2nd Sunday of Advent
Texts: Luke 3:1-6;
Mal 3:1-4; Phil 1:3-11
JESUS’S TRUE VERSION OF ‘DON’T GET MAD, GET EVEN’
This marks the second time in nine years that we’ve endured a tragic school shooting during Advent. As we prepare for the coming of the Prince of Peace, a troubled young man enters a school and murders students. Nine years ago it included 20 first graders in Newtown, CT1; this week four high school students in Oxford, MI.2 We hold those families and their communities in our thoughts and prayers.
But we owe our children’s and grandchildren’s generations much more than that. We owe them action to help keep them safe. Their generations have and are growing up with active-shooter drills beginning in pre-school. Growing up in a different time, I can’t imagine what that’s like . . . pre-schoolers being taught to flee danger. We have to do more to help keep them safe.
For followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, I have become passionate that a first priority for us is to revitalize our message to understand how Jesus came to save us from our human problem with violence. For our older sons, I sang at their baptism that song of Zechariah that we read together this morning. ‘You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, to go before the Lord to prepare the way — to give God’s people the knowledge of salvation, what they are saved from, to lead them out of darkness into the way of peace.’ That’s our calling as baptized children of God!
This morning I want to continue those efforts by focusing in on the main image from our Gospel Reading: namely, John the Baptist’s ministry of preparing the way of the Lord in the tradition of Isaiah 40, where we read, “make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” It is our responsibility, our calling, to help people understand how God is trying to save us.
Isaiah 40 is a picture of leveling things out, of ‘getting even,’ so to speak. There’s another way of talking about ‘getting even,’ isn’t there? Something triggered for me, with the prominence of the Oxford school shooting this week, is a very common and simple phrase, “Don’t get mad, get even.” When these young men walk into their schools, it appears that it’s with vengeance on their minds, for whatever reasons. Vengeance is in that category of violence we have been talking about in recent weeks, the kind of violence we use to respond to violence. Were the modern school shooters bullied? What violence has been done to them so that they feel the urge to unleash such horrific violence on others? “Don’t get mad, get even.”
Several weeks into this journey of revitalizing our Gospel message, especially for the sake of our younger generations who have grown up with active-shooter drills, we can expect Jesus to have directly contradicted this kind of violence, because he came to offer nonviolent ways of responding to violence as God’s alternative Way to peace. “To guide our feet into the Way of peace. We do, in fact, find Jesus doing just that in the Sermon on the Mount. We will get to that prohibition and seek to even go beyond it with the positive prescription for how to ‘get even’ in a completely different, nonviolent way — ‘getting even’ in the way of Isaiah 40, preparing for the coming of the Prince of Peace. In short, I’m proposing a Jesus-way of living into “Don’t get mad, get even.”
Before we get to Jesus’s Good News, though, let’s spend a couple minutes being more truthful about that old saying as we typically understand it. There’s at least two problems with it. The first is that saying “Don’t get mad” is disingenuous. That kind of violence comes from a place of anger. When you’re contemplating revenge, you’ve already been angry. It’s what fuels the desire for vengeance! To be more truthful, the saying should be, “Don’t just get mad, get even.” Revenge may be a dish best served cold, as they say, but that’s only when you’ve had time to cool off. Revenge generally never happens if you haven’t initially become hot with anger. It comes from a place of seething anger. The point of the saying is that you shouldn’t just leave your response at getting mad. You should also get even. “Don’t just get mad, get even, too.” That’s the full meaning of the old saying.
The second big problem involves the second part: “get even.” That’s also not fully truthful, because vengeance rarely leaves things with literally getting even. Vengeance is most often about striking back harder. It’s about escalating the violence. That’s why the ancient Jewish law is so typical in insisting that we resist escalation. You know the ancient saying: ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ That’s about literally getting even because revenge so often is about striking back harder, about getting more than even. In no less than three places in the Jewish law — in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy3 — we find the law about ‘an eye for an eye’ precisely because ‘getting even’ is so prone to ‘getting more than even’ and then spinning out of control. As Gandhi used to say, “‘an eye for an eye’ makes the whole world blind.”
We concluded last week by lifting up Jesus’s Good News through Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu disciple of Jesus, who took the Sermon on the Mount more seriously than most Christians have throughout our history — so much so that he turned Jesus’ teaching into a mass movement of how to nonviolently resist the violent oppressions of empires. This week, let’s take a few moments to look at the Sermon on the Mount more closely. Gandhi talked about reading and praying the Sermon on the Mount every day. We’ll look at it more closely to see it’s more truthful version of “Don’t get mad, get even.”
Jesus’s version, of course, is meant to undo vengeance altogether. It begins with encouraging us to literally not even get angry. In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus tells us that our justice must even exceed that of the Jewish keepers of the Law, the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). He then goes on to give us specific examples, beginning with,
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. . . . So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:21-22a, 23-24)
There you have Jesus’s more truthful version of “Don’t get mad, get even.” When Jesus says “Don’t get mad,” he means it literally. We need to find ways of tempering our anger. Don’t even let yourself get angry and began down the road to violence. And when Jesus says “Get even,” he means be reconciled. We get even through the process of forgiveness. And be reconciled to whom? A brother or sister, someone we regard as equals. Getting even.
But just in case we’re not quite getting this version of “Don’t get mad, get even,” he ends his examples of seeking greater justice than the keepers of the law by directly upping the ante on the ‘eye for an eye’ sense of getting even:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. . . . 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 children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt 5:38-39, 43-45)
These are the words that Gandhi cherished from Jesus and turned into a Way of seeking a more truthful path to peace. Satyagraha, he called it, which literally means, “holding onto truth.” “Don’t get mad, get even” is the lie that has led humankind down the road of the whole world becoming blind. Satyagraha takes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to be the way of truth, compelling us to seek the path of not even getting mad, and to ‘get even’ by seeing all human beings as children of the same heavenly Father, who causes the rain to fall on both the just and unjust. It is the Way of Love, not vengeance. Martin Luther King, Jr. took up Gandhi’s discipleship of Jesus as the key to the Civil Rights movement and summed up Jesus’ version of “Don’t get mad, get even” by coming to the same way of Love: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” he said; and “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
The Way of Love is the new creation that Jesus launches on Easter. It involves a new way to be human. It involves a love that isn’t just reserved for neighbors but even reaches out to enemies. It’s a love that constantly sees each person on earth as a sister or brother in God’s family. This is the Jesus-Way of ‘getting even,’ of seeing everyone as equals in the eyes of God. And it was the prophets who prepared the way for his coming by giving us portraits of making things even — not just with metaphors of dramatically smoothing out a rocky geography, but more importantly in terms of human equity. We’re talking here in terms of all of God’s children have equal opportunity to thrive, to flourish. Our children and grandchildren are growing up not only in a more violent time, but also in a time of growing inequity. The chasm between rich and poor is growing exponentially every year. They see that injustice. They want something different. Jesus’ Way of getting even is first and foremost about establishing equal justice for all of God’s children. That’s a part of the equation for Jesus’s more truthful version of “Don’t get mad, get even.” In the weeks ahead — as a matter of fact, we have Mary’s song in two weeks, in which she sings, ‘You have brought up me, the lowly, a poor peasant. You have thrown down the mighty from their thrones. You’ve fed the poor, and sent the rich away empty-handed.’ That’s the kind of ‘getting even’ that the Good News of God’s reign coming into the world is about. As we continue our Advent journey to Christmas, we’ll continue to unfold a revitalized Gospel message for the sake of our children and grandchildren and the world they are inheriting. It can be our Christmas gift to them. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, December 5, 2021
1. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting took place December 14, 2012, killing 26 people, 20 first graders and 6 staff.
2. The Oxford MI school shooting November 30, 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/article/oxford-school-shooting-michigan.html
3. Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21.