Evil for Evil
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2023
“Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men.”
AN EYE FOR AN EYE, a tooth for a tooth. It is said this is the biblical standard of justice. “Hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe,” goes a chapter in Exodus, right after God gave us the Ten Commandments. It sounds quite grim, but consider their case.
Here are a few million people lost in an Arab desert near Aqaba. People on the edge of existence push hard when their lives are in the balance. They couldn’t afford to seem weak. The Hebrews were viewed with malice by the neighboring tribes, their presence was met with suspicion. If a small injury was done to them, such as the rape of their sister Dinah generations earlier, then an escalated response would frighten their enemies away. The sons of Jacob responded to the insult of Dinah’s violation by killing every man in the town of Shechem. The rule was primitive: If you steal my ox, I’ll burn your village. Kill one of my people, I’ll wipe out your tribe. The rule of escalation had always led to either a fearful peace or all-out war. At Sinai, God told the Jews to stop it. Set the punishment equal to the damage, and not an inch more.
It was a matter of justice, and of practicality: how were the Israelites to see justice done during their march through a wilderness? They could not build jails for their felons. If he poked out your eye, poke his eye out, and that settles it. No other retribution can be sought. Justice done. Don’t escalate. ‘Even Steven’.
But now we come to Jesus. He said, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also… And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain... Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Matt 5:38-48
The Epistle today enjoins us not to render evil for evil. Vengeance belongs to God, and God is merciful. Christ set this new order before all people in His Sermon on the Mount. If early man had increased injury until an enemy was annihilated or driven off in fear, the Law of Moses had set before God’s people a limit on justice to be equal injury done for injury. Now comes Jesus and orders us instead to forgive, and even to love our enemies. It’s a huge difference, but it’s the course we must take if we are going to be with God, and ultimately be like God.
Christ tells us to be perfect, even like the Father. What ever can He mean? First, the word perfect means our ultimate state of someday being complete, not a sudden change from flesh to divinity or even original innocence. He is speaking of patience, forbearance, mercy and forgiveness to others, even love toward those who do not and cannot love you back. God is just like that. Thank God that He is. If He is merciful toward us, then we must be so toward others who frankly don’t deserve it. It’s God’s way, and if we seek God and heaven, we have to start acting like heaven on earth.
Have no fear. No one expects you to become a wimp for Jesus. I have always wondered at the syntax of St. Paul’s statement to the Ephesians, “Be ye angry, and sin not.” Eph 4:26 It’s an awkward phrase, but he means for us to be capable of anger, yet not let it lead to sin. That is the stance we need to adopt toward real evil in the world around us. It is the stance Jesus held toward all evil.
First, get angry. Righteously indignant. We can’t just acquiesce. Injury is done every day. People act selfishly. Children suffer. And unborn babies die daily. Abortion was once an outrage if done only once, yet is now commonplace. Of course, women’s lives must be protected, and can be protected without killing the innocent. We can be outraged, and then we must also not sin over it.
We fund and supply Women’s Resource Clinic to provide pregnant girls with alternatives, with baby skills and support for bringing their babies full term and into love and a family. We still have the number one abortion state, unabated, in California. It’s not settled by the Dobbs decision. But the law now allows us to discuss it freely.
Be angry, and sin not. Being hot enough to do something, we have to restrain our passions and channel them in a positive and constructive manner, compassionately. We need to identify the real enemy and the actual victim, and cry for all the casualties of war. Corrie Ten Boom recounted her horror in a Nazi concentration camp, watching female German guards beat her fellow prisoners senseless. Her sister Betsy cried and said it was for the poor woman. At first Corrie thought she meant the woman being beaten, but slowly began to realize Betsy wept for the guard.
Abortion became a national “right” through the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, 50 years ago today. Half a century ago. Jane Roe, the plaintiff in that action, was actually Norma McCorvey, a Texas woman whose lawyers claimed that her state denied her an abortion. She was abortion’s poster child, and later worked at their clinics. But the 7-year-old daughter of a pro-life activist, a girl conceived out of wedlock, almost aborted herself, who was given life instead, a little girl named Emily, showed love to Norma, hugging and calling out to her, and it melted her heart. In time, Norma actually attended church with these folks who had won her with love and God’s mercy. She felt God’s forgiveness for her key participation in America’s great sin, and she submitted to be baptized a Christian. She led rosaries in the Catholic Church and made speeches about being Christ’s new bride. It wasn’t outrage that won her soul to Christ, but love. She’s in God’s heaven now. She is not hated, but loved.
We can’t return evil for evil, no matter what the issue, no matter how dire the stakes. It wasn’t evil for us to fight Nazi Germany or Japan, the Axis one of the greatest evils mankind has ever suffered that threatened to conquer the world. We were not evil to make war. Witness the aftermath. We rebuilt Europe at our own expense. We rebuilt and equipped Japan, giving them the most powerful industrial state in Asia. Today, we have built schools, roads, water sources, sewers and police departments all over the world, in countries where fear has reigned for centuries. Whether it lasts will be seen, and our motives and actions weren’t without flaw, yet our ultimate goal has been mercy, not evil, for the world. May history bear us out.
Evil for evil always escalates. Mercy for evil, however, will declare that the evil is evil, that it is intolerable and must be stopped, by force if necessary, and then provide a means of escape for those who are imprisoned by it.
Compassion extends to your worst enemy. Compassion does not mean you must subject yourself to further abuse, but forgiveness means that you are free from their evil, and that your enemy is free to change as well. You are not keeping him defined by his previous egregious acts.
Sometimes, for safety sake, or righteousness sake, you have to dismiss an evil person from your life. You must draw lines. Jesus dismissed the scribes of His day who would never have Him declared Messiah, but would lead the Jewish people into further darkness, ignorance and hate. His dismissal was to state the obvious. They would not seek God, His Father, but reject the Son. He couldn’t compromise His mission for their sake. They were not with Him, but against Him.
Yet, from His cross Jesus sighed. Audible to those who were listening, Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross being one of them, He looked out on all the evil being done that day, and the people caught up in it, and He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Lk 23:34 He overcame every evil deed that day, the worst of the worst, by suffering for us all, in our place, as an act of love.
“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good,” was Paul’s advice, and well said. Render not evil for evil. Get mad for the injustice, the harm done, see it like it is, never rest from saying what is true and good and right, and telling what is wrong. But see who is really damaged by sin and its fruit, and mercifully set yourself to rescue the lost and heartsick ones, trapped in their own evil. Love them if you can, forgive them for your souls’ sake.
If you do, you will be just like God.