Burning Coals Revisited: By Popular Demand
“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.” – Romans 12:20-21
Most times I can anticipate the reactions that I will get to one of my sermons. Occasionally, I get surprised. On September 3, the epistle reading was the last part of Romans chapter twelve, which ends with the two verses above. We hear this text every three years in the Lectionary. Romans is a popular book of the Bible for study. My notion is that this is one of those Bible texts that is fairly familiar, certainly not obscure. Your reactions to the text and my sermon application of it surprised me. Several members were troubled by the image of “heaping burning coals upon the head of the enemy.” One member said that he was so distracted by the image that he couldn’t even pay attention to the sermon. I ended that sermon with this sentence, “I’ll leave you with this to consider; can we hate racism while at the same time, heap burning coals upon the racist?” It occurred to me that this Bible text needed further attention and explanation.
Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:20-21 is in quotation marks. He is quoting one of the proverbs in the Bible, so we must begin our study there. The book of Proverbs in the Bible is mainly attributable to King Solomon, but more generally, it is the quips or sayings of a wise person. The genre (literary type) of Proverbs is “wisdom literature.” Right off the bat that tells us that we should likely not read Proverbs literally. It is clearly to be interpreted differently than when we read the books of history in the Bible. The proverbs are scattered haphazardly throughout the book and can be categorized by theme. One theme is “enemies and revenge.” Generally, what the author has to say about this subject is that we can, and should, avoid showing the same animosity towards our enemies as they should towards us (see Proverbs 16:7, 17:13, 20:22, 24:17-18, and 25:21-22 (quoted by Paul in Romans 12 20-21).
The more familiar treatment of enemies in the Old Testament, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth (Exodus 21:23-24), has a harsh ring to our ears, but it was designed to curb unrestrained vengeance which was all too common in the ancient world. Even though this teaching is rejected by Jesus (Matthew 5:38-48), I find many in our world today who still insist on this putative form of justice, as opposed to a restorative justice of the wrongdoer. In the proverbs, retribution against the enemy gives way to showing sympathy and compassion toward the enemy.
Clearly, within the context of Proverbs 24:17-18 (Romans 12:20-21) the intent is to treat the enemy well. Then how are we to understand the burning coals upon their head. In my research, I found two general explanations. There was a ritual practice in Egypt in which a man put a brazier of burning charcoal on his head as a public sign of his shame and remorse for his wrong-doing. Perhaps that practice was adopted by Israel and would support a literal reading of this text.
A second explanation is that noble vengeance, returning evil with good, would shame the enemy, cause him to regret his actions, and lead to a change of heart. The thought is that kindness will increase the enemy’s guilt and transform him.
Honestly, while I find either of these explanations plausible (they do come from Bible scholars!), I don’t find them very convincing. Would St. Paul really have known of ancient Egyptian practices? Does shaming generally increase and enemy’s guilt? Maybe sometimes, but more often it seems that wrongdoers are rather close-minded and fail to even recognize the act of kindness. Shaming might even cause them to respond with greater hostility. Though, ideally, kindness might transform a hard heart into a soft heart.
Doris Jancha, in her research, found this explanation, “It was the custom back in the times when these verses were written, for people to have the fire in their home in a brazier. This is the fire they would use for heat and for cooking. It was normally kept constantly burning. However, on occasion, for whatever reason the fire would go out, and when that happened a member of the family would take the brazier to a neighbor or friend and ask for live coals of fire to be placed in the brazier. They would then use these live coals to get their fire going again. The fire after all was what helped to cook their food and sustain them. Once the burning coals were placed in the brazier the family member would then lift the brazier onto their head as was the custom of the day, and walk back home. Sometimes others seeing the need would also put burning coals in the brazier as they returned. In this way they would help their neighbor by literally heaping coals of fire on their head. When we understand this, we clearly see the reference is not to punishment, but rather to mercy and help, and an indication of caring and love. It was a form of generosity on the part of the neighbors.”
When I have read this passage over my life the first thought that has always come to my mind was purification or cauterization. Burning coals (the image of heat) purge or cleanse evil actions. By showing kindness to our enemy we can clean the wound of broken relationship. Unfortunately, I did not find any commentators that agreed with my interpretation.
Regardless of which explanation works for you (or none of them!), there is little difference between the practical counsel of Israel’s sages, the teaching of Jesus to love our enemies, and the application of this teaching by St. Paul in the context of the second half of Romans chapter twelve. Once we get past the early Old Testament teaching of denouncing unrestrained vengeance through the limit of “an eye for an eye,” the teaching in the late Old Testament and the New Testament is to love the neighbor; cleanse their sin with burning coals.
Most importantly, we must deal with the biblical challenge of loving the enemy and returning evil with good. This is so, so hard for us as humans! It requires a deep trust in God. With all of the divisiveness and polarization in our world, with all of the strife and war, I try to imagine what it would be like if we lived into this teaching; among nations, in our communities, between political parties, between races and ethnicities. As I noted in my sermon, the great ones have figured it out; Gandhi, the Dali Lama, King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and Thomas Merton to name a few. Again, to ponder, can we love (heap burning coals upon) the sinner yet still reject their wrongdoing? This is the life-long challenge for one who wants to walk in the footsteps of Jesus.
About the Author: Pastor Henry Zorn is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.