Did you hear about the man who went into the preaching ministry, worked for seven years, then resigned to go back to medical school and become a doctor? “People,” he explained, “don’t want spiritual health. They just want to feel good.” But after working as a physician for seven years, he again resigned, this time to go back to school. “I’m going to become a lawyer,” he explained, “because, in the end, people don’t want spiritual health, they don’t even want physical health. They just want to get even!”
I tell you, the world is like that! There is a growing surliness in our lives today. People are bristling with sarcasms, law suits, hand guns and nuclear warheads. We are a people at war in our relationships. From our marriages to our child-parent relationships, to our next door neighbors, to our work relationships and on beyond, we are a people doing combat.
And so much of our energy is consumed in licking our wounds and plotting our revenge. We want to hurt back, settle the score, get even.
Allow me to meddle in your lives for thirty minutes by asking, “Who are you at war with? How have you been treating your foes?”
But you say, “Stephen! I’m a Christian. I don’t have any enemies!” Come, come, now! Without enemies a person’s Christian faith is highly suspect! Why, if you can live the truth in this untruthful world and not upset some pocket of evil, then you’re probably not very salty or light-filled. Jesus, after all, didn’t say, “You are the sugar of the earth!” He called us “salt!” And salt has a way of stinging. He called us “light” and light exposes! You can be sure that Christ had his enemies. So did Paul, Stephen, Peter and others. In fact, Jesus said, “Woe be unto you when all men speak well of you” (Luke 6:26).
So, if you live for Christ, “The question is how shall you treat your enemies?”
And for those answers we turn to the text in Matthew 5:43-47 and 1 Samuel 25. A brilliant example of Christ’s ethic in the Sermon on the Mount.
David has grown up watching his father’s flocks near Bethlehem. He has killed the Philistine giant Goliath, been anointed the next king of Israel by the prophet Samuel, soothed King Saul with his music, become a military hero, and made his reputation as a poet with Psalm 23.
But now David’s success has threatened King Saul. The man is jealous and he actually tries to kill young David. But David slips into the desert and hides out. Twice he has opportunity to slay Saul, and twice he refuses.
Now David is driven to the edge of Israel. He is reduced to living in a cave. He is hot, thirsty, hungry and chief of a band of renegades in search of survival. His enemy Saul is on the one side. His arch enemies, the Philistines, are on the other side. What David needs is a friend. But as we pick up the story in our text here, what David gets is another enemy.
In the text, David asks a Jew named Nabal for aide. You see, David has served as a kind of peace keeping force in the area where Nabal lived. His military presence served as a wall against invasion or local mischief. And David saw to it personally that his men didn’t bully Nabal’s workers, steal from his flocks, or rape his women.
But now David needs a friend. He’s at the end of his resources. And as the future king who has dealt honestly in the land, he sends his servants to the rich man Nabal asking for some supplies. He’s not asking for what Nabal cannot give. He’s only asking for what he desperately needs.
Be careful to note here that David has been completely honest with Nabal. He’s even helped the man out by guarding his territory. So, now David is only asking Nabal to respond in kind, to do right by him. It’s rather like an American tourist in Paris, France, today. The tourist, a former American soldier helped liberate France in a war past. He has a right to ask for some respect, some small return for his labors from the French.
So, David asks for help. And what does Nabal do? The text tells us Nabal was right in the middle of shearing his flocks. He was making money hand over fist! So, when David’s servants visit and ask for aide, Nabal’s mood turns nasty. He mocks them saying, “And who are you that I should help the likes of you? These days everyone is breaking away from Saul and pronouncing themselves king! No! I won’t give you a single fig or a swallow of wine! Starve, you worthless scum!”
Has that ever happened to you? Do you know what it is to live righteously, to ask for your due, and be so utterly spurned you despair of life itself?
I was sitting in the steam room at a health spa this week when a stranger in his mid-fifties entered. He sat down and began to tell me his troubles. For nearly 21 years he’d worked for a large textile industry. But his company had fired him last August just a few years before he could retire with full benefits. It seems the company didn’t want to pay full retirement benefits, so they singled out those who’d be getting it soon, pressured them with relocations and impossible responsibilities, hoped they’d quit, but fired them for incompetency when they didn’t.
No, the world has not changed all that much since Nabal sheared his sheep.
Back to the text! What’s David going to do? He’s done right. But he’s been treated like an enemy. So David goesinto what we might call a “slow burn.” And when he gets hot enough, he tells several hundred of his men, “Strap on your swords!” And they move to attack Nabal, to kill every man of his tribe before a day is out. They’ll take what they need! My, my! Can’t we identify with David here? We’ve a hair-trigger when it comes to doing battle over our “rights.” We find revenge so sweet!
There is an author named James Clark. And while visiting a coastal book store he found six copies of a 900 page boring historical
novel on a bargain book table. The book was written by some other author who also happened to be named James Clark. So, he bought all six copies and mailed them to six of his enemies with the note enclosed, “I hope you enjoy this and won’t mind the slight reference to you. James Clark.” Ah! Sweet revenge!
Then there’s the one I read about in “Dear Abby.” A divorcee wrote to say that her newly married ex-husband threw a big party at his home. And she was formally invited by mail being told to dress as for a masquerade party. She showed up dressed like a scarecrow and the maid ushered her into the ballroom where everyone else was formally attired. Yes! Sweet, sweet revenge!
We humans are well-equipped for revenge. Why, we’ve developed a huge stockpile of barbs, looks, ploys, law suits, cuts and sword thrusts with which to get even.
Years ago, when former Soviet Premier Khrushchev was visiting a French cathedral, he remarked to a reporter, “There is much in Christ that is in common with us communists, but I cannot agree with Him when He says if you are hit on the right cheek, turn the left cheek. I believe in another principle. If I am hit on the left cheek I hit back on the right cheek so hard that the head might fall off.” And so do we. And such was David’s intent in the text.
So, here comes David with 400 men. He’s going to teach his enemy a thing or two. He’s going to waste him!
It is interesting that Nabal’s name in Hebrew means “fool.” But fool that he was, the text tells us he had a beautiful wife of wisdom and discretion. Her name was Abigail, and she will forever be known as one of the great women in ministry!
Abigail, you see, learns of Nabal’s foolish slight to David. So, she herself, secretly gathers together the requested supplies, and rides out to meet David. One person counseling forgiveness against 400 hot after revenge– that’s the odds!
Well, Abigail meets David and, giving him the food, reminds him of several things. “Why stoop to your enemies level by fighting with him? Your conscience is clear, your sleep peaceful. Let God take revenge. Keep your own hand from blood guilt. And what is more, you are the future king. God will provide for your needs even if Nabal doesn’t.”
We all need to be reminded of those truths from time to time, don’t we? Indeed, like David, we are quick to set off to avenge ourselves, and in so doing we rob ourselves of sleep, of a clear conscience. We lower ourselves to the level of our enemies.
Comedian Buddy Hackett said, “I’ve had a few arguments with people, but I never carry a grudge. You know why? While you’re carrying a grudge, they’re out dancing!” The truth is: Revenge is a burden. Unforgiveness ends up hurting you worse than it does the other person. Hatred is like an acid. It ends up wounding the one who handles it trying to throw it more than it does the one you try to throw it on.
All this is what Abigail came out to remind David. And this is what God would remind us of today. In Deuteronomy 32:35 God warns, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.”
Leave it to God!
So, what does David do? He’s been slighted. His temper has flared. He’s mustered the troops and gone out to get even only to bump into this woman who’s brought him supplies and preached him a sermon.
What would you have done? There you are in front of 400 men. A woman with a message has stopped you. What would your troops think if you backed down?
But exhibiting a character that will forever make David a man after God’s own heart, David hears God’s Word from the lips of a woman, repents of his revenge, and sticks his sword back into his scabbard. “Like you say lady. I’ll turn it all over to God. The vengeance is all his. I’ll let Him judge between Nabal and myself.”
There are many in our world today who point out that Christ’s commands to go the second mile, turn the cheek, and forgive seventy times seventy are unworkable, impractical, in this dog eat dog world.
But what happens when David walks in this way? David starved, Nabal got fat, and King Saul lived happily ever after, right? Wrong! The text says Abigail shared plenty of food with David. Nabal heard of his wife’s generosity and died of a heart attack. And David married Abigail. It’s just like the Bible says in Proverbs 16:7, “When a man’s ways please the Lord, He makes even His enemies to be at peace with him.”
After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson as a Christian urged a greater measure of gentleness in dealing with the defeated nations. French Premier Clemenceau, who felt much more vindictive, objected, saying, “You talk too much like Jesus Christ.” And so it was that a harsh revenge was meted out by allies on a fallen Germany, and the seeds were sown that led directly to World War II, a war which some historians say was really WWI fought twice.
When will we ever learn Abigail’s lesson? If we can trust our souls to Christ, can we not trust our enemies to Him as well?
Revenge fosters revenge. War breeds war. Getting even, one-upmanship, is a never ending spasm of pain. And if you sow quarreling you’ll reap quarreling.
Take a lesson from the wise old mountain goats of Switzerland. Two “billies” meet on a high and narrow mountain path. The one is headed up and the other is headed down. And there is no room to pass. So, what do they do? Lower their heads and butt it out? That would most certainly send them both falling to their deaths below! So, here’s what they do. One goat lies down on the trail and allows the other to walk over him. Then he gets up and passes safely on his way.
And that is what the gospel teaches for you and for me.
In Matthew 5:30-48, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth! But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. . . . You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
Then, in Romans 12:14 following, the apostle Paul adds this, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. . . . Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceable with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. . . . No, If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”
Many of us think that by doing good to our enemies we drive them crazy trying to figure us out. We think this is the meaning of heaping “burning coals upon” their heads. Actually, there’s a different truth here for us.
In ancient Palestine people heated their homes and cooked their meals with wood fires. And since there were no matches or “Bic” lighters or electric ranges, fire was a precious commodity. Why, if it ever went out, it was difficult to get it going again unless you borrowed from your neighbor.
For this reason, when you went on a trip, you’d take some hot coals from your fire, place them in a fire pot, sit it snugly in your turban, and go out on your journey. The warm embers kept your head warm, and when time came to camp for the night, you had enough hot coals to light your fire.
Furthermore, if you were visiting in my home and rose to go, I, as a hospitable person, would go to my fire, rake out a few glowing embers and heap them on your head; (In the fire pot, of course). This was a token of my hospitality, a winsome sign of my concern for your well-being.
And the Bible is saying this is the respect we would show our enemies. For, who knows the grace of God, but that our enemies can be turned into our friends. As Edwin Markham put it,
“He drew a circle and shut me out
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout
But love and I had the wit to win
We drew a circle that took him in.”
God Almighty, give me the grace to love my enemies. For Christ’s sake. Amen.