The Transformation of Power
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:14-21)
Some of the Apostle Paul’s advice to the Church at Rome might seem odd to modern Christian ears. Specifically, why would we want to heap burning coals on someone’s head? That doesn’t sound very loving or moral.
The same advice might have sounded odd to Jewish ears, too, but for rather different reasons. Paul is quoting from the book of Proverbs, and when we look at this in context, what matters is not only what he has left in but what he has left out:
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you. (Prov 25:21-22)
Taken by itself, the Proverb might seem to imply that there is some sort of ‘quid pro quo’ involved in love for our enemies — do this for God and God will do something for you. But Paul will have none of it. To behave as he is suggesting is, indeed, to act in line with Scripture, but we do this because it is right, not because there is something in it for us.
Yet how many of us actually do what he suggests? In particular, how many of us seek to overcome evil with good? Surely evil is to be overcome by something more than us being nice to evil people?
Indeed, what springs to mind at this point is the famous quotation of Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” It is a quotation so familiar that it has become an axiom of modern society, which is interesting, because it seems that Burke actually said no such thing. The quote is apparently a misquote, but its popularity is significant because it is says something we passionately and instinctively believe to be true —when the bad act, the good must react. Even if Burke didn’t say it, we all believe it to be true.
And just because it wasn’t said by someone famous, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But how much less popular, even amongst Christians, is another quotation, from a source we do know:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. (Matt 5:38-39a)
In the Sermon on the Mount, from which this comes, we have what is sometimes seen as a manifesto for Christian living. Yet if it is a manifesto, it is remarkably impractical one. Occasionally we may hear someone say something like, “I don’t have much time for the Church, but I do believe in the Sermon on the Mount.” Rest assured, anyone who says that has probably not read the Sermon, and certainly not understood it, for who could love what Jesus said next?
If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matt 5:39b-42)
We may admire it, we may be challenged by it, we may even try to live by it, but we cannot easily love words which demand that we become the potential victim of every bully, thief, shyster and charlatan. Indeed, we know that anyone who actually lived by these principles in this world would soon find themselves out of cloaks and money, miles from home with cheeks bruised red on both sides. Yet that is the whole point, for the principles of the Sermon on the Mount cannot work as a manifesto for this world, if by ‘work’ we mean, ‘lay down principles by which society could be governed’.
The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to lambs who live in the midst of wolves, telling them how to live as lambs. But it does not tell them how to avoid being eaten by the wolves. Indeed, it cannot, because in this world, the lamb that lives as a lamb will always, ultimately, be eaten by the wolf.
Of course the time is coming, as the prophet Isaiah says, when “the wolf and the lamb will feed together” (Isa 65:25), but that time is not yet. And so the lambs naturally look for some defence. Indeed, the truth is that the lambs have a fair bit of wolf in them as well. But the Sermon on the Mount is not interested in how to preserve the lambs from harm. It is interested only in telling lambs how to live as a lamb should. “If you truly want to live as God’s people,” it says, “this is the way.” But why would you ever think it would be the way of the world?
And it is a way that leads ultimately to the cross. The cross is the final expression of what happens when good meets evil without compromise on either side. It is the ultimate outworking of the Sermon on the Mount —the Preacher practising what he preached. And it is the total contradiction of everything we hold to be right: faced with evil, the Good Man does nothing. And to all outward intents and purposes the evil triumph.
And then three days later, Jesus springs from the tomb, overcoming death and routing the powers of evil which thought they had him in their grip. Or at least, that is how Christians often seem to think of the resurrection. But the Bible’s language is very careful at this point, and although it is true to say that Jesus rose from the dead, it is more accurate to say that God raised him.
This man [said Peter to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost] was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death ... (Acts 2:23-24a)
Faced with evil, the Good Man does not feign death until he can turn the tables on his enemies by coming back to life. He dies, and places everything into the hands of God.
And it is precisely in this action — in dying at the hands of wicked men — that Jesus overcame evil. As Colossians 2:15 puts it, he disarmed the powers and authorities and triumphed over them “by the cross.”
The lesson of this is profound, and it was not lost on the Apostles, though it often seems it is lost on the Church. The power of God and the wisdom of God lie in what the world calls weak and the world calls foolish. And this is not confined to the cross. Rather, it flows from the cross into every area of life — or it should.
And so when the Apostle Paul saw the Christians at Corinth dragging one another to court, he asked them first if they couldn’t find one of their own number wise enough to settle the case. But failing that, he said,
The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? (1 Cor 6:7)
“But that is impossible,” we reply (and we may be sure the Corinthians did, too), “Other people have rights, and we must have them too.” And so we seek to protect and defend ourselves, and to ensure our place in society and respect for our views. And all the time we are losing our influence and losing respect.
By contrast, the first Christians had no place in society and no protection either for their views or for themselves. Yet this was seen not as a disadvantage but a privilege, for it allowed them to live as their Lord lived:
Dear friends [wrote Peter], do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Pet 4:12-16)
That was the way followed by the first people to bear the name of Christ. They took everything thrown at them by the might of Rome, as Christ took everything that was thrown at him. And they won, not despite this, but because of this.
This is the power of the cross. And those who truly conquer in this sign are are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
10 April 2009