“Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shall heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but over come evil with good.” Romans 12: 14-21
I said last week that what we have grown accustom to call “spiritual gifts” are gifts distributed by God to individual Christian, some natural, some of a supernatural origin in Baptism, and those gifts are meant for the knitting together as well as the fostering of the growth & development of the Body of Christ which is the visible parish. This last section of Romans chapter 12 answers the question: How should the Church and her children behave in the world that is incapable of sharing our horizon? We share as much as we can Jesus’ horizon and that knits us together and fosters our growth corporately and individually. And each of us, to authentically share Jesus’ horizon, has experienced at least one and frequently more than one conversion. The world knows nothing of Christian conversion and to live as Christians in this world we have to remain attentive to that fact. So what Paul is doing at this point in Romans 12 amounts to putting meat on the bone of phrases our Lord uttered in John 15 & 17 where he said his Church and her children are “in the world but not of the world.” What does Jesus expect of his Church who is still in the world?
Remember that when Paul wrote the Christians in Rome he addressed a few dozen people scattered throughout a city with a population close to 1,000,000 people. Christians were not a people with any power or wealth. One or two families, probably merchants, had the power of personal wealth and Paul addressed them when he spoke of the gift of giving.
It is fair to assume that during his 2 year stay in Rome, Paul ordained apostles, which office eventually came to be called the episcopate or as we say, the bishop. Certainly by the year 90, about 35 years after Paul wrote the epistle, each house church had a priest/bishop who’s job was to preach the message of the Apostles, to celebrate the Holy Communion, and to oversee the care of the poor, the sick and the widows. That is approximately what it looked like in Rome until around 110 when things began to change rapidly with lots of growth in the house churches, significant cooperation and sharing between the little parishes, and a centralized treasury for the aid of Christians inside and outside the city. Even so Christians were mostly invisible and when Christians were noticed they were at first considered wacky and weird — not good citizens, but not really a menace to worry Rome.
Urban life for Christian families was a life immersed in the Roman ancestral tradition in which the Roman family, the nursery of Roman virtue and the most basic building block of Roman society, was ruled by the paterfamilias. Roman ancestral virtue meant everything to the citizens of Rome – to be a good man or a good woman was to be a good citizen and a good member of one’s family. Fides and pietas are words we know as faith and piety and we cannot but think of them in terms of Church. We think of the faith and the faithfulness of Jesus or the piety of Mary Magdalene. But as Roman virtues, fides and pietas are not equivalent to Christian virtues. For Romans, fides is the trustworthy, reliable Roman, a family man who may be relied upon to be a Roman. The goddess Fides whose temple was built around 240 BC on one of the Seven Hills close to the Forum personified the virtue. The goddess Pietas was regarded by Romans as the figure, the image, today we might say the avatar, of the virtue of pietas which was understood as religious duty, but especially filial piety. Gravitas was the virtue of dignified self-control, which sounds good till you hear the narrative of Gaius Scaevola, who in founding the Republic demonstrated the great strength of his gravitas by holding his hand in a fire. Dignitas – the upshot of all virtues — was the sum of the man’s reputation and personal influence, accrued through out his life of service to city and family — with all the weight placed on one’s outward reputation, rank and influence. Dignitas is entirely focused on the external and it has nothing to one’s interior life.
The Roman historian Valerius Maximus collected close to 1,000 stories and legends and published them during the reign of Tiberius Caesar under the title Nine Books of Memorial Deeds and Sayings of the Ancient Romans. The stories of the gods and goddesses, religious and civic festivals, and the legends of Greece and Rome were the pedagogical tools for the formation of civic and family virtue. I am telling you all this because I want you to have a little flavor of the milieu the first Roman Christians lived in when Paul wrote his epistle. Paul addresses by name 27 people in Romans 16 who were living in Rome and worshipping Jesus the Messiah and what I have just summarized for you was as sure to Romans as the Mosaic Law and narratives of the Old Testament were sure to Jews.
How should the Church and her children behave in a world that is incapable of sharing our horizon? After all Christians still had to work for a living, Christians still have to buy food at the market, when Christians were taken ill they needed a doctor, when a Christian died he has to be buried somewhere, and children had to be educated, mentored in a trade or profession, and one day have their own families and their own children. There was of course no way that Christian parents could insulate their children from the pagan world, which was the real world for just about everyone else in Rome. In this pagan milieu some Christians were hesitant to make their loyalties known to those outside the Church not so much out of fear but out of being laughed at and not taken seriously. Christian parents who wanted the best for their children if they could afford it acquired the only education available in pagan elementary, grammar, and rhetorical schools. There exist a Christian child’s school notebook of the 4th century. In his pagan classes the child has recorded mythological names and poems about Roman gods, goddesses, as well as moral lessons and obscene stories. Still each time the Christian child began a new page he drew a cross and Chi Rho, the monogram of Christ. The point is even stronger when you consider that several of the Christians named by Paul in Romans 16 are named after pagan gods or writers.
“Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits. Recompense to no man evil for evil.”
The way of life that Paul is insistent upon for Christians is exactly the kind of behavior that would make no sense what-so-ever to the pagans of Rome because it lies beyond their horizon. That was indeed a culture war and one that eventually required the Christian’s willing death to what everyone else thought was the real world. Being baptized into Jesus means dying with Jesus as well as rising to a new life with Jesus, a new life that involves imitating and internalizing his way of life, his horizon. And so we see that Paul essentially takes Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount and assumes that we not only can, but we ought to live accordingly.
“Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.”
Paul is concerned that Christians behave toward their pagan neighbors in a manner that may be summed up as an imitation of Christ, but for Paul one’s behavior is an external signifier, a sign of one’s very real interior life. But the important point is that we imitate Jesus the Messiah who did not curse those who mistreated and eventually crucified him, but rather he prayed for their forgiveness and he blessed them. To a Roman such a response to mistreatment was a sign of weakness and such weak behavior would cover one’s self, one’s city, and one’s family with shame. But for Christians, as distasteful as it may be, cursing, wishing evil upon the person who has harmed you, is simply irreconcilable to following Jesus. On the other hand we ought to be quick to share our neighbor’s joy and we ought to be quick in sharing our neighbor’s sorrow and heartbreak. Further more Paul says that Christians should not pursue power alliances but rather the Christian ought to pursue affiliation and caring relations with those from whom you think you have nothing to gain. It is unmistakable that Paul wants the Christians in Rome to avoid hiding out in ghettos and rather to be Christian in word and deed. But please realize just how off-putting, how repellent and offensive it would be to pagan Romans to bless people to go on the attack against you. And the same can be said for taking up caring relations with the weak, the poor, and the powerless. Such behavior, intended or not, dishonored Roman virtues and scorns Rome’s illusion of power. But Paul was not setting out to bring down Roman culture; he was rather setting out to be faithful to Jesus the Messiah, not fight a culture war.
“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shall heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but over come evil with good.”
Now for the third time Paul forbids retaliation and obviously he means this inside or outside the Church. Do not curse those who persecute you; do not repay evil with evil; do not take revenge on anyone. For Christians to take vengeance upon anyone, even if they have really been harmed by the person, is to behave as though God has deserted us and we have to take matters into our own hands. Instead of giving into private retribution Paul instructs Christians to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty and thereby one “shall heap coals of fire on his head,” which might be taken to mean that Paul is recommending a passive-aggressive course of action. It is as though Paul is saying, “Don’t get mad, just wait, and God will get even,” which hardly qualifies for “repaying evil with good.” But recall poetical use of burning coals in the Old Testament: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord high and lifted up…” declares Isaiah who is in awe at the sight of God Almighty upon his throne, the smoke of incense filling the Temple, angels hiding their eyes from the sight his holiness all actions of sound and sense declare to everyone what is really real in life:
“‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!
And the doorposts moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.”
The vision is so loud that it drowns out the political world Isaiah had taken as reality when quickly become aware of where he is and before whom he stood:
“Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips and my eyes have the seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
At which point an angel takes a live coal from the Altar into his hand and places it upon Isaiah’s mouth and declares that it has taken away his sin. Thus I submit to you that Paul is saying that treating one’s enemies with loving kindness, not permitting evil to get the upper hand in one’s life, turning the tables, overcoming evil with goodness, is not only right because it is an imitation of Jesus, but such behavior may also become the instrument that brings one’s enemy to remorse and eventual conversion to Jesus the Messiah – making the enemy a brother.