Feasting with God #23
Overcome Evil with Good
14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20To 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.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
If we are Christians, then we ought to live as Christians. Because we are unable to escape our sinfulness while we live on this earth, it’s not always an easy task to live in a Christian way, and Paul gives us some advice in this passage to help us live like Christians.
When someone persecutes us, it’s easy—it’s human nature—to curse them, to wish evil upon them, or to defame them to others. It’s especially easy for Christians, because we know we’re not supposed to react violently. So we’ll react with our words. But Paul says, “Bless those who persecute you.” He lays a great deal of responsibility at our feet, in fact: “Live in harmony with one another…. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls Christians “peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9). Paul expects us here to be able to keep the peace. “He started it!” we might say. And we might be right. But the advice of my parents comes back to me whenever I think that: “It takes two to fight.”
So, for our responsibility, we won’t fight. Let our enemies persecute us all they like, we won’t fight back. That’s what Paul asks us to do. It’s not easy. And even harder is what he further asks us to do: “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.’” Not only are we to not fight, but we are to react with kindness, even feeding our enemy. I can think of very few things I would find less pleasant than hosting someone who was my enemy, someone I despised, someone who hated me. I would hate to have to feed them dinner, give them room and board even for a night. But this, Paul says, is what we are to do: “for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Of course, there are times when Christians cannot sit idly by while injustices are done. Especially we can see this in the example of Christ, when he drove out the money-changers from the temple, even using a whip and overturning their tables, accusing them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt. 21:13). This is a righteous anger, and in the right context, it is the appropriate response.
It may not always be clear to Christians when we should respond with love, “feeding our enemies,” and when we should respond with anger, in wrath and vengeance. Luther writes, “To understand this, you must distinguish between God and man, between persons and issues. Where God an issues are involved, there is neither patience nor blessing but only zeal, wrath, vengeance, and cursing” (LW 14:258). This is the appropriate distinction. When God’s holy things are being defamed and destroyed, the Christian in faith responds with zeal. But when one’s own person is persecuted and broken, then we react in love, trusting God’s promise, when he says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”
“Do not be haughty,” Paul says; and, “Never be wise in your own sight.” If we go about thinking that we can do no wrong, thinking that we are wise and holier than others, then it is natural that we would react with righteous anger rather than love. But we are not to consider ourselves this way. Rather we should humble ourselves. If we are persecuted or wronged, we can forgive, as Jesus did on the cross when the sins were against his own body. We overcome evil with good.
But it’s not easy. We are still sinful on this earth, and we want to take revenge, we want to respond in wrath. But thankfully we can turn to Jesus who accomplished this very thing. By living this way perfectly, forgiving and blessing his enemies, and then by dying as though he were a murderer, Jesus took our place, paid for our sins, including the ones of vengeance and hatred. And now, in faith, the Holy Spirit dwells in our hearts and enables us to react with blessing and love, feeding our enemies when they are hungry, and giving them drink when they are thirsty. We don’t have to have the strength of character to accomplish it. It’s accomplished by God already. We only need faith.
Dear Lord, thank you for paying the price for all our sins, even though we ourselves were your enemies. Help us to forgive and bless our enemies, even as you forgave and blessed us. Lead us to do these works of service to you, strengthening us in doing good, so that we may overcome evil. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.