Text: Matthew 26: 47-56
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.” Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.
Before we get to the text let me introduce you to Kenneth Bailey. He is a Scholar of New Testament who worked extensively with the Bedouin Tribe of Palestine. His hypothesis is that this tribe in the contemporary world is representative of the ethos of the audience that Jesus spoke to, and engaged with. This gave an idea of how people reacted to the teachings and actions of Jesus. Kenneth told them many stories of Jesus and stories told by Jesus. Bedouins loved stories and they always gathered around bonfire to listen to them. There was something significant about their listening. They were not passive listeners like we find in many of our churches. If they loved something about the story they would raise both their hands and wave it. I wish we had such a practice in our churches. At least I would be assured that I did not put people to sleep. Now is the interesting part and I would prefer people sleeping than doing this. If they did not like some aspects of the story they would express their displeasure . How? They would start to spit together into the bonfire. (If this was a practice in the churches where people were allowed to participate in the sermon in this way, I am sure our churches would be flooded. Grouse thought). Kenneth says that in his narration of the parable of the Prodigal Son the listeners started spitting fiercely when he told that the father was ready to accept the wayward son and give a feast on his return. They felt that honor is everything and the son brought disgrace and was fit for being publicly stoned. Revenge had to be taken and forgiveness was cowardice. But shortly the listeners started to wave vigorously in the air. Take a guess when that was. It was when they heard about the protest of the elder son who had disdain for the father for accepting a loser of a son and if that was not enough he was giving a feast in celebration. The elder son who had revenge in his heart was the ideal. Honour is prime. Revenge is imperative.
I am imagining that had the Beduion tribe heard the passage that is set before us, they would have waved vigorously at the act of bravery of the disciple who cut the ear of the soldier who dared to arrest his master. John 18: 10 says ‘Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)’. So we know that the disciple in question is Peter. So Peter did something commendable in the eyes of the viewers or listeners but Jesus reprimanded him. His ethics and response was not of honour or revenge. And this he had made it very clear to Peter. For this we have to take a flash back. There was a time when Peter went to Jesus with a question
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18: 21-22). Peter had an assumption that there is a limit to forgive. The Rabbis of his time taught one could forgive a person three times. So Peter asking 7 times was a very generous question. But Jesus said one has to forgive seventy times seven (that makes it 490 times). Interesting. Now let me introduce you to one more passage.
Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words:
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times. (Genesis 4.23-24)
This passage is called the Song of Lamech. This song is a song of vengeance. Richard Beck says when Jesus told Peter “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times”, he was refuting the logic of vengeance in the Song of Lamech where it is said “If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times. ”
It was the Song of Vengeance that Jesus challenged. At the time of arrest of Jesus the Song of Lamech appealed to Peter more than the Song of Forgiveness. This is where we can see the passionate plea of Jesus screaming in disgust “Put your sword back in its place.” And then we hear his declaration that challenges the culture of violence that was prevalent in his time, “ For all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Jesus showed on his journey to the Cross that forgiveness was more scandalous than vengeance.
My dear friends, we live in a time where “The Song of Vengeance” is more popular than the “Song of Forgiveness.” I remember that the people all over India were enraged in reaction to the Delhi rape case where a girl was brutally raped and eventually murdered. This outrage led to people wanting instant justice where the accused be instantly given capital punishment. Facebook and Internet was flooded with violent images of Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia where criminals were publicly executed or tortured. This was seen as the apt response. ‘The Song of Lamech’ was even more popular than the iconic ‘Gangnam Stye’. It is interesting to note that before Ajmal Kasab was hanged, in 2010 there was a Video Game developed called ‘Hang Kasab’ which gave the gamers an opportunity to hang Kasab vicariously through the video game. It was interesting to note that The Gamer Company promoted it by saying “Show your Patriotism. Hang Kasab.” It is noted that after the event of Hanging Kasab, this game was the most popular game online with maximum hits and usages. It was so popular that Android had a mobile app for the same. ‘The Song of Lamech’ has its own appeal. India again showed its credentials by secretly hanging Afzal Guru. This too was celebrated in many quarters. Song of Lamech is blaring in the air
In the shadows of Good Friday let us remember that “Crucifixion of an Innocent Man” was celebrated by the people who shouted the Song of Lamech “Crucify Him, Crucify Him.” The public thought that justice was done when a rebel who taught dangerous ideas like grace and forgiveness was put to the cross.But Jesus sang the Song of Forgiveness on the Cross ““Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 34). As a Disciple of Jesus I too denounce the ‘Song of Lamech.’ I am against Capital Punishment where the State has the right to Murder. This is the victory of ‘Song of Lamech.’ I am siding something very dangerous and scandalous. I sing the ‘Song of Forgiveness’. The challenge is daunting. It seems impractical and foolish. Are we foolish enough to expand our minds and hearts to embrace forgiveness? It is a very arduous journey. May the Song of Forgiveness sung by Jesus bring harmony to our lives.
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church