I grew up in New Orleans. One of the guys I played basketball with there used to utter a phrase that still makes me smile. When a player would make a strong move to the basket, particularly if he slammed it down over someone, then my friend would scream out, “RIGHT ON THEY HEAD!!!” It was quite amusing, both the dunk and the declaration.
Well, this last Sunday morning, we wrapped up a series on Romans 12 called “It Just Makes Sense.” We focused in on Romans 12:17-21, which says:
17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine , I will repay ,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry , feed him , and if he is thirsty , give him a drink ; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head .” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
We talked a lot about the lie of our culture that love is nothing more than a feeling that you lose when someone treats you poorly or when a relationships gets tough. In fact, just the opposite according to the New Testament teachings of Jesus and of Paul. Love is the choice to give your life away to someone and be more concerned about who he / she is becoming than about our own interests, no matter how they are treating you at the present time.
Paul, in Romans 12:17-21, challenges the Jewish Christians living in their segregated ghetto of Rome to not think so much of themselves that they forget to choose love even toward their enemies. Revenge is not an option. The bitterness behind revenge usually does more damage to the one exerting revenge more than the action damages the one upon whom revenge is being exerted. Paul even goes so far as to challenge his readers to actively serve their enemy. Feed them. Give them drink. Be hospitable. In so doing, they will heap burning coals on their enemies head.
What in the world does that mean?
My mom had always told me this phrase when challenging me to be kind to someone being unkind to me. The implication seemed to be some kind of bonus to aggravate them by exposing their rudeness with my kindness. Some sort of appeaser while we wait for a vengeful God to pull out His great and mighty revenge taser in the sky and rain down wrath upon our enemies. While that might still be an option, at least upon those who choose unbelief and defiance toward a loving, patient, graceful and JUST God, my dad suggested otherwise.
Sunday afternoon, he shared the following story with me:
Coals of fire may refer to making the enemy feel guilty and ashamed, but Dr. Ray Robbins suggested an interpretation that fits the context of unconditional love much better.
He was in the Holy Land and was talking to a Bedouin who, in the course of conversation commented, “That would heap coals of fire on his head.” Dr. Robbins stopped the conversation and asked the man what the saying meant to him.
The Bedouin said before matches were invented, a traveler in the desert would carry a hopper of coals on a pole above his head. He would carry it for the purpose of building a fire in the absence of matches, and he would carry it above his head so that the rising heat would not make him hotter than the desert sun already was. If a rider found another camp, he would stay there as a guest for the night.
Desert hospitality called for the host to do all he could for him to make him comfortable during his stay. When the traveler was about to leave and after the host had done everything else he could to meet the needs of his guest, the last thing he would do for him would be to fill the hopper with fresh, burning coals and lift it up over the rider’s head for the next leg of his journey. An amazing show of hospitality.
The meaning, therefore, Dr. Robbins suggested – Anyone who arrives at your camp, do what you can to help him. Be good to him as long as he will let you, even to the point of sending him away with an abundant act of love.
In the context of Romans 12, this certainly fits. And Paul calling for such hospitality even for an enemy certainly fits the call for us to love like our Savior loves. Not a feeling lost but an active choice to give, even to someone who lacks the same expressive love towards you.
So, this week, look for ways to heap coals of fire right on they head!
3 But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? [Romans 2:3 & 4]