The Third Sunday after Epiphany| Rev. Rolf Preus| January 24, 2010| Romans 12, 16-21
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
Little children understand the rudiments of justice. It doesn’t even need to be taught. The conscience bears witness. There are standards. He hit me. I hit him back. He deserved it. Fair is fair. If someone does something harmful to another he deserves the same harm to be done to him.
This is biblical. When God chose Israel as his holy nation and graciously delivered them from the land of slavery he gave them his law. Much of it applied specifically and exclusively to that nation. Much of it taught them about their promised Savior to come who would fulfill all righteousness. And much of the law reflected that common sense of justice that God put into every human heart. We call it the natural knowledge of the law.
The Law of Moses called for “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” The harm that one man does against another is the harm that he should receive. It’s only fair. Every child understands.
Justice is easy to understand. It’s not easy to apply. When we see injustice we tend to think that we should be the ones to apply it. Who would know better how to give us justice than we ourselves? So we take it upon ourselves to see that justice is done. Naturally, we determine how those who do us wrong should suffer for the wrong that they do.
But we aren’t qualified. We may be able to understand justice as a principle. But we see things from our own perspective. We consider ourselves first and then we use ourselves as the standard by which we judge others. And they do the same to us. So as everybody engages in the personal pursuit of justice there is no justice. There is endless quarreling, bickering, score settling, and vengeance seeking as each one makes himself judge over everyone else.
Why do we do this? We have an inflated opinion of ourselves. This is why the Apostle Paul writes: “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.”
A judgmental spirit flows from pride. We think we have the right to stand in judgment of another and to mete out justice. Usually this is done only with words, but words can do terrible harm. Spouting off judgments against others – especially when clothed within a very loving and reasonable tone so as to gain credibility – does harm. But love does no harm. It is our pride, our self-importance, our notion that our family, our life, our marriage, our property, our honor are all just a bit more important than the families, lives, marriages, property, and reputations of others.
Humble yourself. Don’t think you’re so wise. You’re not. When we make ourselves judge and jury we inevitably repay evil with evil. What else can we do? We cannot undo any harm done by another. Not even the most powerful government in the world can do that. When a particularly vicious killer is finally brought to justice and suffers what he deserves as the state takes from him his life, can that same state bring back to life those people he killed? Of course not. The only kind of justice of which we mere human beings are capable is purely negative. We can only do harm to those who have done harm. We cannot undo the harm they’ve done against others.
This is why we must humble ourselves, not only before God, but before one another. St. Paul writes, “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” Don’t go looking for a fight. Don’t seek vengeance when you are wronged. Suffer the wrong in silence. No one needs to know. That’s the life of a Christian. As much as depends on you, live peaceably with everyone.
Sometimes it doesn’t depend on you. There are times when we must take a stand for what is true and right in the face of open attacks against God’s Word or to protect and defend our neighbor. We have no choice but to confess what God gives us to confess. But there is a world of difference between contending for God’s Word and contending for our own pride. It’s quite easy to confuse the two.
When Jesus suffered injustice he committed his cause to his Father. He teaches us to do the same. Vengeance belongs to God. It is not ours to pursue. We commit the cause of what is right to God and let him do the judging. The Psalmist writes:
O LORD God, to whom vengeance belongs— O God, to whom vengeance belongs, shine forth! Rise up, O Judge of the earth; render punishment to the proud. LORD, how long will the wicked, how long will the wicked triumph? Psalm 94, 1-3
When will God avenge the wrong done against his people? Even the Christians in heaven wait for God’s vengeance. In the Book of Revelation, we are given a picture of the saints in heaven crying out for justice:
When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Revelation 6, 9-10
God is just. A just God does justice. It is not wrong to ask God to judge, to right the wrongs, to do vengeance against those who do wrong. After all, the governments of this world are all God’s servants and whatever approximation of justice they eventually mete out they do as representatives of God, whether they know it or not. The desire for justice is not wrong. It is the desire to avenge ourselves that is wrong. It isn’t given to us to do. It belongs to God and he will do it.
But we insist on playing God. And we expect others to do the same. When the patriarch Jacob died, his sons were afraid that perhaps now their younger brother Joseph would seek vengeance against them for the evil they did to him when he was a boy. But Joseph reassured them by saying, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” Gen. 50, 19-20
Joseph understood what St. Paul the Apostle Paul wrote many centuries later in his Epistle to the Romans: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Romans 8, 28
Joseph’s brothers judged and stood in fear of judgment. That’s the way of this world. Judging and being judged; seeking revenge and fearing the vengeance of others. The pride that would make a man play God is the source of the division, turmoil, hostility, enmity, and ceaseless wars throughout the world.
So we humble ourselves. We confess to God our sins emanating from the pride seated deeply inside of our hearts. We have played God. We have sought to make ourselves judge and jury over our neighbor’s good name. We have repaid evil with evil and have compounded the evil we suffered.
We humble ourselves and we look to Jesus. When we look to Jesus we see justice. But it is of a kind that passes human understanding. The love that achieved it is above our comprehension. Yet even as we cannot understand a love so high and so deep we can see how this love quenches our desire to seek vengeance.
Jesus suffered. He permitted injustice. He did nothing wrong. He spoke the truth. He lived in his integrity. No one could find any fault with him. Pontius Pilate was a cynical politician. But he could find no fault in Jesus. There was no fault to find.
But they treated him as if he had done wrong. They lied about him. They tormented him. They made fun of him. They subjected him to humiliating and painful mockery. They pressured Pilate until the man caved in and order him crucified. It was the very worst miscarriage of justice in the history of the world. Jesus suffered it without complaint. “Vengeance is mine.” He remembered that. And he prayed for those tormenting him.
We argue morality. Mine against his. What he did against me is worse than what I did or want to do against him. So I have the right to get even. Here we see love incarnate refusing to get even. Did he do wrong by bearing the injustice with patience? Or would a self-vindicating attack against his lying accusers have been a nobler path? No, he did right to suffer the wrong in silence. And so do those who do as he did.
But who can do as he did? How can we do as he did? We must look to what he was doing, not just with our eyes on his patient suffering, but with our ears attuned to what God says that suffering means. Consider the divine interpretation of that suffering that the Holy Spirit gave to Isaiah to write:
Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. . . . By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities. Isaiah 53
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” So said the Lord God. And so he did. He did justice by laying upon his own innocent Son the sin of the whole world. He did vengeance against all evil on the cross. We call it vicarious. Jesus took our place. This is not according to the imagination of creative theologians. This is by the eternal decree of our God whose love is stronger than our sin. He did justice when his dear Son suffered as the sin-bearer for the sins of the world.
This is a love in which we can trust. For the substitution did indeed bring about our justification. That is, we are presently forgiven of all our sins and at peace with God on account of what Jesus did for us when he suffered evil instead of seeking revenge against it. So we are free from the vengeance of God against us. We can live in the love to which we are called.
Solomon writes in the Proverbs,
If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the LORD will reward you. Proverbs 25, 21-22
The coals are a guilty conscience. It’s the knowledge of sin. It’s necessary, for without it there can be no true faith. Doing kindness to those who do us wrong will more likely lead to their repentance than if we repay evil with evil. Jesus has already overcome evil with good. He has met the demands of justice. We have his righteousness simply by trusting in him as the One who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. So we have no need to seek revenge. We have Jesus. We are at peace. Amen