2012 Epiphany III

The Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 22 2012
Verses 20-21 of Romans 12:16-21
“Great Balls of Fire”

How could St. Paul say, or ask that such a thing befall one’s afflicter? First of all, Paul wasn’t the first to say such. The 140th Psalm includes the petition: ‘Let hot burning coals fall upon them … I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the afflicted, and executes justice for the needy.’ So St. Paul is quoting from 140th Psalm.

In today’s passage from his epistle to the Romans, Paul is giving advice to the Christian on how best, and most fruitfully to handle situations of personal conflict.

His first word of advice is: “Be not wise in your own conceits.” Do not be conceited. Do not be the cause of conflicts with others. “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think.” And be not condescending toward others. Do not make others to feel less of themselves, or inferior, because you think you possess more or better talents than they, or that you are more favored than they. All are equal in God’s eyes!

One may not be as wise as you think you are! We are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think. We are not to exalt ourselves above others: Rather we are called upon in fact to practice the virtue of humility. And here is a short but excellent definition of humility: Humility is not thinking less of yourself; but thinking of yourself less!’

Second, he admonishes us to “live peaceably with all men, if it be possible, as much as lieth in you.” Elsewhere, St. Paul advised the Corinthians: “When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare to go to law before the unrighteous…but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” Jesus put it simpler: “To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.”

Paul admonishes us to live peaceably with all men, as much as lieth in you, if it be possible! But we mustn’t depend upon our own strength or resolve alone. If we rely on our own strength and effort we’ll pre-dictably fail at it. Do it with the help of God! Jesus has promised us peace; not as the world giveth, but as he giveth unto us. Indeed it is only when at heart we seek and work towards God’s Peace that we come to experience true inner peace.

Paul continues, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Paul is admonishing us not to ‘pay back’ someone for an injury suffered at their hands.

But do not the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy permit and even endorse the concept of injury for injury? Even going so far as to stipulate: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe?

If we chose to abide by a retaliatory standard: should we injure another person, would we want like-injury to be inflicted upon ourselves by them in kind? Our Lord taught, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!” (‘The Golden Rule’). We are not to render evil for evil or railing for railing; but contrary wise, bless those who curse you; forgive those who injure you.

It is said, ‘Revenge is sweet!’ Is it? Experience has shown it nearly always leads to escalation. One has only to reflect on the results of ongoing hostilities between certain nationalities, and between one nation as against another, or the violent revenge that occurs between rivaling street gangs. Oftentimes leading to the death of innocents caught in the cross-fire of revenge.

Paul makes it abundantly clear: It is not our place to take revenge on anyone! Revenge (if we choose to employ the word) rests with God; it is His prerogative to execute it, not ours! And we’ve been given God’s promise, via Paul, that God WILL repay! After all, only God has and knows the full facts of every given situation. And He who ‘seeth in secret shall reward thee openly!’

There is FINAL JUDGMENT! The separating of the sheep from the goats; when each shall receive their just rewards! That should be good news to all; but also bad news for others. Hebrews testifies: “For we know him who said, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, and again, the Lord will judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God!”

No place for revenge: no eye for an eye? So what are we supposed to do when injured? What are we to do when we are offended, hurt, betrayed, wronged by others? Do nothing? No, but according to our Lord: Forgive! Turn the other cheek to the offense! Do good; and not evil! Leaving the final recompense to God, with whom it rightfully belongs!

Well why then does Paul advise: ‘Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink’ for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.’ Isn’t Paul being two-faced, having just said that vengeance belongs to God, not to us! Well, let’s consider for a moment those ‘coals of fire’ and let’s begin with the element of FIRE itself. What are some of the things that fire will do? Fire illuminates, it heats and warms, it consumes – as well as purifies – like as unto silver that is purified seven-times by fire; to be ridden of the dross.

Our ‘purifying’ deed is to treat the enemy, the offender with a loving response: Forgiving them the hurt (or hurts) will in effect ‘sear their conscience,’ and all to the good: It should heighten their awareness and, hopefully, help them own up to the damage they caused, experience remorse and sorrow for what they did, and instill in them the desire to repair it!

After all, in the end do you not want the one who has offended to amend their ways? The individual most certainly will not amend if he is simply rebuffed by you! Many hurt others because in their childhood they were hurt, they grew up with hurt, perhaps knew only hurt.

At grammar school, a contemporary was my ‘best friend’. Until one day in the school yard he began pounding on me – thereafter day after day striking me on the arm or back. One day he put his hands tightly around my throat and began choking me. He thought it funny! Until this boy of 10 kicked him firmly in the shin! ‘Why’d you do that,’ he asked? ‘Because you were choking me’, I said. He simply brushed it off; almost as if I was at fault! [I would have ‘heaped coals of fire upon his head’, if someone had shown me to them!].

After I got home I related the incident to my mom. As far as I was concerned that choking was the final straw! ‘But he is your best friend!’ ‘No more!’ Not even in spite of the fact he showed up one day at the back door to apologize. My mother was a pretty savvy and clever lady. She went to the school and caught sight of Pat. She asked to speak with him and told him that some schoolyard BULLY was harassing her son, and that as ‘Pat and I were best friends’ – would he please look out for me! And you know it worked! I never received another blow or choking after that. And bless her, she saved a friendship!

Many a time after, I would ride my bicycle over and his house to spend time with him. It was there that I met his father; probably the meanest man I would ever meet! Many a time I witnessed his dad verbally berate and belittle him, and physically assault and strike him with closed fist. That put two and two together! I guess Pat thought that is what love is about, and about how love behaves – it serves to injure people and belittle them!

Not real love! Real love treats others as it wishes to be treated, it forgives, values a friendship enough not to cast it away. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends!

Years later Pat finally had his day – not of revenge upon his father; but the opportunity to show his dad that in spite of the mistreatment he had received as a child, he loved his father! His dad was down on his luck and Pat offered him a job in his business with the opportunity to work for him, at a decent wage. In so doing Pat had ‘heaped coals of fire on his (father’s) head’: and such kindness ‘seared the conscience’ of the father. And his father asked him to forgive him for all of the past times he had abused his son. Pat forgave him freely, and they were reconciled the one to the other, and were at peace with one another for the rest of their lives!

And isn’t that the blessing we all seek? To be reconciled one with another. And to be at peace with God, and to live in peace with one another? So then — that is the meaning of what Paul was trying to say to us? Great balls of fire! We got it!