Psalm 23:5a, Luke 15:1-2
The Rev. Tom Herbek
May 22, 2016
The words that most of us probably remember from this verse in the 23rd Psalm are: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” This seems to say that God is going to throw me a big dinner party, just God and me, and all those people who look down on me will see that I am God’s favorite – not them. While that may well have been what the writer was saying, that has always bothered me, so I was very pleased to hear of another way to look at this part of the psalm. In his book on the 23rd Psalm, Rabbi Harold Kushner says that Jewish theologian Zalman Schacter suggests a whole new way of looking at it:
Schachter describes how, once a year, he convenes an imaginary dinner party in his Everyone with whom he is on bad terms, everyone who has been mean to him or his family, everyone who has hurt, offended, or disappointed him is invited to this imaginary feast. In the course of this mental banquet, Schachter goes around the table and explains to his guests that he has invited them to thank them for the various gifts they have given him during the past year, the lessons they have taught him.
Some have taught him that it is unrealistic to expect too much from the average person. Most people will inevitably be more involved with their own problems than with ours or someone else’s. They will be so distracted by their own issues that they will not hear our cry for help. As a result, Schachter imagines himself telling them, he has become more realistic about what he can expect from people and more aware of the danger of he himself not hearing the cries of those who turn to him.
Others at his imaginary dinner table are there because they have disappointed him by their hypocrisy, by not living up to the standards they claim to believe in. They have taught him a lesson he realizes he might have learned from his own behavior, had he looked at himself as squarely as he looks at others. It is a lot easier to affirm one’s belief in a principle than actually to live by it.
Kushner comments on this idea: “We don’t accomplish anything by dismissing them as hypocrites. That is all too likely to make them solve the problem by lowering their beliefs to the level of their behavior rather than elevating their behavior. A colleague of mine tells of giving a sermon once pointing out the inconsistency of people who come to synagogue on special occasions but don’t come to the weekly Sabbath service. He called it the most effective sermon he ever gave. People listened to him and stopped coming on special occasions.”
Schachter continues around the table at his imaginary banquet, thanking some of his guests for having helped him to understand himself a little better. When something they did upset him deeply, to the point of undermining his relationship with a person, he learned to stop and ask himself, Why was this such a “hot button” for me? Why did I react so strongly and let it upset me? It never occurred to the other person that he or she was doing something monstrous; why did it seem so terrible to me?
As a result, he says, he has looked deep into his own soul, traveled back to his childhood in an effort to understand what there was in him that made him react so strongly. Did a slip of the tongue reawaken feelings of his parents favoring an older or younger sibling? Did someone’s forgetting a birthday or an appointment stir up feelings of not being taken seriously by people whose love he craved? In the process, he has learned a lot about himself and has learned to put those perceived slights into perspective. He hopes he has made himself less vulnerable to being so easily upset in the future, and for that he is grateful.
Rabbi Kushner writes:
When we find ourselves in conflict with another person, there may be alternative ways of reframing the conflict. We don’t have to ask ourselves, Was it my fault? Did I do something to cause this? And instead of asking, What’s wrong with that person that he or she would do such a thing to me? or What’s wrong with me that someone would treat me so badly?, we might learn to ask, What can I learn from this incident to reduce the number of people in my life whom I think of as enemies? Sometimes the answer will involve coming to terms with what people are like.
Sometimes the answer will help you understand yourself better.
When I first became a nationally-known author in 1981, with the publication of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, I began to receive letters by the carload from readers. Ninety-five percent of them were complimentary, and I was deeply gratified by them. A few were efforts to convert me to the faith of the letter writer. And one or two a week would be critical, accusing me of blasphemy and of undermining people’s faith. To my distress, I found that one nasty letter bothered me more than fifty nice ones pleased me. I would brood about it for days.
Finally I realized that instead of asking myself, What’s the matter with those people that they don’t appreciate me?, I would be better off asking, Why am I so bothered by their criticism?
Every letter that criticized my book upset me precisely because there was a part of me that feared the criticism might be valid. Only when I realized that the source of the problem was within me, not with my critics, and that therefore I had power over my feelings in a way that I had no power over my critics, was I able to overcome those feelings. Had I had the benefit of Zalman Schachter’s advice at that time, I would have invited my critics, orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, and others, to an imaginary dinner (with kosher food for the
orthodox guests, of course) and thanked them for prodding me to get over my fears and believe in myself. I would have assured them that they were not, and never should have been, my enemies.
- The Lord Is My Shepherd
We all have much to learn from those who seem to be our enemies. Award-winning journalist, anchor and special correspondent for CNN, Soledad O’Brien, wrote about what she learned from prejudice in Smithtown, NY:
One day, when I was in middle school, I was walking down the hall to my sixth-period science class when an older kid, an eighth grader, came up to me and said, “If you’re a nigger, why don’t you have big lips?” I remember trying to formulate an answer, as if the boy’s question deserved a measured response.
There was no hostility in his voice. It was just a question hurled at me in the rush to change class by a boy with long, sandy-brown bangs swinging in his eyes. I rushed past him. I just pursed my lips and kept moving.
I’ve always been proud of my heritage. I am the daughter of a black and Latina mother from Cuba and a white father from Australia. Both of my parents are immigrants. I was raised, with five brothers and sisters, to be proud of our cultural identity, but the issue of race never failed to stare me in the face. People did not see me in the way that I saw myself. I remember shopping at a store in our comfortable suburb of Smithtown, New York, and meeting a salesperson who explained that I “couldn’t be black” because black people were thieves and killers. Um, gonna put this jacket down and leave now, I thought to myself.
The important lesson, to me at least, is that I’ve succeeded in life despite the narrow-mindedness that I faced growing up. Dealing with prejudice actually changed me for the better, not for the worse. I learned that I didn’t need to acknowledge-or give power to-every injustice thrown in my way. Instead, I could win just by being myself. Yes, I felt angry at the time, but I used the negativism as motivation and didn’t let it fester. I realized that anger could teach me, and I’ve used those feelings in my work to identify with people-to say, “I’ve been there, too.”
One thing that’s certain in this country is that not far around the corner from every ugly experience is something really beautiful. And if you stop at every bitter comment you will never reach that beauty. My strategy has always been to push forward, to be proud, and to have faith in myself. In other words, never give intolerance the satisfaction of a backward glance.
I continue to be amazed by people who are able to invite their enemies to the table. I am amazed at people who can learn from hatred and prejudice. One person who invited his enemies to the table was Nelson Mandela.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela tells of a place he came to during his 27 years in prison: “It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”
And Martin Luther King showed that capacity. Dr. King wrote: “We must recognize that the evil deed of the enemy, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that the person is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy.” He goes on to say, “There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”
If we follow Jesus, who invited tax collectors- people who collaborated with the occupying Romans- and sinners- people who did not follow the codes of conduct for “good” people- to his banquet table, then we too must open our minds and our hearts to enemies, to people who have hurt us, or would like to hurt us, and begin to see them as people, also.
In 2006, Joan Chittister traveled with a group of women to Syria, and there she found something she never expected, from people who considered her an enemy:
Damascus is the longest continuously populated city in human history. More than seven thousand years old, they tell us. We were on the very street that ties the early moments of Christianity with today’s struggles.
When the car stopped, we found ourselves in the front courtyard of a huge marble building. We were in a convent in Damascus run by a feisty old nun, Regina, a sister of St. Basil. It was a classic institution confronted by a very current situation.
The four sisters there work with Iraqi refugees. “Four thousand Iraqi refugees a day come to Syria,” Sister Regina told us. The sisters feed the refugees three times a week on fresh soups and casseroles, vegetables, bread and meat donated by the members of the parish and their Muslim friends around them. The people come with old pots and pans, the sisters fill them to the brim. The people take the food back for the rest of the family to make meals and home and family life as normal as possible in a totally abnormal situation. Four sisters, older but undaunted, collect clothes for them, manage a medical clinic to care for them and try to get them housing.
“Come and see them,” she said.
The rest of the time is almost a blur, meaning I don’t know what happened in what order. But I do know what happened. I looked into their faces while the translator pointed each of them out: this one’s son had been killed, these lost their homes, this one saw her family shot to death by American soldiers, these here have nowhere to go… the list was endless. “I am so sorry,” I said to them. “I am so sorry this happened to you. All I can do is apologize to you from the center of my heart for the millions of Americans who are concerned for you.”
“And what good does that do?” a young teenager said, a sharp edge to her voice.
Suddenly, a woman pushed forward from the back of the jostling crowd, big black eyes fixed on me intently. She turned to the translator for help. “I accept your apology,” she said quietly. “I accept your love.” Then she put her arms around me, kissed me firmly on the cheek, put her head on my shoulder and began to cry. And so did I. The rest of the group pressed tightly against us, all of them with tears on their faces.
I had never seen the faces of my victims before and they had not seen the face of the enemy who was not an enemy. It was a profound moment for all of us.
Then, the Reverend Joan Brown-Campbell – chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women – came forward quietly and began to do what ministers do: She made the sign of the cross on first one forehead, then another. And, instantly, the whole crowd fell into line waiting for the blessing, Muslims and Christians.
It was a scene of frustration, care, trust, anger, hurt, and commitment I will never forget.
From where I stand, it seems that road to Damascus is still the place of conversion. Maybe before we name any more enemies, politicians should go there.
-National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2006
Perhaps we too can learn from our enemies. Perhaps we too can realize the humanity of our enemies, and begin to find ways that bridge the gap between us, beginning with using their contempt, criticism, or anger, as a way to learn more about who we are.
Perhaps, in that way, we may be able to welcome people to God’s table who we would never have dreamed of sharing the table with, before this.