Burning Coals

The executive officer on my ship would begin his daily meeting with us junior officers by grilling one of us. We never knew who would be on the hot seat or what minor infraction he had perceived. He seemed to be calling out smoke to see what fire he could ignite.

About that time I had been attending a Bible study over breakfast with the chaplain. Each week we would read and discuss a few paragraphs of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I still clearly remember hearing this verse from the 12th chapter:

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.”
— Romans 12:20 (NRSV)

Heaping burning coals upon my executive officer’s head was exactly what I had in mind.

Alas a literally piling burning coals on one’s enemy’s head is not what Paul had intended. The best scholars consider this metaphor as pointing to an Egyptian ritual of carrying a basin of burning charcoal on one’s head as a token of penance or remorse for having harmed someone. As much as we might like to impose repentance, to urge atonement, to prod someone into mending breaches in community, this must come from within. We  must strive to be the examples of Christian kindness.

As Paul urges us:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
— Romans 12:17-18 (NRSV)

I will have more to say about Romans 12:9-21 on Sunday, September 3rd,  at Temple Terrace Presbyterian Church.