FRIDAY OF THE FIRST WEEK OF LENT
“Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked?” (EZ 18: 23)
Let’s be honest: sure I do. Maybe not death per se, but I revel (guiltily) in seeing the scales of “justice” tip back in my favor when someone who has hurt me experiences some kind of misfortune. I want God to be on my side, to uphold my cause, to be in agreement with my petty fiefdom of justice for me; when it does not work that way, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” My private version of justice is remarkably self-centered: I even find myself resenting people who have never hurt me, taking a twisted comfort in the inadequacies of people whose only crime is being better than I in their jobs, their personal lives, the adventures and opportunities they have had that I never did. Do I want people to succeed and live well even if they succeed more and live better than I do? What about the people who hurt me, who disagree with me, who are difficult for me to like? In my self-image as a campus minister, I tell myself that I would never take action to hurt someone who hurt me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t revel a bit in their misfortune, does it? I don’t harm anyone myself, so I’m in the clear morally, right? Hardly. Being declawed is not at all the same as being gentle – it’s just being weak, but to make a virtue out of it is to hate the strong for their strength.
Friedrich Nietzsche is remembered as a ferocious opponent of Christianity, particularly in his belief that much Christian talk about gentleness, forgiveness and mercy was in fact what he called ressentiment, impotent resentment of other people hiding behind a mask of humility and charity, weakness masquerading as morality. While I don’t agree that ALL forgiveness is that kind of self-serving lie (I don’t think Nietzsche would either), I hate how often my vain and covetous heart proves him correct. Enjoying the thought of people “getting what’s coming to them,” in this life or the next, is a revenge fantasy that is wholly unworthy of the Christian vocation.
It is not hard to imagine that the resentfulness that Nietzsche opposed, what he thought Christianity is about, Jesus was opposed to as well. Today’s gospel is the first of six repetitions in Matthew of the two-part phrase, “You have heard it said…but I tell you…” I see these phrases as Jesus “raising the bar” on our ethical standards, not because the Mosaic law was bad, but because even religion and morality can be hiding spaces for all kinds of resentment and ill will. Mere avoidance of bad actions is hardly the pinnacle of Jewish or Christian morality: presumably, the spirit embedded in “thou shalt not kill” is not only to not kill, but to avoid whatever tears down life, ultimately to do that which enhances life. Resentful envy or ill will towards someone else is, quite simply, poison: for the other person if I am not careful, and certainly for myself.
The rhetorical question from Ezekiel with which I began demands to be answered “no.” The rhetorical question from the Psalm, “If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, who can stand?” implies that none could stand, but it also implies that we are safe because the Lord does NOT in fact mark iniquities. No resentment, no desire for bad things to happen to people who do wrong, no egocentric version of justice that mulls over bruised ego or wounded pride. That comes, not from a place of weakness, from forgiving because one has no choice, but from the strength and nobility to be above pettiness and self-centeredness.
Patrick Cousins is a Campus Minister at Saint Louis University.