The past week has been a little overwhelming, and I find myself without a newsletter article for you this week. Hopefully you’ll forgive me if I dip into the archives for a reflection that may have some bearing on our current lives—particularly if we’re getting a little frustrated with each other. This article was originally posted in December of 2017, as I was wrapping up my preaching class…
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” Mark 11:25
In my Homiletics class, we needed to prepare a series of sermons that covered a range of topics and characters. One danger of the pulpit is that preachers have a tendency to preach what they are comfortable, and so one of the class requirements was that we prepare a sermon that examined a biblical character that was not our gender—I needed to tell a biblical woman’s story. The text I chose is from Ruth 1. Ruth’s is a great story, but you know that if you’ve read it. Obviously, the story is about this Moabite girl who comes to Israel, to the town of Bethlehem, and how she becomes part of the family of David. But there’s this other important character, too. Naomi. And it’s Naomi that interests me.
There’s some indication that this story wasn’t so much a story to be read, although it really works that way, but a drama to be enacted. One reason is that the names mean so much. The town the family of Elimelech comes from, in the beginning? It’s Bethlehem. But Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” Oh, the irony of being driven from the house of bread by a famine, by the lack of bread! Naomi’s two sons? The ones who die and leave her destitute? Mahlon means “sickness” and Chilion means “decimation.” Orpah is derived from the Hebrew for “back of the head,” fitting for the one that returns to Moab. These names are too pointed—it seems intentional. In 1 Chronicles 4, the genealogy of the house of Judah includes the names Joash and Saraph, who married in Moab, but returned to the land of Judah. Some commentators suspect these may be the actual names of Elimelech and Naomi’s sons.
Naomi’s name is perhaps the most meaningful. Naomi means “pleasant”—a great name for any young girl. But in the story, her experience is anything but pleasant. It’s why, when she returns, she insists that the village no longer call her “pleasant,” but Mara—“Bitter.” She changes her own name to reflect the pain and grief she feels in her heart. Naomi’s life is no longer shaped by pleasantness, but by the bitterness of loss. The question is whether she will let her new name become who she really is.
It’s been said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping that will somehow kill your enemy. Bitterness about the way we feel we’ve been treated really does little to change the behavior of the ones that have harmed us. Not only is it a barrier to good relationships between each other, Jesus indicates that it’s also a barrier between us and God. We can’t have the relationships we need to have with a grudge festering in our hearts.
Unfortunately, any time we spend time together, bitterness has the potential to infect us. Working together, living together, and being in community all create risk where we can be hurt by each other. Let’s be honest, we aren’t as sensitive to each other as we could be. We can say things that are well intentioned, but poorly phrased, and in doing so, we sow the seeds of offense. Sure, we can be more careful about how we treat each other. But to be offended and let that bitterness develop into a grudge shows an additional level of insensitivity. Now, instead of accidentally offending, we are intentionally wanting to harm our brothers and sisters.
Grudges are infectious, too. They spread easily, like a contagious disease. It’s not long before the grudge in our hearts begins to offend others beyond the perpetrator of the original offense. We complain about the situation to others, and we taint their hearts with bitterness, too. We want them to join us in our resentment. The cycle escalates as they transfer that bitterness to others. Eventually, the original slight that set the whole thing rolling is forgotten in the seething mess of suspicion and unrest.
Sure, people can be hard to get along with sometimes. Folks aren’t as nice as they should be, but we’ve got to be careful that we don’t multiply the problem by nursing resentment. In the verse from Mark’s gospel, there’s the implication that someone has done something to cause offense. There is something we need to forgive. But Jesus isn’t saying they should get their act together before you do. He sees the problem not as the original offense, but in our keeping a record of it, in our holding a grudge.
Naomi had run out of people to be mad at, so it seems she turned her bitterness toward God. But God could handle it, and patiently guided her back—through the care of her daughter-in-law Ruth, who’s name means “friend” or “companion.” It can be hard to let things go, though. But remember that Jesus, who truly was sinned against, forgave us. If anyone had a legitimate right to be bitter, it’s Jesus. But He didn’t carry a grudge, and if we want to do more than just talk about following Jesus, we’ll try to do the same as He did. On the cross, He prayed to His Father to forgive His executioners, those that were offending to the point of death. I suspect that it’s not too much to ask for us, His disciples, to forgive some insensitivity from our brothers and sisters.