“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
One of these things is not like the others. Yeah, I totally just gave myself away. I grew up watching Sesame Street. (That’s about all I was allowed to watch. My mom would just tell me to go read books.) At any rate, it’s worth singing that song when you approach these verses. They all seem to fit together. Until you get to that part where it talks about “heaping burning coals on his head.” What are we supposed to make of that? Don’t hurt someone so that you can end up hurting them? Is that the message? Weird, huh?
Just work through the section for a second. Don’t repay evil. Do right. Don’t take revenge. Then God goes on to say, “Don’t not do something to your enemy. (Terrible grammar in there with the double negative, but hopefully you’ll give me a little artistic license to make the point.). Do do something for him/her. Feed him if he’s hungry. Give him something to drink if he’s thirsty.” Then after God makes those points he comes up with this apparent zinger. “If you do this, then you will be heaping burning coals on his head.”
Seriously. What does that mean? Is God saying that by helping your enemy, you’ll get a certain kind of revenge? That’s what some Bible commentators suggest. They have glommed on to a discovery that dates back about 50 years made at the University of Leipzig. Apparently, in ancient Egyptian culture a thief would return to the person from whom he had stolen with a tray of burning coals on his head and “his crimson face below the hot coals was demonstrating his shame over what he had done.” Does that mean then that our ultimate goal in doing good to our enemies is to get our pound of flesh through shaming?
I doubt it for a couple of reasons, it seems odd to me that Solomon, who Paul is here quoting, would mention an ancient Egyptian cultural practice to ancient Israelites. It seems even odder to me that Paul would talk to Roman people about it. Furthermore, why would Paul talk about going to the nth degree for your enemy out of love only to undercut the whole idea by basically saying, “If you do this, then you will be able to shame him really, really good.” It doesn’t add up.
Here’s what does. If you can bring your enemy food… if you can bring him water and if you can do God’s spiritual work at the same time, then - well - you’ve got a winning Christian combo. And that’s what’s going on here. Let me explain. While we can’t be sure there was any shaming practice in ancient Rome associated with the heaping of coals, we can be sure that there were ancient cooking practices. Neighbors sometimes needed fire from neighbors. We can be sure of that. Occasionally, the coals might get heaped up a little high during the exchange and anything underneath - as you can understand - might get a little hot.
Do you see it yet? You can’t get food from someone.... you can’t get water from someone - especially if that someone is someone you don’t particularly like or someone you have it out for - and not have a spiritual reaction. You just can’t. You’re going to think to yourself, “Do I have this guy right? Is it me who is a little off kilter here? Am I out and out wrong?” There’s going to be spiritual heat in an interaction like that. That’s why Augustine, one of the church fathers, who thought about this verse said that the “coals of fire serve to burn,” and he was thinking about the soul. And, again, another church father named Martin Luther said an experience with a kind, compassionate “enemy” can lead a person to ask themselves, “Why did you hurt this pious man? Why did you persecute an innocent person?”
Being the catalyst in a spiritual confrontation like the one described is a rewarding, and motivating thing for any Christian. At least, it is for me. It strikes me that that is the work that Jesus did in me. I was his enemy. I had it out for him. I really do believe that (I’ve managed to show that quite well in my life by now too.). But Jesus gave me food. And Jesus gave me drink. He even gave me himself. That spiritual confrontation has drawn my soul to him like gravity draws my feet to earth. I’m stuck on him now. The gospel has a hold on me. That’s why Jesus did what he did. He wasn’t crowning me with a tray full of burning coals to shame me. He was crowning me with life. He wasn’t trying to get me to grovel before him in guilt. He was drawing me to himself with mind blowing truth. If I can embody that kind of love to someone else… if I can be a catalyst for inner spiritual confrontation that leads to life-giving faith, then - wow! - I’m in.
Besides, I don’t want my pound of flesh (I wouldn’t have any left if that’s what the God of this world was about.). What I really want is for God to use me to start someone else down the same path he’s already taken me.