Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Romans 12:9-21

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is the summation and center of this passage, and perhaps the hardest, most seemingly unnatural approach to life. It is the conclusive statement to follow how this passage began, “let love be genuine.” How do we know if love is genuine? Because the words professing love are accompanied by the actions listed above, all different individual expressions of “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” 

Love, as it turns out, is not just a feeling, not just an attraction or even a disposition. Love includes those things, but is ultimately a choice, a choice to do what one ought, even when it is hardest, and even at great cost. Love is cruciform, which is to say, it reflects and channels the work of Christ on the cross: Self-giving for the sake of others, no matter the cost.

And humility is the basis of love. It is impossible to love in a Christ-like way out of a position of pride. Pride assumes superiority, and if someone is superior their love is always tainted by that feeling, marked by an illegitimate pity and condescension. Love, on the other hand, is rooted in God’s mercy, as we learned last week; love is to be expressed in “mutual affection,” while we attempt to “outdo one another in showing honor.” 

We see in one another the image of God, the presence of God’s life in each other. So much of human history has been spent trying to snuff out or control that image, to dominate. But true humanity, those who are to live in a New Creation, reverse the pattern of human conflict. We are told to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” Harmony is impossible if we think more of ourselves than we ought, if we claim a wisdom greater than we have: that we can discern who is good, who deserves to live or die, who merits our empathy and help. Rather, we are to show empathy and care to all, but especially to those who weep, the lowly.

And we are also to love those who despise or hate us, our enemies. This is the hardest of all. This command was given by Christ in Matthew 5, and Paul reiterates it. It is not abstract, not “spiritual” in some non-real sense; it is concrete, expressed through action. Those who hate you, who you may fear, or dislike, or resent, are yet to be shown the same kind of compassion that Christ showed us all, his mercy shown to us giving birth to our merciful love: do not repay evil with evil, do not take vengeance, feed and water your enemies, be at peace with everyone you can, and thus, “overcome evil with good.” For the Cruciform life of the Christian is characterized by radical self-sacrifice.

We still can’t seem to get our heads around this. We still go to war, oppress, kill. We see both Israel and Hamas doing horrible things to each other, unmitigated disastrous human loss of life in site of the city of peace itself, Jerusalem. One of my favorite examples of the horrible cost of returning vengeance on those who injure us is literary. 

The grand Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is a marvelous story of a hero of the Geats, northern Vikings, and his battles with various monsters. It is most likely written in the form we have by a later Christian, or at last edited by one. Towards the end we see warnings of what will happen to his people, that their lust for gold and more importantly propensity for blood-feuds will ultimately lead to the end of not only Beowulf’s line, but his people as well. 

Tragedy follows the pursuit for vengeance, of violence begetting violence. Paul isn’t advocating for a simpering silence, afraid to speak truth to the powerful, but rather that we ought to seek peace, while speaking the truth, and thus showing through our actions of love precisely just how evil and futile the alternative of violence is. Martin Luther King Jr. and his nonviolent direct action is a wonderful modern example of this; people preparing vigorously and carefully to be able to take tremendous violence as they protested, and to do so without responding in kind. 

Breaking the cycle of violence that perpetuates down through history, from Cain and Able to now, is not by destroying the enemy. It is by taking the power from violence. We have a promise from the king to whom we follow and towards a kingdom in which we are already a part, that we have nothing to fear, even from death. Responding to violence with love brings to light the shamefulness of those who are violent, “heaping coals on their heads,” demonstrating with utter clarity the evil of their actions. When evil is overcome by good, the disparity evident to those who see it is jarring; what power, what force or strength, is present in this person that they are able to show mercy and to love without hypocrisy, even when hurt?

I have failed in this. We all have. We have all struck another when struck. We have all cursed and called someone names when they did so to us. We have all lashed out at our spouse, sibling, parent, or friend, hurting them by our words because they hurt us. We all want vengeance, to be the bringer of the whirlwind, the commander of the avenging storm. But when we do so, we also usurp the position of God, taking on ourselves the vengeance that he claims for himself. 

Does this mean violence is never merited, that we cannot defend the helpless, protect the weak? Does it mean we do not stop horrible people from their crimes? I have complex thoughts about that, and frankly I think it is beyond my authority to say. What I will say is, I don’t think being pushed to be more peaceful is a problem for us here and now; that’s not where our mistakes will be made. Without a radical reassessment of how we ought to live and be in this world, then we will continue to perpetuate the horrible evil of vengeful violence that has characterized so much of human history. And thus we will prove no better than our fellow human, no true witness, no light in the dark, because we trade in the strength of God for the strength of the world. We become hypocrites, claiming a love we refuse to live. But that is not who we are to be. We are to be cruciform people, walking in the footsteps of our savior. The Cruciform life is characterized by radical self-sacrifice, even yes, to our enemies. May we reject the violence of the world and embrace the peace bought by Christ’s blood, which overcomes evil not with more evil, but overcomes evil with good. Amen.

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