The Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 26, 2020
“Overcome Evil with Good”
Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion. Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. Therefore "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:16-21
Two wrongs don’t make a right. Two wrongs are two wrongs. There’s nothing right about it. He did you wrong. You did him wrong right back. You got even. But your wrong did not erase his wrong. It doubled it. Let’s say he had it coming. From whom did he have it coming? If he did wrong, against whom did he do the wrong? If the wrong he did wasn’t done against God it wasn’t wrong. Without God there is no right or wrong. With God, God decides what’s right and wrong. God also decides what to do to those who do wrong. God also decides how he will do it. Did he ask you to do it for him?
When people don’t rely on the standards of God’s law and instead choose for themselves what is right or wrong, they make themselves into their own gods. If you are your own god, it is up to you to seek justice for yourself. But it won’t be justice. When we seek justice apart from God and his law, it is not justice. It’s vengeance. You hurt me so I’m going to hurt you.
To rely on God to do justice requires first of all that we humble ourselves before him. St. Paul writes:
First we bow before God. Then we humble ourselves before others. When we confess our sins, weaknesses, faults, and shortcomings to God in prayer we are less likely to assume a supercilious air of judgment over others. Don’t look at some people as more worthy of your kindness and respect than others. Show the kindness and respect you would want to receive. Don’t exalt yourself with the delusion that associating with important people makes you important. It doesn’t. Associate with the lowly, with the poor, with those who can’t do you any favors. Don’t think you’re so smart. Isaiah the prophet writes,
You’re a Christian. You want to confess Christ. Humility goes a long way in making people willing to listen to what you have to say. It gives you credibility. If you want to talk to people about your Savior, a display of humility on your part may gain you an audience. Our Gospel reading for this morning features a Gentile – an officer of the Roman government – who displayed greater faith than Jesus had seen in Israel. What did this centurion say that evoked Christ’s response? He said:
I am unworthy. Just speak the word. I don’t deserve it. You graciously give it. Just speak the word. Your word is almighty. Your word is faithful. Give me your word and that will be enough for me. This is the posture we assume before God. This is what our Lord commended.
Faith is born in humility. Faith is expressed in showing mercy. We give what we have received. If we haven’t received it, we cannot give it. First God shows us mercy. Then we give mercy to those who need to receive it from us. St. Paul goes on in our text to say:
God’s justice is perfect. Ours is always tainted by sin. He did me wrong! But can I claim to be perfectly innocent? But he was wrong! Yes, he was, but am I perfectly right? Am I so right that I would hold up my righteousness to God and ask for his justice?
Don’t misunderstand. St. Paul is not telling us to ignore the demands of justice. In fact, in the words immediately following our text for this morning the apostle writes about our duty to obey the civil authorities. They are servants of God. They get their authority to govern from God himself. God established the civil authorities to make would be criminals afraid and to exercise the power of the sword. If someone will not be persuaded by sweet reason to obey the law, the government will arrest him, put him on trial, convict him, and punish him. Make no mistake! That’s God’s vengeance!
God forbids private revenge. He commands public justice. “Repay no one evil for evil,” Paul says. No one. He’s not just talking about fellow Christians. He says, “Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.” He says, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you live peaceably with all men.” Sometimes conflict is unavoidable. If it is a matter of your own pride you may give in and refuse to fight for it. If it is a matter of God’s truth you may not give in but must fight for it. Paul isn’t teaching us to be timid when it comes to standing up for God’s truth. He’s teaching us to take a sober view of ourselves, not thinking that we are the measure of truth and justice.
What about the fact that the bad guys often get away with their crimes? They lie and lie and get away with it. They cheat. They take advantage of the weaknesses of others. They elude the justice the civil authorities mete out. It looks like there is no justice. Evil triumphs over good. That’s how it looks. But that’s not how it is. God does justice. When he says, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” he means it. When will he repay? How will he repay? Show me! If you are going to tell me I can’t avenge myself then show me where I am avenged.
Listen to the word of God. From Isaiah 53:
From Galatians 3, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’),” from 2 Corinthians 5, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Do you want to see divine vengeance? The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. Christ became a curse for us. God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us. Here is justice! The love of the Father and the love of the Son are the same love. In love the Father sent the Son. In love the Son agreed to be sent. The just vengeance God directed against every criminal, every liar, cheat, bully, tyrant, and murderer he directed against his beloved Son. His innocent Son bore the punishment of the sin of the world willingly, without complaining, without accusing, and without sinning. God established justice on Calvary. Love met justice and won. Love triumphed over hate. As we sing:
When Paul says to us Christians, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” he not just uttering pious sounding words. He is telling us that good does overcome evil. Jesus overcame evil on the cross. His obedience overcame the world’s sin. His innocence overcame the world’s guilt. By bearing the just judgment of God against all sinners, Jesus overcame evil with good.
God forgives you because Jesus died for you. God forgives the one who does you wrong because Jesus died for him. Jesus died for everyone, not just for those who believe, not just for those who receive his forgiveness and enjoy peace with God, but for everyone, even those who despise him. Jesus died for everyone. This means that you can forgive those who do you wrong.
In fact, you can do good to those who do you evil. St. Paul writes,
These coals of fire are not divine vengeance against him. The coals of fire on the head are a guilty conscience and the recognition of sin. Doing kindness to those who do you wrong may bring them to see what trying to get even with them won’t show them. They may see the contrast between what they are doing to you and what you are doing to them. Who knows? God may move their hearts to repent and through faith receive forgiveness of all their sins from God.
Christianity is not a naïve, Pollyannaish sort of religion where we are fed with ideals that don’t work in the real world. Jesus overcame the sin that enslaved us by bearing it in his own body. He took away from our hearts the pain of a guilty conscience by taking away the sins for which we feel guilty. He sent his Spirit into our hearts washing us clean in our baptism, giving us the confidence that we stand before God as saints: righteous and without blame. This is how good overcame evil. Imitating the love of Jesus does not degrade us. It ennobles us. Love triumphs over hate. It happened on the cross. It happens in the lives of Christians. Good overcomes evil. That’s the sweetest of victories!
Rolf D. Preus