Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
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; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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.
Paul names the timeless challenge posed by suffering – and spotlights the reality that often our suffering is caused by other people’s (mis)treatment of us. Just as a diversion sign redirects us from our intended route his counsel in verses 14-21 highlights another route. Paul concedes that when we have been hurt or harmed by someone the outside, top speed, lane of revenge is often our preferred option. Today’s passage, however, is akin to motorway traffic displays – requiring us to decrease our speed, closing off lanes and forcing us to consider the other driveways on the Way. Revenge takes us on to the outside lane and can result in us breaking the speed limit.
In his novel, The Man Who Died Twice (*), Richard Osman enables the reader to feel the reality of Ibrahim’s response to Ryan, the person who has mugged him and left him physically injured and robbed of his ‘phone:
“I don’t really believe in revenge. That’s what he had said to the others when they talked about Ryan. And in theory he didn’t. Revenge is not a straight line, it’s a circle. It’s a grenade that goes off while you’re still in the room, and you can’t help but be caught in the blast”. I won’t spoil it for anyone intending to read the book but Osman goes on to give an instance when Eric, one of Ibrahim’s clients, had taken revenge on a car dealership – only to make matters much worse for himself and inflict pain on others. Two telling factors are key in the narrative: “Eric … had issues around emotional control and anger management …” and “Eric felt perhaps he should take responsibility for his own actions”.
Revenge is destructive; responding with “the burning coals” of grace (Rom 12: 20) is the slow lane we are urged to take. We may not arrive quickly; but we will get there in one piece (or should that be peace?). And to allow God to be the driver.
God of grace and mercy, in Jesus you showed us the Way to live and love: When we are hurt and harmed by others’ treatment of us enable us to avoid the fast lane of revenge; ow us down to patient speed and divert us on to the inside lane of grace. This we pray in the name of the One who overcame evil with good.
The Rev’d Geoffrey Clarke, Moderator, East Midlands Synod