I don’t know if you have been paying attention to the Winter Olympics that have been going on in Beijing China the last few weeks and are ending today, but events like that which bring together people from all over the world can show how difficult it is at times to understand sayings or customs with which we may not be at all familiar. There could be many examples, I’m sure, but just one example that I saw was that if after or during a delicious meal, one of your Chinese friends lets out a huge burp, that is seen not as being horribly impolite, but as a great compliment to the chef who prepared such a wonderful feast. We may jokingly say that we could do a similar thing after a meal ourselves, but in our culture the thought of that being a compliment would probably not at all be the first thing that would come to mind.
We have a similar “what does this custom mean” situation in our Lesson for today, when the apostle Paul says this in verse 20 in connection with eating a meal: “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.” We have mentioned before that we really don’t know for sure what that custom or that saying from many years about burning coals is referring to. Some have wondered if it refers to that time, when a man or woman who didn’t have enough coal to keep the fire burning though the night would walk among his neighbors with a container on his head that caring friends could heap burning coals into. Others have wondered more commonly if it is more of a proverb referring to the thought of trying to burn someone’s conscience by doing something nice to someone who has done something mean to you, in hopes they will see their mistake and not want to treat you so poorly any more.
Whatever this custom or this proverb is referring to, it is clear that it’s talking about being kind to people with a kindness that can only come from a person who believes in Jesus as their Savior, and who therefore wants to show his Savior’s love to others – and in the case of those who don’t believe in Jesus at this time, to hopefully have a chance to answer any questions from them about what makes you act the way you do. Thinking about those kinds of things in these next moments is how I pray we can all be encouraged in our lives to “Keep Heaping Burning Coals,” no matter how hard that can be to try to do.
Clearly this is not easy to do, especially when you hear those first words of verse 17: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” After all, what is almost always the first thing that naturally comes to your mind when someone has said something mean to you or gossipy about you – the first thing that normally comes to your mind when someone has taken advantage of you or acted like they didn’t even notice you were there – the first thing that can so often come to your mind when someone makes fun of you for your opinion or what you believe or what you wear or how you live or where you are from or how you talk? Isn’t almost always the first thought that comes to our minds either one of anger toward others or pity for self? Anger that leads us to lash out right back or to start making plans about how to do so over a period of time? Or self-pity that leads us to not think about how we can pray for that person or help that person, but how deep down we would just love it if that person would start suffering in the same way they have made me start suffering?
Humanly speaking, of course, those are natural reactions, so that is why our Lord tells to do what is not natural. To instead “bless” the person who persecutes you, he says. Literally, that word means “say and think good things” about that person. How in the world can you or I do that, when someone certainly isn’t doing that toward me? The only way you and I can do that is by remembering something that the apostle Paul wrote about at the very beginning of this chapter before today’s Lesson starts. Romans 12:1 says it so beautifully in this way: “Therefore, I urge you brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.”
“In view of God’s mercy.” In other words, how many times does God have to “bless those who persecute him?” How many times does God have to “bless and not curse?” when it comes to you and me? How many times does the God who made us have every right to destroy us, since he is the one who made us? But how many times, instead, doesn’t our dear Lord God in his love and mercy heap burning coals on our heads? Our Lord Jesus allowed himself to be consumed as the ultimate living sacrifice to pay for all the times we have either been someone who has been guilty of being mean to others, or the times we have been guilty of responding sinfully to those who may truly have been mean to us. That in no way excuses the sins of someone else against us. As the Lord also says here, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. That’s why he says in these words, “Leave room for God’s wrath.” If there needs to be punishment, God will take care of that, either spiritually by himself or through his earthly representatives in the family and the government. What he wants for us is to do everything we can to help that person come to repentance so they do not receive the punishment that we also would otherwise receive – everything we can to help that person see how Jesus sacrificed himself for them, too – everything we can to help that person know how through Jesus Christ God keeps heaping burning coals on them, as well.
It’s that perspective — which we know is so difficult, but in Christ is so wonderful — that allows us to see the other encouragements the Lord gives us here as Christian goals to keep striving for – goals that we will never attain fully, but goals of Christian living that will continue to remain our goals the more we realize and appreciate how our Lord continues to forgive us for not being able to reach them fully. In verse 15 – to rejoice with people who are happy about something, and not regretting that they are happy – also in verse 15 to mourn with those who are sad about something, and not saying to ourselves that they are getting what they deserve. At the end of verse 16 – to be willing to associate with people of low position and to not be conceited. The literal thought in that expression “not be conceited” is to be wise and sensible about yourself. In other words, when you think about it with God’s wisdom and God’s way of looking at things, what sense does it make to ever think that I am of a higher position or more important than someone else? I need the same Savior they need, so that makes us all completely equal, and someone therefore it is a privilege to associate with, even if they may not be my forever best friend or my personal confidant.
It is interesting, though, that God does also talk about what we know is sometimes the case, however. Sometimes we can try our best to truly treat people as God wants, and they just don’t want anything to do with that or anything to do with us. That’s what the Lord is referring to in verse 18, when he says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live in peace with everyone.” Sometimes that peace is not possible, sadly. Sometimes people do return our attempts at good with evil. Sometimes we don’t even know why someone doesn’t like us or why they have chosen to mess up our lives. That God does not hold us accountable for. That is why he says right before that in verse 17 to be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone, so we can’t be inappropriately accused of causing the problem, and that’s why he says right after that in verse 19 to entrust any judgment on such people to our Lord above, as we mentioned a few moments ago.
The bottom line is the bottom verse of our Lesson – verse 21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” There is evil out there; that we know very well. There is also in God’s eyes evil in here (our hearts). That we also know very well, as we need to confess day by day. But we have a Savior who has overcome that evil by paying for it on the cross. And we have a Savior who promises his power to help us overcome evil better and better day by day in our lives, as we remember we are people of the cross, people who, even if we don’t know for sure what the custom of the burning coals was referring to, still do know that we have the love of Jesus as the burning coal we can use to show the love of Jesus to others. With God’s help – in your family and with your friends and in this church and in your schools and at your jobs and wherever you may live now or someday will and at whatever age you are right now or will be in the future, “Keep heaping burning coals,” just as Christ our Lord has done for you! That can be perfectly understood in any culture!