Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Not So Fast, Mr. Bond

And what of this heaping of coals upon the heads of our enemies? -- in Romans 12:20. Might it not be a reference to the custom of sending folks home with some friendly embers, as some have asserted? Well, it is an exegetical principle that we take our meaning not from coincidental custom, but from specific context. Paul is citing Proverbs 25:22, a book known for the poetic device of startling rhetorical contrasts – here it would be an antithetical, almost antiphrastic apposition. Thus, in close context, Pr 25:15: “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” Again, the craving for justice is easy to find in the Bible, as in the imprecatory Psalms, e.g., “Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into pits, no more to rise!” (140:10) Hmm. Perhaps those "burning coals" are just part of some old custom.

As for Paul and his times, the custom of smelters, metal workers, was to heap coals not only below the metal, but upon it as well, and thus melt it. Refine me, O Lord. This enemy, then – what are we to do with him? We wash his feet, certainly the custom. And we place cosseted coals on his head, also perhaps the custom. Of course the language is symbolic – the opportunity does not always arise to do these things, and so the specifics are generalized. Shall Paul's "heaping" of coals be likened to the "good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over," that Jesus talks about? (Lk 6:38) Yes, as the context proves: "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful." (v. 36) But this in no way mitigates against the pain involved in Paul's imagery, contrasted with that of Jesus. The point, in Romans, is not hospitality, but transformation. Either we make a friend of an enemy, melt his recalcitrant heart, refine his enmity into amity, as Saul with David – or his iniquity will be confirmed, as was the hardness of the heart of Pharaoh … his malice will be the more inexcusable, his condemnation aggravated.

Again, we look at the language. To place coals in a bowl which might be transported on the head is one thing. To heap them on the head is another. There's nothing especially generous about a necessarily small gift of a heap of coals on the head - coals are not hard to come by, and it is not niggardly to give something smaller than a small heap. Is Paul a careless writer? There are difficult passages in the Bible, no doubt, but the need to ransack the antiquarial archives to find an alternative explanation to the very clear image created by Paul’s words, seems to argue against the idea that love is sometimes harsh, and not “warm fuzzies,” not “cowardice” and certainly not “vengeance.” I never know how carefully anyone reads my little jottings, but I trust that those who looked at “What You Should Think about 9/11” have also read “Loving the Enemy” – in which I make a point, clearly, I hope: “That’s what lies at the heart of love – a yearning for the ultimate good.

So what. I can make a case for my point? Bully for me. But the thing is, we are not told that God is Justice. We are not told that God is Mercy, nor Grace. What is it, that God is? There is a virtue that is specifically, and uniquely, Christian. Every faith that's not just some weird minor cult acknowledges and lauds the idea of love. But only one faith has identified God as Love. And it is in this, more than in any other thing, that we are to be perfect, even as our Father in Heaven is perfect.

So everything that I have written here must withstand the test of meeting this requirement. And only as far as it approaches this standard, is it ultimately valid. And of course I fail. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong. There are degrees of rightness, and only at the extreme of the continuum do we find this commanded perfection. Gee, too bad for me, then, cursed, condemned to be wrong - or rather not fully right. But just because I cannot succeed, doesn't mean I will not strive. And if the expression, or manifestation, of my love is imperfect unto invisibility, yet will I continue to try.

Today, you see, I felt love, mildly. I saw, you see, a father with his little child. I jokingly said I was jealous. I wasn't, but it did bring home to me how much I miss that role. It also melted my hard heart, and reminded me of some important and neglected things. For some inexplicable reason I found myself opened up, slightly, wide enough to feel some small tenderness for the people around me. That's not so common nowadays, with me, for some inexplicable reason. I'm not a stranger to it. It just ends up being so painful. Look what it did to Jesus.



dissidens said...

Hmmm. I’m new; I never saw Loving the Enemy.

Well, it may be as you say, or it may be as I was told. I’m not overly fond of those sorts of easy interpretations, anyway.

I didn’t intend to take issue with your point, I just don’t see it as a paradox that we love and judge evil. I don’t see it as a paradox that we love and do to the wicked what is good.


Jack H said...

Well, you know me. I'm the village correcter, even when there's nothing to correct. We're on the same page, re love. It's not squishy. It puts people on crosses. Ouch.



Miroslav said...


The paradox I referred to was not that we 'love and judge evil'...

I was suggesting that the paradox exists with these two:
"Do not take revenge..."
then later
"In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head."

Jack "The Softie" H,
You've put a fine point on it all here. I've got to agree with your interpretation as you've outlined it. Consider my paradox.. um... not so paradoxical any longer.

Jack H said...

Oh M, you cruel, cruel man. To mock me in my infirmity! How, how low! I, who weep bitter tears of anguish - to be so carelessly handled! The pain, the pain. How ever shall I recover, desolate of all condolence as I am? I am disconsolate.

But I think you were clear as to which of the many "paradoxes" you referred. It's just that there isn't any.

How's your apostasy going? Working out for you?


Miroslav said...

Jack "Eliphaz" H,
You make me smile.
All well so far, thanks for asking.

Jack H said...

Glad to hear it. And the great thing about there being no God, is you can do anything you want! Kewl! Y'know, I think I'll give it a try. From now on, nothin's gonna hold me back. Look out, world!

[a brief intermission ensues]

Hmm. No, that didn't work out, at all. OK, God. Sorry.

Anyone got a bandaid?

Miroslav said...


And I ain't too proud to beg. There may in fact come a day.

So now that all that sarcasm is out of the way (seriously)... I am glad to hear that you ventured in to the scary world of love and tenderness. You speak often of a deep pain and hurt. It seems to go hand in hand with speaking of the parent-child relationship. I don't want to guess at what has caused this in you, but it really did make me happy to know that you allowed your heart to open up a bit... to make tenderness open to them.

Keep on keepin' on man.

Jack H said...

The Dolorous Stroke that maimed the king came from a bleeding lance out of nowhere. Three kingdoms it laid waste, and the wound of Pellam never healed. Or so some would have it. Others say that blood from that same lance annointed the wound and it closed at last, after a lifetime of pain.

Is that Atlas?

Miroslav said...

Ack. What can I say to such a vivid, yet vague, expression of your experience? I am left with sorrow to know that you have suffered so...

RE: Atlas... a very short explanation. Go ahead... fire away if you must. (not that you'd wait for an invitation...) :)

Jack H said...

Yes, I thought so. How insubstantial the world is, though. A mist of steel.

Me? Suffer? Haha! I laugh! It's all a pose. I'm such a superficial man, you see, that I need to assume some role that will trick people into thinking I'm real. I'm not capable of actual emotion. So I pretend. Fooled you, didn't I.