Sometimes things cluster.  The Daily Office Lectionary from the Hebrew Scriptures for today is from Proverbs 25.  Verses 21 and 22 jumped out at me.  (It seems unlikely, after all these years, that I haven’t read this section repeatedly.  But I do not remember having read these verses before.)  Here’s the quotation:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat;
If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
You will be heaping live coals on his head,
And the LORD will reward you.

I recognized these words immediately from somewhere in Paul’s writings, where I had always found them to be puzzling (and usually taken out of context).  I was struck by the fact that Paul was quoting from Proverbs (which I may have read before, but I don’t seem to have processed in the past).  Notes in The Jewish Study Bible suggest this means that rather than seeking vengeance we are to treat a vulnerable enemy kindly (that your enemy might be shamed by your kindness and you might be rewarded by God for your kindness).  I was also struck by the thought that Paul was quoting common cultural wisdom (and not necessarily direct guidance from God).

Anyway, I tracked Paul’s words down.  They are found at the end of chapter 12 of Romans.  Here’s what Paul says (in context):

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath [of God]; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “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.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The notes in my Oxford Study Bible suggest  that this might make enemies feel ashamed and perhaps repentant.  Maybe (just maybe) this might be something like the hot burning coals purifying the prophet when they touched his lips.  That’s probably stretching things …

Anyway, in context, although the passage talks about leaving room for God’s wrath and vengeance (which we all deserve, pretty much equally, and which doesn’t seem to be how God comes to us), the passage seems to be about living well in community with others, even when we are harmed or opposed by others.  As best you can, live peaceably.  Don’t avenge yourselves.  Feed your hungry enemies.  Give your thirsty enemies something to drink.  Do not be overcome by evil, but rather overcome evil with good.

This last thought may be the key.  It seems to suggest that further fracturing the relationship is allowing yourself to be overcome by evil.  And that our goal, instead, is to overcome (perceived) evil with a goodness that comes from God.

And then, in the Aidan Readings for today in Celtic Daily Prayer (I was not able to determine a further source for this) I read:

Abba Isaiah said:  When someone wishes to render evil for evil, he is able to hurt his brother’s conscience even by a single nod.

A brother who was insulted by another brother came to Abba Sisois and said to him:  “I was hurt by my brother, and I want to avenge myself.”  The old man tried to console him and said:  “Do not do that, my child.  Rather leave vengeance to God.”  But he said:  “I will not quit until I avenge myself.”

Then the old man said:  “Let us pray, brother,”  And standing up he said:  “O God, we no longer need you to take care of us since we now avenge ourselves.”  Hearing these words, the brother feel at the feet of the old man and said:  “I am not going to fight with my brother any more.  Forgive me, Abba.”

So judgement is God’s.  Restoring my life is ultimately up to God.  My role is to do my best, so far as it lies in me, to heal the ruptures in our relationships with one another.  “Hot burning coals” seem to have to do with repentance and reconciliation.  Which I need as much as anyone.  Maybe Paul (or Proverbs) just heaped them on my head!

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