The Arts have plagiarized the verse “Vengeance is Mine” since it first appeared in the Bible. In cinema alone, between 1912 and 2021, it’s been used as a movie title more than a dozen times. Japanese, German, Italian, Hindi and American film makers adapted it for every genre from Spaghetti Westerns to Blaxploitation and horror. It’s also been used in literature (by Mickey Spillane) and music (by Alice Cooper).
It’s been so over-used we’ve forgotten its original context: God’s contempt for our jealousy of the divine right to punish. In our hunger for that power, we forget how we’re supposed to imitate God—by showing mercy. Divine mercy explains why humanity’s still here.
We constantly forget our reason for being: to serve, not to be served. When we believe it’s the latter reason, only melodrama ensues—hence, all those movies and books we like to produce and consume. Those works don’t include the daily news reports of war between people and nations, all of which add to our hunger for revenge.
Sunday’s Mass readings were inspired both by our jealousy of God’s righteous claim to vengeance and God’s renunciation of it as the ultimate example of extravagant forgiveness. The first, from that wise scribe, Sirach (Sir 27:30—28:7), tells us:
Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. … Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
It’s a shame that the only way we try to imitate our Creator is by claiming the divine right to avenge. But whenever we claim revenge as ours, it becomes like eating potato chips: one bite isn’t enough. Too many will kill us in the long run. Nevertheless, we keep biting at each other with a persistence that would be a virtue if applied to forgiveness.
If we did, Christ’s recipe calling for seventy times seven measures of it still wouldn’t be enough (Mt 18:21-35). After all, we’re supposed to make mistakes. That’s not only how we learn to right our own wrongs, but to forgive those of others. That’s how sins are recycled into virtues.
In Sunday’s second reading (Rom 14:7-9), Paul tells us that as insistently as he told the Romans,
None of us lives for oneself, and no one dies for oneself. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord;
Paul learned that truth from Jesus, and Jesus was the spirit of wisdom that taught Sirach to write it down as a simple life recipe formulated for our own widespread plagiarism. Just mix infinite forgiveness with equal measures of mercy and stir.