The first written record alluding to the sermon on the mount is not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. It is written by Paul in Romans 12 probably 20 years before Matthew was written. So even before the Gospels were written, the earliest Christians were familiar with sermon on the mount. These earliest Christians were familiar with Jesus’ great sermon because it’s not only what he taught in announcing the kingdom of God, it’s what he embodied on the cross, kingdom truths lived out for all to see.
“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 honorable 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.”
Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome to live out the Christian virtues of humility, mercy and forgiveness. Believe it or not, in ancient times, in ancient Rome in particular, humility and mercy were not considered virtues. This is unthinkable or unimaginable to us, because in western culture, every religion, every worldview, humility and mercy are considered virtuous and desirable, qualities that if we don’t have, we aspire to. This is an accomplishment of Christ in the world we know. The Rome Paul is writing to has a different value system than we “moderns” do. Rome, the empire, values pride, vengeance, retribution and revenge.
Paul is reminding these early Christians that they have a new, revolutionary value system. Jesus announced the kingdom, taught the kingdom, and then embodied his teaching upon the hard wood of the cross. His teaching and his actions matched.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Insult and violence are not made right because it is retaliatory. Evil is still evil, regardless of whether someone else did evil to you first. We have to know and realize that all such evil is always retaliatory to the one doing it. Everyone doing violent evil in the world believes they are simply responding to a wrong done to them. If your kids are fighting, and you sit them down to get to the bottom of why they are fighting, you will never get to the bottom of it. There is no beginning, there is no end. No end, that is, until someone imitates Jesus Christ, absorbs the blow, and forgives the wrong done to them.
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.”
Paul says never avenge yourselves. We are to be like Jesus, absorb the blow, and instead of recycling that anger into vengeance upon the one who harmed us, recycle it instead into forgiveness, returning the evil done to us as love, mercy and forgiveness.
The wrath of God. Forgiveness is not exoneration. No one in this life “gets away with it”, regardless of how things appear to us. Let’s just say that you can be sinned against in such a way that it’s not “ok”. But forgiveness says, “I release you from your indebtedness to me” and trusts in God that things will be made right. In forgiving someone we release ourselves from the burden of having to collect that debt, we release ourselves from the burden of making the world right. We trust that God will make all things right if we surrender to his perfect will.
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. Sometimes we can see the progressive revelation of God before our eyes in the Old Testament. In 2 Kings chapter 1, we see the great prophet Elijah calling down fire from heaven to kill his enemies. But Elijah has a successor, Elisha, who asked for a double portion of the blessing of Elijah from God and who, coincidentally, performed twice as many miracles as Elijah. In 2 Kings chapter 6 we see Elisha with a much different response to his enemies than Elijah.
“When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes and they saw, and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria. As soon as the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” He answered, “You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel.” 2 Kings 6:15-23 ESV. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into Israel. The Syrians were the enemies of Israel, coming on a raid to kill the prophet (prophets tend to upset great and powerful empires) and destroy Israel. Instead of reacting to their evil with evil, Elisha told the king of Israel to feed them and give them drink. They had a great feast, broke bread together, and now these enemies were no longer enemies. The repaid evil with good and broke that cycle of war and vengeance with their Syrian brothers.
Paul says that in doing so you will heap burning coals on his head. Paul is not teaching us how to torture our enemies, he’s not teaching us to do a reverse kindness upon our enemies in the hopes that they will be tortured and anguished by our goodness and kindness. But he is making a point. If we sincerely try to love our enemies, the rejection of sincere love offered is it’s own form of torture. It’s not the wrath of God, but how we respond. If we choose to reject sincere love offered to us and choose to keep our enemies as our enemies, we are torturing ourselves and sickening our souls. Sincere love rejected brings its own judgement. Just as Jesus’ crucifixion shined the brightest light on the darkness of our retributive violence. Just as Jesus not picking up a stone shined the bright light into the darkness of collective murder, so evil repaid with good, genuine good, shines the brightest light on the evil itself.