From the Letter to the Romans:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 12:19-21 (NRSV) – February 13, 2014.)
I have been known to say that I really don’t care for St. Paul. He often seems arrogant, and way to sure of himself. He admits to boastfulness and too often holds himself out as a paragon for others to emulate.
Years ago, when I would hear this passage read in worship, I thought it was just “Paul being Paul,” Paul showing off, Paul using colorfully inventive language, but it’s not. It’s Paul relying on his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures to support his message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
First, he conflates two verses from the Book of Deuteronomy: “Vengeance is mine” (Deut. 32:35) and “I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me” (Deut. 32:41). Then he supports his argument that we should foreswear revenge for the sake of the gospel by an appeal to the Book of Proverbs: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you.” (Prov. 25:21-22)
Picking and choosing among the various writings of the Bible, “proof-texting,” is generally frowned upon, but that is not what Paul is doing. Instead, Paul is synthesizing law (torah) and wisdom (chochma) into a foundation for the message of forgiveness. The negative and restrictive ways of cultic law reserving revenge to God and of practical advice to eschew vengeance in favor of a greater reward are put in service of the positive gospel of reconciliation: “overcome evil with good.”
In these few short verses Paul demonstrates a maturational approach to the development of religion. This helps me to understand what he has written in other epistles.
Elsewhere he has said that the law (torah) was given to humankind as a sort of schoolmaster: to the “foolish Galatians” he wrote, “The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came.” (Gal. 3:24) As a child, we are told “Don’t do this; don’t engage in revenge” and, if we ask why, the answer is “because I said so.”
As we mature into adolescence and gain knowledge of the “ways of the world,” our developing wisdom (chochma) informs us with another reason, self-interest: “I won’t seek vengeance because I will profit more by not doing so.”
Finally, as mature adults, we come to know what Paul might have called “a still more excellent way,” forgiveness in place of revenge which benefits everyone and builds community: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26,31)
Paul does often seem boastful and arrogant, but give him his due: he knew his stuff! I’m learning to read the Pauline epistles holistically, as a body of work rather than as individual bits and pieces, and in doing so I gain insight into Paul and read him with new respect.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.