07 February 2011

'If Thine Enemy Thirst, Give Him Drink'—A Homily for 24 January


Here’s my latest homily, delivered on 24 January, New Style. I’ll be doing them more frequently this semester—every three weeks instead of every four—and I’ll try to continue posting them here unless there are strenuous objections.

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 12:16-20
St John ii.1.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s Epistle is a long list of exhortations—of St Paul telling us ‘Behave this way’, ‘Here’s how to follow Christ’—all of which have particular relevance to the kind of life we need to live as a school community.

In verse 16, he writes, ‘Be not wise in your own conceits.’ This is central to what we do as a school, for, according to the mediaeval manual of learning, Hugh of St Victor’s Didascalicon, humility is the basis of learning. [1] That is, we must recognise our ignorance in order to gain knowledge.

In verse 17, St Paul writes, ‘Recompense no man evil for evil.’ If another student is unkind to us, should we be unkind in return? No. And this applies to teachers too – if a parent doesn’t like something I do & slanders me, should I go around talking about them? Should I tell everyone, ‘They’re liars, or crazy, or a jerk, etc.?’ No.

In verse 18, St Paul writes, ‘Live peaceably with all men.’ This means we need to help and share with one another. We need to say kind things to build one another up.

In verse 19, St Paul writes, ‘Avenge not yourselves.’ This is very similar to verse 17, but here we get into something trickier because the Apostle goes on to quote Deuteronomy 32:35, ‘Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’ The Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, has used this as the epigraph for his novel, Anna Karenina.

It’s good because it tells us not to seek vengeance—not to try to ‘get someone back’. But it’s tempting to be excited because God says He will ‘repay’ – we want to see our enemy ‘zapped’ by God, don’t we? Many readers of Anna Karenina enjoy seeing Anna succumb to madness and suicide as a punishment for her adultery.

Because of this zeal for vengeance, even if it is vengeance dealt out by God, it is easy to read the next exhortation as a promise that our enemies will be ‘zapped’. In verse 20, St Paul writes, ‘Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.’ It’s easy to hear this and think, ‘I’m gonna be extra nice to this jerk to show him I’m better, or I’m gonna be nice so God will really get him!’

But is that what St Paul is telling? Is this what God wants?

I don’t think so – as St Augustine says, ‘For how can it be love to feed and nourish someone just in order to heap coals of fire on his head, assuming that “coals of fire” means some serious punishment?’ [2]

There’s a clue about this in today’s Gospel which, in my opinion, ought to change completely our perception of all of St Paul’s exhortations. Every time I preach, I try to find some sort of connection between the Epistle and Gospel readings. It was a little tricky this time. It took me a minute, but finally I came up with the line, ‘If he thirst, give him drink.’

Christ in the Gospel makes wine from water for thirsty wedding guests. Now, this story demonstrates a couple of things at the surface level. Our Lord’s presence at Cana shows that He blesses marriage. The provision of wine for the wedding party shows that He blesses fun and the enjoyment of earth’s gifts.

But more importantly, the Miracle at Cana prefigures the wine of the Eucharist, the ‘Blood of Christ’. In his long hymn ‘On the Marriage at Cana’, St Romanus the Melodist, a 6th-c. hymnographer from Syria, writes:

When Christ, as a sign of His power, clearly changed the water into wine, all the crowd rejoiced, for they considered the taste marvellous. Now we all at the banquet in the Church partake of Christ with holy joy from the wine changed into His blood, praising the great Bridegroom. [3]

But the recollection of Christ’s gift of His own divine Blood to quench our thirst reminds us of the context of St Paul’s exhortation: ‘if thine enemy…thirst’. This changes our reading of the exhortations in Romans 12.

We are Christ’s enemies, because our sins necessitated His sacrifice.

Every time we become ‘wise in our own conceits’ we make ourselves Christ’s enemies.

Every time we pay back evil for evil we make ourselves Christ’s enemies.

Every time we fail to live peaceably we make ourselves Christ’s enemies.

Every time we try to avenge ourselves we make ourselves Christ’s enemies.

But now back to the rest of verse 20: ‘for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head’. As we’ve already noted, this doesn’t sound very loving, does it? St Augustine explains it thusly:

We must understand that ‘coals of fire’ means that we should provoke whoever does us harm to repentance by doing him a good turn. For the coals of fire serve to burn, i.e., to bring anguish to his spirit, which is like the head of the soul, in which all malice is burnt out when one is changed for the better through repentance. [4]

Similarly, the 5th-c. commentator Constantius writes:

In this passage Paul teahes that we ought to imitate God, who causes his sun to rise on the good and the evil, for by feeding our enemy and giving him something to drink we provoke him to peace or even to reconciliation. [5]

In the first place, Christ’s sacrifice heaps ‘coals of fire’ in the sense that we have repented and turned to Him in faith. But of course, we continue to sin (or at least I do!), and therefore we must have continual repentance, we must rekindle that proper ‘anguish of spirit’ that St Paul in 2 Cor. 7:10 calls the ‘godly sorrow’ that ‘worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of’.

This we attempt to do at Matins every day – we confess ourselves to be ‘miserable offenders’: as C.S. Lewis says, this means ‘that if we could see things from a sufficient height above we should all realize that we are in fact proper objects of pity’. [6]

But, in the second place, remember that by accepting food and drink in the Eucharist, in the Lord’s Supper, we risk heaping ‘coals of fire’ on ourselves in a more obvious sense. St Paul writes in I Cor. 11:29: ‘For he that eatheth and drinketh unworthily, eateth & drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.’

These are strong words, and we would do well to recall them before we approach to receive communion.

In James Joyce’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, even Stephen Dedalus, who has lost his faith, cannot forget St Paul’s words, and will not succumb to the social pressure to take communion because he ‘feels and fears’ the ‘body and blood of the son of God’. [7] As believing Christians, how much more discerning must we be of ‘the Lord’s body’!

Commenting on the passage in I Corinthians, St Chrysostom writes:

Since if even that kind of banquet which the senses take cognizance of cannot be partaken of by us when feverish and full of bad humors, without risk of perishing [in other words…]: much more is it unlawful for us to touch this Table with profane lusts, which are more grievous than fevers. Now when I say profane lusts, I mean both those of the body, and of money, and of anger, and of malice, and, in a word, all that are profane. And it becomes him that approacheth, first to empty himself of all these things and so to touch that pure sacrifice. [8]

He goes on to say:

What sayest thou, tell me? Is this Table which is the cause of so many blessings and teeming with life, become judgment? Not from its own nature, saith he, but from the will of him that approaches. For as His presence, which conveyed to us those great and unutterable blessings, condemned the more them that received it not: so also the Mysteries become provisions of greater punishment to such as partake unworthily.

But why doth he eat judgment to himself? ‘Not discerning the Lord’s body’: i.e., not searching, not bearing in mind, as he ought, the greatness of the things set before him; not estimating the weight of the gift. For if thou shouldest come to know accurately Who it is that lies before thee, and Who He is that gives Himself, and to whom, thou wilt need no other argument, but this is enough for thee to use all vigilance; unless thou shouldest be altogether fallen. [9]

We can see a beautiful example of what it means to ‘know accurately Who it is that lies before’ us, in the lovely poem, ‘The Holy Communion’, by the 17th-c. English priest, George Herbert. I would like to read a few stanzas of this lyric:

NOT in rich furniture, or fine array,
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who for me wast sold,
To me dost now thy self convey;
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
Leaving within me sinne:

But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep’st into my breast;
Making thy way my rest,
And thy small quantities my length;
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sinnes force and art.

Yet can these not get over to my soul,
Leaping the wall that parts
Our souls and fleshy hearts;
But as th’ outworks, they may controll
My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name,
Affright both sinne and shame.

Onely thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms:
While those to spirits refin’d, at doore attend
Dispatches from their friend. [10]

May we too know that ‘grace, which with these elements comes, / . . . / Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms’.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Ivan Illich, In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon (Chicago: U of Chicago, 1996), p. 15.

[2] Gerald Bray, ed., Romans, Vol. VI of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998), p. 322.

[3] The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 1: The Holy Gospels, tr. & ed. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1999), p. 485, n. 63.

[4] Bray, p. 322.

[5] Ibid., p. 322.

[6] C.S. Lewis, ‘“Miserable Offenders”: An Interpretation of Prayer Book Language’, God in the Dock, in The Collected Works of C.S. Lewis (NY: Inspirational, 1996), p. 381.

[7] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (NY: Bantam, 1992), p. 237.

[8] St John Chrysostom, ‘Homily XXVIII on 1st Corinthians’, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf112.iv.xxix.html

[9] Ibid.

[10] George Herbert, The Works of George Herbert in Prose & Verse, ed. Robert Aris Willmott (NY: D. Appleton & Co., 1857), pp. 45-6.

3 comments:

David B said...

Very didactic, and nicely so. Very appropriate for a school setting. Taking it verse by verse helped thread it all together, and it seemed to help that the problematic verse came at the end. Your attending to it helped to wrap up the homily quite nicely.

What kind of reaction do you sense from the kids when you (or anyone else) preaches?

Isaac said...

I really really enjoyed this.

I like your aside about Christ at the wedding in Cana: "The provision of wine for the wedding party shows that He blesses fun and the enjoyment of earth’s gifts." Important, I think, for kids and grown ups to remember (within reason, of course).

Lvka said...

If thy enemy thirsts... drown him!

:-)