Paul’s ethic

Sermon –for the twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 12:9-21

Spend a bit of time reading from the letters of Paul, and it doesn’t take long to discover that the great apostle of grace can be rather opinionated, tough, and uncompromising. For all that he celebrates and proclaims the audacity of God’s grace, Paul can get rather prickly when he turns his attention to the practical matters of life in the Christian church. Without any hesitation, in 2nd Thessalonians he suggests that church members who don’t earn their own keep—“believers living in idleness” he calls them (3:6)—shouldn’t be given food. In Galatians he dresses down Peter for compromising on the full inclusion of the Gentiles (2:11-14); later in that same letter he suggests that those Jewish Christians who still insist on the circumcision of Gentile converts should go a “castrate themselves.” (5:12) And then from this evening’s reading from Romans, there’s this line about heaping burning coals on the heads on one’s enemies…

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It comes in the context of a section of his letter that had begun, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection,” and you just have to know that when Paul writes of “love” he isn’t thinking in terms of anything even vaguely sentimental or mushy. He’s thinking in terms of a way of being in the world; an ongoing willful choosing to be rooted in a love that transforms both the one who loves and the ones who receive that love. It is a way of love that is not necessarily easy, but it is true. It is a way of love that one imagines Paul himself sometimes carried out with his jaw clenched and his teeth gritted.

In line after line, Paul holds out this vision of life that cuts right against the grain of the expected social norms. “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer” (12:12); “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (12:13); “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (12:15); “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are” (12:16).

Notice that this love is not to be confined to others in the Christian community. In keeping with the mandate of the Hebrew scriptures, hospitality is to be extended to strangers. “If it is possible,” he writes, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all,” (12:18) and he really does mean “all.” Not only that, but threaded through these verses are references that raise the bar even further: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them (12:14). “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.” (12:17)

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves,” he writes, which for at least some people is maybe the toughest move to make. Even if we soften the idea of “avenging”—such a strong word—and tuck it behind phrases like “setting things right” or “seeing justice done” or “holding them accountable”, when we have been badly wronged it is such a human thing to want to see it set right. We want our metaphorical day in court, in which the one who has wronged us is made to pay. That’s not your business, Paul seems to be saying; that’s not your jurisdiction. And given his sometimes fiery personality, maybe he is preaching as much to himself as to anyone else.

Yet this is where things begin to get complicated. All of these powerful words about love, hospitality, and peaceableness, and all of these words about not repaying anyone for evil and not taking matters into your own hands and avenging some wrong are followed by two citations from the Hebrew scriptures, which together seem to suggest that if you will only hold back on taking any action yourself, God will have room to do a far more thorough job of it than you could.

“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” “Vengeance is mine, I will repay;” here Paul is citing the Book of Deuteronomy (32:35), which at the very least says that judgments of vengeance are not within our jurisdiction. Jesus, of course, is pretty clear on that matter:

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matt. 5:43-45)

God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and if God does that how could you dare to hate your enemies, much less take justice into your own hands? That is God’s turf, not yours. And what “vengeance” even looks like when it comes from a God who sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, that is a whole other matter.

Yet it is Paul’s citation from the Book of Proverbs that seems to raise the stakes even higher. “[I]f 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.” So is Paul here suggesting that if we refrain from trying to make our own justice, God will reward our patience by taking down our adversaries, and taking them down hard? Such that when that guy came in to church on Christmas Eve, sat in the congregation through the whole service, and at the end grabbed a handful of offering envelopes and ran out the side door, the best thing that happened was that no one chased after him? In good time he’ll get his heap of hot burning coals…

In truth, over the centuries some have read this passage in this manner, yet it is awfully hard to square with the main point Paul is making here, namely that our core ethic is to be one shaped by the choice to love, such that we “not be overcome by evil, but [rather] overcome evil with good.” (12:21)

And so according to the biblical scholar Paul Achtemeier, “When Paul speaks of caring for an enemy’s needs which heaps coals of fire on that enemy’s head, he is not giving advice on a better way to get back at one’s enemies! Rather such treatment is intended to get the enemy to turn from enmity to friendship. Gracious deeds thus burn away the hate within. Such treatment of opponents has as its goal reconciliation and peace, not another’s defeat and suffering.” This is also the reading given the passage by the great theologian Karl Barth, who says that in doing “the irrational, impossible, and altogether unpractical thing—If thine enemy hunger, feed him! If he thirsts, give him to drink!we may discover that “the other [is] driven by our action out of his position as an enemy.” Or as Elizabeth Shively puts it, “By treating opponents like family, opponents are shamed: the image of heaping of burning coals on the enemy’s head suggests making him red in the face.” Red in the face… is that too much of an interpretive stretch? Maybe. But just know that in the view of many, many Pauline scholars, this image of hot coals is one not of punishment, but of penitence, maybe even of purification.

And quite frankly, that is entirely in keeping with Paul’s own embrace of the audacity of grace. Sure, he could be more than a bit prickly and opinionated, yet almost in spite of himself he keeps singing a much grander song. He keeps singing a grander song, in which even the quirks of his own strong personality were to be forgiven and reconciled, and the “irrational, impossible, and altogether unpractical” gesture of meeting an adversary’s hostility with a bit of food and drink were the most powerful and transformative things of all.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” We need to find the courage to follow that ethic, and to dare to believe it is the most truly powerful way.

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