“Burning Coals”
August 30, 2023, 6:00 AM

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.” Romans 12: 19-20

It might be that St. Francis kept burning coals in his firepit when he lived in a cave. However, there is no record of him literally heaping coals on anyone’s head. And, there may have been no need for him to actually do so.

Revenge is a common theme in our culture, and within most cultures of the world. When we do not get what we want, we find someone or something to blame, and then ponder some way to seek revenge on the person who is to blame. While we might not actually act out our vengeful musings, it is our thoughts that keeps the “let’s get-even” mentality going. Its roots lie deeply in our own being, as we believe that we alone have the right to get even.

It may come as a rude awakening to learn from this passage that we are nonetheless instructed not to avenge anyone. We are to leave room for God to seek vengeance. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And, this is usually as far as we read. Why not let God do the retaliation? Revenge, whether done by us or God, is still revenge. It seems here that God supports our desire for retribution, and God may seek vengeance more powerfully than we can do it. By doing so, we can claim that the other person got what was coming to him or her. We also keep our hands “clean” in the process.

On closer inspection, this passage begins to temper our passion for vengeance. It beckons us to slow down and see vengeance from God’s viewpoint, and not with our own knee-jerk interpretation. God says that vengeance is his alone, and then gives us direction as to what our role should be in seeking vengeance. God tells us that if our enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. That doesn’t sound like seeking vengeance, does it? In fact, it is not the kind of vengeance of which we are familiar.

Closer scrutiny reveals the distorted image of God that most of us carry. We see God as one who not only loves, but is also one who, at times, is filled with wrath and punishes. How is a God who is love (and can ONLY LOVE) become wrathful and seek vengeance? It is not possible.

People during Biblical times encountered the same difficulties that we do today. When something did not go their way, they blamed something or someone else for the difficulty and sought vengeance. They thought that revenge would make things right. They then made another mistake by thinking that God’s nature was to seek revenge in order to make things right. Jesus, the Christ, was the eventual antidote to this way of thinking.

So, why does this passage then say that if we feed our enemies when they are hungry, and give them something to drink when they are thirsty, we will be “heaping burning coals on their heads?” Is that not vengeance? The answer has to do with the very nature of God - the Being who emits unlimited love.

St, Jerome and St. Augustine understood these words of St. Paul to mean that kind acts on our part become like burning coals heaped upon our enemy’s head. Thereby, our enemy is warmed from head to foot and melted into kindness, love, and gratitude. God’s vengeance means to love a person more deeply.

Being kind, loving, caring, and comforting are what God gives to everyone regardless of what they have done. God’s vengeance is what changes the world, and expands our limited interpretation of a wrathful God to reveal a God who can only show love.

May the vengeance of God’s love be with you more each day.

Blessings and Prayers,

Fr. John