Closing The Book On Vengeance

Jesus-Synagogue (1)

Closing The Book On Vengeance
(A reflection on Luke 4:14-30)
Brian Zahnd

To proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God.

This is how Jesus read Isaiah 61:2 when he returned to Nazareth after beginning his ministry. Jesus edited Isaiah. Reading from this familiar passage in Isaiah, Jesus stopped midsentence and rolled up the scroll! It would be like someone singing the national anthem and ending with, O’er the land of the free. Everybody would be waiting for and the home of the brave. Jesus didn’t finish the line. Jesus omitted the bit about “the day of vengeance of our God.”

In announcing that God’s jubilee of liberation, amnesty, and pardon was arriving with what he was doing, Jesus omitted any reference to God exacting vengeance on Israel’s enemies. In claiming that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in their hearing, Jesus is claiming to be Jubilee in person. But the scandalous suggestion is that this Jubilee is to be for everybody…even Israel’s enemies.

Jesus edited out vengeance, and this gives us a key to how Jesus read the Old Testament. And lest we think that Jesus’ omission of “the day of vengeance” was simply an oversight or meaningless, consider what Jesus says to the hometown crowd in the synagogue following his edited reading of Isaiah. Jesus recalls the stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper — Gentiles who instead of receiving vengeance from God, received provision and healing.

Jesus is announcing the arrival of the Lord’s favor, but he is emphasizing that it is for everybody…even for Sidonians and Syrians, even for Israel’s enemies! Jesus is making clear that in bringing the Jubilee of God he is bringing it for everybody!

How was this message of God’s inclusive favor received in Nazareth? Not well, not well at all. Initially Jesus’ hometown “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But as soon as Jesus made clear that he was closing the book on vengeance, that he would not endorse the idea of divine retribution on their enemies, the crowd turned viciously against Jesus. They drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff!

Jesus refused to read Isaiah’s vision of vengeance in the synagogue, just as he would refuse to be a violent, vengeful Messiah in the model of King David and Judah Maccabeus. And that ignited the rage of the crowd. It’s amazing just how angry some people can become if you try to take away their religion of revenge. As long as Jesus announced that it was the time of God’s favor, the crowd spoke well of him. But as soon as he made it clear that God’s favor is for everyone, as soon as Jubilee was made inclusive and not exclusive, they tried to throw him off a cliff.

Until we are captivated by the radical mercy of God extended to all, we will cling to the texts of vengeance as cherished texts. We do this not for the noble sake of justice, but for the spiteful sake of revenge. With the incident in the synagogue of Nazareth we learn that Jesus has closed the book on vengeance.

The Word made flesh prevents us from rifling through the Bible to find texts of vengeance to fling upon our enemies. If we try to hold onto a divine warrant for vengeance, Jesus passes through our midst and goes away. If we cling to vengeance, we lose Jesus. If we don’t want this to happen, we need to learn to give mercy to our enemies. If we commit to loving our enemies, Jesus will abide with us and help us learn how to do it.

Jesus didn’t come to bring vengeance, he came to close the book on vengeance. Jesus announced the Jubilee good news of pardon, amnesty, liberation, and restoration…but not vengeance. Jesus doesn’t bless revenge, he blesses mercy, and teaches that the mercy we show to our enemies is the mercy that will be shown to us. God does not allow us to hope that the book of divine vengeance will be closed for us, but left open and inflicted in full upon others. This is not how it works in God’s economy of grace revealed by Jesus.

Does this mean there’s no divine judgment? Of course not. Certainly there is divine judgment, but it is a judgment based in God’s love and commitment to restoration. The restorative judgment of God gives no warrant to a schadenfreude yearning to see harm inflicted on others. Jesus has closed the book on that kind of lust for vengeance.

We must constantly resist the temptation to cast ourselves in the role of those who deserve mercy, while casting those outside our tribe in the role of those who deserve vengeance. Jesus will have no part of that kind of ugly tribalism and triumphalism. Clinging to our lust for vengeance, we lose Jesus. But if we can say Amen to Jesus closing the book on vengeance, then Jesus will remain with us to teach us the more excellent way of love.