used the situation he was in for greater good and Josephs response was not that of revenge and anger, but only that of love. Joseph had every reason and every right to harbor bitterness or resentment or anger but chose a higher response—to love and ultimately forgive.
Now that’s easy for me to say and it’s certainly easy to read a story about family reconciliation. But what about Christ’s words to us? What do we do when we are told to love, not just our families, but our enemies? People like to jump to the ever famous golden rule and the end of Jesus’ Beatitudes, do to others as you would have them do to you, but that’s the easy part. That part is self-focused. It is infinitely easier to treat others a certain way if you can imagine getting the same treatment. But Jesus' words here call for something more: they call for an equalizing of the scales.
Violence begets violence, revenge begets revenge, we react to traumatic experiences in our lives with reactionary and ill-thought responses. Our culture seems to have an obsession with violence, our very country seeming to have a military-industrial complex. You see video after video of fighting in the streets, fighting for sports, and fighting, albeit in a different way, through political campaigning and debate. America loves a good fight. And although we certainly do not have time to explore the complex history of why this is, we must self-examine ourselves, perhaps the way Joseph did, at the proper response to violence in our lives.
Love your enemies. How many can say this morning that they’ve has any great success in doing so? I certainly haven’t. My initial response to attack, my human response, is still to go on the defense, to retaliate, to think about revenge. And although I do my best to never act upon these feelings, I continually question why these feelings are my initial response in the first place and how I can begin to challenge myself to truly be an embodiment of Christ’s words.
In 2015, many of us remember the atrocious acts of an individual who killed 9 people at an AME Church in Charleston South Carolina. Despite the tragedy of these events, I think what moves me most about that story is the family members of those who were lost that day. The fact that, so soon after an attack, they were able to stand before this person, look him in the eye and say, “I forgive you and I pray for you.” Now how much truth is in that forgiveness I don’t know. But what I do know, is that despite the tragedy, despite the unspeakable violence that was enacted upon them, these individuals chose to embody Christ’s words in that moment. And I think it was because they knew what happens when you respond to violence with violence, they saw that to bring more pain into the world would only continue the vicious cycle until we are all destroyed.
Our challenge today comes to balance the scales. To love your enemies…but also the people who do not love you back. To show grace and the love of God to people, especially when they seem to know no such grace themselves—to put in the investment of love so that someday, the return might be that love that the world so desperately needs. It becomes our job then, as Christians, to stand above and to change the culture that says violence is the answer. It becomes our challenge to question that emotional part of ourselves that wants so badly to inflict revenge or pain on those who cause it. Because as these violent responses become less of the norm, the culture will begin to shift to let others know that this behavior is not tolerated. It lets others know that there is something greater beyond our base desires and our human obsession with violence. It looks forward to a future where hearts are changed and healed and where minds are expanded and encouraged to grow. It is a world that not only balances the scales, but tips them in the favor of a God who loves, who forgives, and who wants to see all of us united as one people together.
So who are your enemies today? Is it a person? A group of people? A Company? An institution? Yourself? How can you show Christ’s light to those who need it most? Loving and forgiving your enemies doesn’t mean condoning what they do—it means showing them a better way, inviting and challenging them to respond and to treat people with dignity and respect that we all deserve as human beings. It means breaking the cycle of violence and hatred until the scale is overflowing with the grace and peace that we so desperately need in this world. It is embodying the message of Christ for all of God’s people.