Yesterday I shared some thoughts about the importance of resurrection in our understanding of the call to forgive. The economy of the world is not the container within which justice will be done. God must intervene. God must reverse the judgments of the world.
The dead must be raised.
This brings up one particularly challenging dynamic in the story: the idea that our forgiveness and blessing of those who have wronged us might play into an economy of reversal. Paul puts it like this in Romans 12:
Do not repay evil for evil to anyone, respecting what is right in the sight of all people…. 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. But “If your enemy hungers–feed him! If she thirsts–give her something to drink! For doing thus you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Some of this is more palatable to us than other parts.
The idea that our calling is never to get drawn into the game of retribution is crucial. Echoing the sermon on the mount, where Jesus tells people to go the extra mile and give tunic as well as cloak, Paul says that defending ourselves in kind is out, and repaying evil with blessing is a vital element of our calling.
As Paul contextualizes Proverbs 25:21 in the letter to Rome, he writes it into the narrative of the cross by which he believes God has saved the world. Through the goodness of self-giving love, the sin and death of the world have been overcome.
But then there’s the other part.
The bit about heaping up burning coals on their heads.
Here we perhaps catch a glimpse of something that reminds us of the peculiar position we are in, most of us, as people with access to computers and internets, and education, and money. We forget that the Bible was written in a time when only a few could even hope for the sort of freedom we enjoy. We live in a time when justice is assumed to be the norm from which only a few deviate.
The space we are called to leave for God’s wrath seems unbecoming because the reality of injustice is an idea that we are too far removed from to know deep in our bones.
Of course, there is another reason many of us don’t like the idea as well: we hope that God’s capacity for forgiveness is larger than ours. We hope that our own failures to give up a grudge don’t reflect the truest intent of the heart of God. We hope that the capacious forgiveness and reconciliation on offer in the cross will break even the hardest of hearts and that God’s work of reconciliation will outstrip all our own feeble attempts.
But there seems to be a storyline in this world in which the powerful and the true enemies continue to see the very work of God before their eyes, continue to see the cross of Christ embodied in a blessing, persecuted people–and continue to pour out their evil upon this incarnation of good.
The people of God, in forgiving and blessing in the midst of persecution, are reenacting the Jesus story, the Jesus who offered forgiveness from the cross. This is our calling–to renarrate the life of Jesus in our lives, in our communities.
And, it is possible for this incarnation of Christ to be spurned and treated with contempt–and for the wrath of God to be kindled, a wrath that will be made known in the end.
This is tricky.
If we bless in hopes of bringing condemnation, it is no blessing but a curse. So our gifts must, it seems to me, be offered as genuine offers of forgiveness and blessing–even as Jesus’ own cry on Golgotha; an offer that can be embraced in repentance or spurned unto judgment.