Heaping Coals

Heaping Coals

Author: The Rev. Dr. David Bridges, Priest
August 11, 2021

“… 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 12:20, NRSV)

I remember hearing and reading this scripture as a young person and thinking, “that would be good punishment for someone I don’t like; heaping burning coals on their head!” That was a selfish interpretation, and one that seems quite popular.

The problem with that interpretation is the verses before and after this one. Verse 14 says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Verse 17: “Do not return evil for evil…” Verse 21: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

How can I “heap burning coals” on the head of anyone in the light of verses 14, 17, and 21? The problem is in the translation. The word rendered “coals” literally means “burning coals”, but the context is “overcome with guilt” or “emotionally moved”.

That makes a lot more sense. If we treat even our enemies with care and dignity, we will demonstrate the intention of Jesus’ message to “love your neighbor as yourself”. (Mark 12:30-31) By doing that we may cause our “enemies” to feel ashamed for treating us badly.

The goal is not to make someone feel “bad” or “guilty”, but to bring peace to the relationship. A person may have made themselves our enemy, or we have made them an enemy. In either case, this is not a healthy way to live.

Having enemies puts pressure on us to behave a certain way. We are denied a certain joy in life when we carry grudges or perpetuate an old argument (Refer to the Hatfields and McCoys in history).

If our enemies were physically hungry or thirsty, could we put-down our divisions and feed them? If our enemies were spiritually hungry, could we set-aside our differences and offer spiritual nourishment?

Many of the things that make us “enemies” have no real basis in fact. If we see someone as an enemy because they don’t think or do things the way we do, we are limiting their expression and our appreciation of their expression.

Perhaps our most divisive element is the lack of understanding the “other” or our “enemies”. Do a Google search for “Chic-fil-A Training Video, Every Life Has a Story”. I found it to be very eye-opening in regard to learning to understand the viewpoints of others.

By offering care and grace to our enemies, we are living into the command of Jesus to love, and we are reducing the negativity in our lives, communities, and world. And it reduces the stress on all of us. Live smart, love well, be happy.

Blessings and Peace to you All,
Fr. David


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