But growing up, we didn’t get along all that well. I won’t say that I disliked her but I certainly didn’t like her. I can’t tell you how many times she would run into my room or the backyard, knock over all my Star Wars guys and run out of the room.
And I would chase her. So when she would get to mom, she would tell mom that I was chasing her and I was hitting her. Well, mom would shelter the little princess and tell me something about being the older child and how I should treat my sister better.
I might be remembering this wrong but I’m pretty sure that while my mom was saying this, Mari was sticking her tongue out at me from behind my mom’s back.
I hated that. I made me so mad. I had done nothing wrong and here was this little brat ruining my fun and then getting me into trouble for it. I wanted to rip the New Kids posters from her wall. I wanted to tear the heads off her Barbie dolls. I wanted to kill her.
Thankfully I didn’t kill her because I actually like her now. And she only sometimes knocks over my Star Wars guys.
Since then, I have grown up a little. I’ve learned that retaliating, even when I am justified, doesn’t really do much good in the world. I’ve learned the being right and doing right aren’t always the same thing.
Last week, we talked about Isaiah’s view of how the Fulfilled Kingdom of God will look. We saw that there will be no more war, no more weapons. We saw that it is a place where God judges and we saw that we are given a light to walk that path here on earth.
In Romans 12, we find Paul taking up the same idea. He tells us not to repay evil with evil.
So what is evil to us? Can I get back at my sister for what she did to me? After all, she started it!
Can I take your eye if you have taken mine first? Can I take your life if you have taken one first? Can I support the destruction of a nation if they were the ones who did it first?
Maybe it depends on whether or not we like that nation.
Or whose eye was first taken.
Or whose life was first ended.
And when Paul tells us that that we shouldn’t avenge ourselves, that we shouldn’t take revenge… well, come on.. he didn’t mean “never”. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s crazy talk. I mean, leaving it up to God to take vengeance, that doesn’t look like any kind of world we live in. Right?
Which leads me to wonder how much of our culture’s values we have laid over the top of these verses. How much our society’s idea of good and evil do we interpret these verses through? How often do we see these verses through the eyes of the empire?
And if it’s ok to lay on our culture’s values, is it ok to lay over the top of these verses some other culture’s values? Or just the culture we have grown up in and agree with?
And what is easier for you… is this teaching of Paul easier to apply on a small scale, on something personal rather than global. Are you quicker to “forgive and not repay” if it is an evil perpetrated on you personally rather than if it’s on a large group of people or a nation?
Maybe it’s easier for you if it not personal. Maybe when it’s personal, it feels almost impossible to forgive and not repay. I wonder if Paul thought there was a difference between the two.
I think a lot of it comes back again and again to this question…
Do we really believe in the Kingdom of God in the here and now?
In reality, is it just easier to separate our present lives from the kingdom to come? After all, if you’re going heaven anyways, what’s the difference?
And yet it seems that in living out these verses, we are walking in the light of Lord down the path of the established kingdom. And now we have both Isaiah and Paul extolling us to do just that.
A little earlier, Paul tells us to hate what is evil. We are not to make excuses for wrong, we are to forgive it.
We are not to forget about the beatings a husband gives us wife and pretend that it didn’t happen but we are to still wish the better for him. For them both.
And that is why forgiveness and peace can’t exist without justice.
And it does get tricky here because too often we want to play off one extreme or the other. But we are told to live our lives in humility. “To not be wise in our own estimation.” Because Vengeance is the Lord’s. Because he is the only one wise enough to rightly handle it.
For our part, we are told to overcome evil with good. And since we are told to do it, I have to believe it is possible though the world we live in would tell us differently.
The first thing to realize is that we cannot overcome evil with good by simply ignoring it.
We cannot overcome evil with good intentions or well wishes.
No relationship has ever been mended, no violence averted, no hungry stomach filled through platitudes and storybook love.
This must be an active good. It must be us searching out the places good needs to be and giving our lives over to it. Because we are not in our position for privilege but for purpose.
Some would tell you that purpose is… distasteful. Even the people of God tell us that sometimes.
Paul reaches into his scriptures, into Proverbs, and tells us that if we do indeed have this searching, active good that we will heap burning coals upon the other person’s head.
And I can’t tell you how many times I have heard something like this…
Those coals will burn the other person and make them feel ashamed for what they did. Or worse, that those coals mirror the burning they will feel in hell.
But when I think of hot coals in the Bible, I think of Isaiah. When he was called, an angel came to him and placed a red hot coal on his lips and he was forgiven. He was forgiven through that act.
So it seems to me that these coals are not for shame, they are not there to mock, they certainly aren’t there to send people to hell quicker. They are there to forgive.
“And in doing so, you will heap burning coals of forgiveness upon their heads.”
I think this is hard for us to hear and do because we don’t start out following the instructions given in verse 12. We don’t like to be patient in suffering. And we aren’t always great at persisting in prayer.
But we can be. We can be a people who are ardent in spirit, a people who do rejoice in hope, a people who love without hypocrisy. We are the body of the one who showed us how.
Maybe being right and doing right are the same thing after all. It just depends on whose definition of “right” we use.