Teaching young people, high school-age or middle schoolers, is more like leading wading through a dense jungle together with them, than actually teaching, in a traditional sense. Yesterday, I was asked, “If doing good to people ‘heaps coals on people’s heads’, are we doing good to people to get them angry? Isn’t that manipulative?” I don’t think that question would even occur to most adults. On the other hand, I don’t think most adults ask about what they don’t understand, at least not about the Bible anyway.
“BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.”
Romans 12:20 NASB
Well, I figured the best approach to any sort of answer was to examine the context. Here’s the verse where the phrase is found. It’s a quote from Proverbs 25:21-22. The reference to “burning coals on his head” is probably cultural, and doesn’t mean what it sounds like. I couldn’t find an explanation though, and it seems the imagery remains a mystery.
Paul doesn’t just quote this proverb without some sort of helpful context. Look where it occurs in his discussion in Romans 12 (where application begins):
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:14-21 NASB
The quote is bracketed by “Vengeance is mine, I will repay” from Deuteronomy 32:35 reserving vengeance to Yahweh, and the summary statement, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” That last statement probably provides the best understanding of “heaping coals”. It is probably not meant as a punishment as such, but more like an incentive to repentance. Although, vengeance of Yahweh could feel like hot coals on the head. Even so, the vengeance would, hopefully, lead the person to repent.
These verses leave disciples of Jesus with the clear call to treat those inside and outside the church well, even (or especially) when persecuted. We are to associate with the lowly, to be at peace with everyone, and leave revenge to our Savior. Bless others, join them in their pain and joy. Don’t make it about you. And “be of the same mind”. When does that happen? We are all about factions, differences, politics, race, sexual orientation, whatever.
What would the world think of a group of people who lived out these principles? Wouldn’t it be interesting to find out? I’m struggling with the part about not making it about me. I always seem to catch myself after I snack on my foot. But what if I really tried, worked at trapping that thought before I spoke? What if I did good, fed my enemies, treated them with kindness? What if I wept with those in mourning? What if I rejoiced with those rejoicing without wondering when good stuff will happen to me? What if I was like minded instead of contending for the wrong priorities?
What about you? Can this be you? Can you be like this? Will you? Perhaps we can help each other work at it together? What a thought.