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.” Romans 12.19-20.
For once, these are not randomly-selected verses with which to start the day (see “Choosing my Text” under Crumbs) but are part of the Epistle that I heard read in church yesterday morning. Their context is the second great description of love that has come down to us from the pen of Saint Paul. The first is, of course, found in 1 Corinthians 13.
This passage on love starts Romans 12.9 and goes right through to verse 21 with which the chapter ends; and it is important to read and understand this morning’s two verses in that context. Paul is talking about agape — that selfless, sacrificial, do-anything-go-anywhere-for-the-sake-of-the-beloved kind of love that is so perfectly found in Jesus. So, jumping straight to the second of my two verses, can it really be that, in the context of Jesus-love, Paul wants to motivate me to do good things to my enemies by giving me the thought that this will increase God’s judgment on them? Of course not; yet this is how the “coals of fire” verse is so often read.
The verse is actually a quotation from the book of Proverbs: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25.21-22); and it describes an Egyptian practice, well-known throughout the Middle East in ancient times, where a penitent wrong-doer would carry a bowl of hot coals on his head to show publicly his remorse and repentance. So, by showing agape love to your enemy, Paul is saying, you may well lead him or her to repentance; you may well love him or her into being your remorseful friend. No wonder God will reward you!
So back to the first of my two verses. What is this about “leaving room for the wrath of God”? It is important to recognise that Paul never speaks of God being angry or wrathful; he only ever speaks of “the wrath” in an impersonal and objective way. C H Dodd’s called it “the principle of retribution inherent in a moral universe.” And Paul is saying here that we must “give place to the wrath” — leave the field clear for that retributive principle to take effect. Not because it will be more punishing than anything we could come up with, but because it will be more just, more redemptive, more perfect in love, than any retribution we could ever mete out to anyone. Wrath is, at the end of the day, the means by which God will purge his creation of all unrepented and undealt with sin, but it is a means created by, and in the hands of, a God who takes on flesh and dies on a cross in order to deflect that wrath onto himself for all that will have it so. And by loving our enemies, says Paul, we can open up that possibility for them. By doing good to them, we may open their hearts to the redemptive, perfect love of God himself.