Romans 12:14-20 – Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
There are as many opinions as there are commentaries as to what Paul meant when he said, “For by doing so you will heap burning coals on his head.” Many scholars believe the idiom refers to a severe punishment or an act of public shaming of the recipient of the coals. Although I am not a Bible scholar, I puzzle over this interpretation, as it seems incongruous with the overall context of the above passage.
Other Bible scholars reference a common practice among the Bedouin tribes of Paul’s time. Nomads carried remnants of their previous campfire with them, as there was little kindling available in the arid desert. The gift of living embers would be seen as a great blessing to a person who had no access to kindling or flint. Therefore, these scholars surmise Paul exhorted his readers to bless their enemies, much in the same way that Jesus encouraged His followers to give their enemies their cloak.
I can see the logic behind the latter conclusion. While working in refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, I marvelled how much my Cambodian friends could carry in the shallow round baskets they placed on their heads. Young mothers walking home from the market balanced fresh vegetables, rice, cooking utensils, and other sundries, leaving their hand free to hold their small children.
Most of these young mothers fled the Khmer Rouge by navigating the mountainous jungles of Cambodia. Everything their family needed to survive had to be carried: food, shelter, clothing, and supplies. Fire-starting materials were not easily found in the damp forest. They often carried the last remaining embers of their previous night’s fire in tin cans insulated with moss. Not only did they need fire to cook their food and boil their drinking water, they also needed fire to keep dangerous night creatures at bay. Jungles are cold, damp, and frightening at night, and a warm fire comforted them. I can imagine how grateful a fellow refugee would be to receive a gift of embers, especially if they were without fire-starting materials.
When I bless those I particularly do not want to bless, I step into freedom. The more I pray for someone, the more I grow to love them and the more I want to see God’s redemptive love transform their lives. The more God displays His goodness to that person through me, the more reconciliation has a chance to take place. If that person has yet to know Him, the more likely they are to do so, for it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance. (Rom 2:4) In the process, I might gain a brother or a sister, and God brings another lost lamb into His fold.
Take time this week to pray God’s blessings over those to whom you wish you could at least give them a good piece of your mind. Ensure that when you do speak to them or when you speak about them to others that you do use the good piece of your mind by first going to the Lord with your grievance. Ask the Lord for His perspective and repent of bitterness and resist the temptation to seek ungodly vengeance.
As you read the above illustration, did someone come to mind who could use a word of encouragement? Is God calling you to stir the embers in the life of a fellow believer whose light is diminished? A right word given at the right time can fan into flame the fire within. Be sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit this week, be quick to obey those inner nudges to reach out. Be alert to God assignments!
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All Bible verses attributed to the ESV version unless otherwise indicated.
Until Next Week
2018 Katherine Walden
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