Have you ever wanted to get even with someone? I mean, have you ever felt you were so wronged or betrayed that you actually imagined ways to turn the tables, to exact retribution, to shame the other and emerge victorious and triumphant?
I've been there. But I learned something through the years. It does not have to be that way and when I chose to set that kind of thinking and acting behind me I found a sense of peace and freedom that I will never surrender merely for a moment's satisfaction or self-justification. It's not worth it.
Some of you with excellent memories may recall the passage from last week’s reading of part of Romans 12. At one point, the apostle Paul quoted Proverbs passage as part of his instruction to Christian on how they should live morally according to the commandments of God. Proverbs says:
21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
22 for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the Lord will reward you.
It will be helpful, I think, to understand what the context was of the teaching and especially why Paul quoted it. If Paul was arguing for this moral conduct, then he was necessarily arguing against another. What was it?
Paul was writing to the single church in Rome, whose members were both Jewish expatriates and Roman former pagans. The morals Paul was teaching were Jewish morals, and so were the moral teachings of the other apostles – and in fact of Jesus himself. In fact, every one of Jesus' moral and ethical teachings are found in the Old Testament. Paul's instructions to church in Rome would have been familiar to its Jewish members, but not so much to the Roman members because the contrast between Roman ethics and Jewish ethics was stark.
Ancient Romans held that mercy, compassion and unmerited kindnesses to others were vices, not virtues. Roman parents beat their children for showing compassion or mercy to others, even their friends. To win, to prevail, to improve one’s standing even by trampling on others was admired and encouraged in the Roman world. When a Roman was wronged by another it was mandatory that he get even. Better yet, that he retaliated more harshly than he had been wronged.
The ancients’ social system was that of honor and shame. It is the oldest system of human behavior there is. An honor-shame system means that nothing is more important that where one believes he or she stands in society. One’s place on the totem pole is paramount because that social standing affects absolutely everything else. Honor-shame systems have been deeply embedded across the Middle East for thousands of years and still rule there, except in Israel.
An Iraqi explained what it meant this way:
Our sense of honor pervades everything we do. This isn’t the Western definition of honor, it’s more like Hispanic honor of machismo. Perception of manhood is vital and in fact it can be a matter of life and death. A man without honor gets no wife, often no work, and in Iraq he may be shunned or even killed by the own family depending on how grave the offense is. Defending honor is part of our cultural heritage. It is the focal point of everything we do and is jealously guarded. Honor means influence and power, our foremost concern. Less power means fewer contracts, less money, less food, angrier families. We must regain lost honor any way we can, even if it means violently attacking the ones who dishonored us.
This is the way that almost every society in the world was organized for thousands of years. Whether Japanese, Chinese, African, Norse, Southern European or Native American, honor – one’s standing in the order of human relationships – was of supreme importance.
Jesus preached consistently against honor codes and the sinful habits of pride they cause. Luke 14 tells of a day Jesus went to the house of a Pharisee leader to eat a meal on the Sabbath. He saw all the other guests jockeying to sit near the host, the place of honor. He told them that they were risking dishonor because someone more important might come in and kick them out.
“But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Across all human societies, people protect their status one way or another. Social climbing, power grabbing and the jealous guarding of one’s privileges or position are often paramount.
Jesus said no to all that: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” The one-upmanship games and mutual back-scratching or back-stabbing ways of the world have no place in relationships founded upon Jesus’ teachings. After all, he ate with sinners and tax collectors, spoke in public to prostitutes and other low-lifes, and died strung up between two thieves.
Jesus emphasized rejecting worldly standards by his conclusion of the teaching:
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, so that they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Alan Culpepper wrote, “Those who live by kingdom standards and values now will not only bear witness to the kingdom but also will be rewarded in ‘the resurrection of the righteous.’ Righteousness, not social position or the esteem of others should be our goal.”
God is not interested in where we put our place tag on the tables of life. “Instead, God looks to see that we have practiced the generosity and inclusiveness of the kingdom in our daily social relationships.” The old order offers merely the temporary reward of social position. The new order brings the eternal reward of God’s favor.
So what does it mean to pour heaping coals upon the head of one’s enemy? For a long time I thought Paul meant that when I return kindness for another’s hostility, the other person couldn’t stand being treated kindly instead of meanly and would burn with resentment. But Paul can’t mean that because in Romans 12.9 he says, “Love must be sincere.” We cannot sincerely, lovingly gloat over causing others to seethe with indignation at us -- even if they are jerks!
Let’s take a look at Psalm 140, which begins,
Deliver me, O Lord, from evildoers;
protect me from those who are violent,
2 who plan evil things in their minds
and stir up wars continually.
Then in verses 9-10 we read this:
Those who surround me lift up their heads;
let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!
10 Let burning coals fall on them!
Let them be flung into pits, no more to rise!
Pretty rough stuff! The psalmist is using the image of burning coals falling upon his enemies to symbolize the judgment of God upon the wicked.
Now, here is Paul in Romans 12.
Dear ones, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The coals symbolize the judgment of God in both Proverbs and Romans. I think Paul is telling us that the commandments of God to treat one another with loving kindness do not depend on how others treat us. Everyone is liable to a judgment of God, so we must control our own passions first lest burning coals fall on us as well.
The teaching is a Jewish one, so I asked my friend, Israeli Rabbi Daniel Jackson, for an interpretation. He sent back that we are not dealing merely with human enemies here. We are also set upon by temptation to sin. Daniel wrote, “The intention of Proverbs 25 is to direct our attention to ourselves to control our passions, to ensure that in all our ways, we are reminded that we are to be Holy in all our actions and relations.” He wrote:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him bread, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.” Honor him; treat him with Holiness. … We are dealing with the Evil Inclination and its cravings. If your evil inclination is hungry and wants you to sate it with “sins”, then feed it the Bread of Torah [The Word of God, the Scriptures-DS]; if it is thirsty, sate it from the Eternal Spring of the Divine.
Then, you are putting coals on its head, which is to say, you have begun the refining process of separating out the dross from the silver.
"Submit yourselves to God," wrote the apostle James. "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4.7). The most persistent and cleverest enemy we have is the temptations to abandon righteousness as a way of life and holiness as our goal. The way to resist and overcome is to choose godliness over ungodliness and feed the Bread of Life to our inclinations to evil and wrong-doing.
When our enemies are hungry and we feed them, when they are thirsty and we give them something to drink, we have done our duty to God and one another. The others might continue in ungodly hostility, but we have done all that we can do. Retribution, if any, is up to God, not us. Our calling to live as, and lead others to become, disciples of Jesus Christ, does not change.
A friend of mine once told me that he dreamed of standing before Jesus after Christ had come again in glory. He said he was prepared to recite the creeds, offer personal confessions of faith, confess his sins and prostrate himself before the Lord.
But it didn’t go like that. Instead, Jesus sat down next to him and said, “People live their lives as if they think I will ask them these questions on judgment day:
“Did you get everything in life that you thought you thought you were entitled to?
“Did you get even with the people who did you wrong?
“Were you worried about what other people thought of you?
“Did you hold on to grudges and imagine ways to hit back?
“Did you treat other people based on what they could do for you later?
“Tell, me, is that how you lived your life?”
My friend said that in his dream he had no reply but was filled with remorse. Then Jesus said, “Here is what I really want to know:
“Did my light shine through you in the way you lived?
“Did you forgive the people who did you wrong, even seventy times seven times?
“Were you worried about what I thought of you more than what other people thought of you?
“Did you pray for your enemies and do good to those who did you wrong?
“Did you treat other people on the basis that my love for them was as great as my love for you?
“Tell me, is that how you lived your life?”
I think that’s a pretty tough final exam, but one we need to make sure we pass.
21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; 22 for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.
Which is to say, offer them the bread of life and the living water of God. Offer them Christ. It really is so simple as that.