The scene shifts in our 23rd Psalm this morning. The Lord, Yahweh, is not only our shepherd, but also our host. We are welcomed into the heavenly abode, where a table has been spread before us.
The meaning of the phrase is not immediately clear. Is the table spread before our enemies so that we might sit together? If so, that’s a radical notion of reconciliation. Or is it that this is all done so that our enemies might see how beloved we are, a kind of meal-based rubbing it in their faces? If so, that seems to be petty, but also pretty satisfying.
Keep in mind that the psalms are, by and large, prayers. Whatever you might think about their authorship or the purpose and meaning of Scripture, these prayers were prayed by people. Human beings, like you and me. That doesn’t take away from their power at all, or that they were Spirit-led in their writings. Each week, we gather as a community to read and re-read these passages, assuming that they have meaning not only for the time in which they were written, but also for the time in which we live. And I don’t think this is possible unless God is intimately involved in the writing – and the reading.
If we are honest, though, we know that our prayers are not always on the mark. We pray for things all the time that we should know better than to pray for. Like any obsessed Braves’ fan, I know I have asked God to intervene in playoff action every now and then. Do I really think that the balance of the universe hangs on whether or not Craig Kimbrel gets another save? Probably not…
The point is this: the prayers of the ancients were no better or worse than our own. And there were times when they prayed for the vanquishing of a foe when, perhaps, they ought to have been praying for something a little more eternal, lasting, holy.
I think that might be the case with our Psalm text today. While the meaning may be unclear at first blush, a deeper look clarifies that the author is writing about retribution. The table is prepared for me – not me and my enemies, just me. And the table is prepared in the presence my enemies – the word in Hebrew does not mean “near”, but against them. What the psalmist wants to say is that this table is mine, and nobody else is even gonna get so much as a crumb from it. That may be the case, but I’m not sure that’s what God wants to say.
Let’s take a step back for a moment. When we look at the whole of Scripture, there are lessons that point to God giving victory over foes and against incredible odds. And when that happens, the victory is God’s. And there are lessons that point to God’s presence even in the midst of defeat; because the victory is still God’s, no matter where we might be for the moment.
What we also see, time and time again, are incredible stories of unlikely forgiveness and reconciliation. Isaac and Ishmael reunite to bury their parents. Jacob and Esau’s bitter sibling rivalry gives way to the embrace of brotherly love. King Cyrus of Persia frees the Israelites from their Babylonian Captivity, and the Jerusalem Temple is rebuilt with the help of Assyrians and Phoenicians. Judas, the betrayer, is at the table when bread is broken. Jesus prays for forgiveness for those who put him to death. Saul, the persecutor of early Christians, becomes one of their leaders.
Whatever the psalmist might have intended, the overarching story of salvation is that enemies do sit at table together in the kingdom of God.
Some of you have heard of World War II veteran Louis Zamperini. In 1943, his B-24 bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He spent 47 days on a life raft before he was rescued from the sea…by his Japanese captors. He spent the next two years being tortured in a POW camp. That experience tormented him for years, and his life story was all too familiar to those who have ever experienced the horrors of war and post-traumatic stress: nightmares, addiction, broken relationships…Somehow, along the way, he was convinced to go to a Billy Graham revival. Right then and there, he became a Christian and began to understand what forgiveness means. Since then, Zamperini has returned to Japan several times, seeking out former captors so that he could experience that forgiveness face to face. And at the 1998 winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, he was invited to carry the torch, as the Japanese crowds cheered him on.
I don’t know what Louis Zamperini is made of. But I do know that his life story finds its inspiration in God’s story. And that is the story we see in our Scripture lessons today, where enemies meet in the most unlikely of ways.
Take the amazing story of Naaman, the head of the Aramean army. Ancient Aram and Israel were rival nations – we read about that in our lesson, as an Israelite girl is taken captive by an Aramean raiding party. Through their prisoner, the Arameans learn about the powerful Israelite prophet Elisha, who might just be able to cure the general’s leprosy. Much to the chagrin of the Israelite king, he does. There is no requirement of a non-aggression pact, no cease fire is signed. Elisha provides for Naaman’s healing, and he refuses to take payment for it.
To get an idea of how insane this is, imagine for a moment that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of Al-Qaeda, comes to Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City for free cancer treatment. It’s unthinkable – and yet, here it is: an enemy general is healed of leprosy. And the purpose is to give witness to the holiness of Yahweh, the divine shepherd.
Even though the scene in Luke is less military, it is no less unbelievable. Jesus is passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. A crowd gathers to catch a glimpse of the infamous rabbi. Among them is diminutive Zacchaeus, the tax collector. He is well known, and despised, by all around him. Tax collectors, after all, were Jews who took money from other Jews and gave it to the hated Roman occupiers. He is, in short, a traitor. When Jesus calls him down from the tree, I can’t help but wonder if the crowd think Zacchaeus is going to get his come-uppance. Instead, Jesus wants to be his guest, elevating Zacchaeus’ status right there in front of God and everybody. And, perhaps most importantly, he does all of this before Zacchaeus offers to repay everyone he has swindled. A relationship with Jesus does not come as a result of righteous living. Instead, a relationship with Jesus paves the way for doing what is right.
The kingdom of God, therefore, operates very, very differently from our own world. Enemies sit at table together: Barack Obama and Edward Snowden; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates; Alex Rodriguez and anyone on the planet. It is a concept that absolutely baffles the imagination. If God is the host, then God is the one who gets to send the invitations. We may not like everyone on the guest list, but remember: it’s not our party.
Where does this leave you? Imagine yourself in the place of the psalmist. You are ready to sit down at this fantastic spread. You are looking forward to rubbing it in the face of your worst enemy. Suddenly, you realize that God has set another place…for them. Who is it? An ex? A former neighbor, or co-worker? A nameless, faceless other? What is it that wells up within you? Repulsion? Anger? Surprise? Joy? Forgiveness? Are you already looking for another table or calling for the check?
Friends, this faith stuff is not for the faint of heart. And don’t misunderstand me: there is much, much more to reconciliation than simply sitting down at a table together, “letting bygones be bygones.” If you have read any of the stories of those who have experienced such a healing, you know the courage and pain it involves. From South Africa’s post-Apartheid challenges to prison system programs here in the U.S. for victim-offender reconciliation, forgiveness is hard, hard work. And there are times when reconciliation can only possible beyond the grave, because it needs God’s first-hand involvement that badly. No matter what, if we want to call ourselves Christians, then, at the very least, we need to recognize this: at the heavenly banquet, there is room for all. No matter the distance that might lie between you and your enemy, the distance between you and God has already been bridged; because the victory belongs to God, and God alone.