The epistles for the Sundays after Epiphany are a sequential reading from Romans 12:1-13:7. They are exhortations to think and act in ways that are appropriate for those to whom Christ has been revealed. Today’s exhortation (Romans 12:16f.) is that we should respond to evil, not with evil, but with good. We should not avenge ourselves, but should commit the task of judgment to God.
This teaching is more attractive when it is exemplified by someone else. Jesus responded to his Good Friday adversaries by saying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We see this as a beautiful thing. But when someone harms or humiliates us or someone we love, many of us prefer Psalm 143:12: “Of thy goodness slay mine enemies.”
The problem is heightened, especially for the male of the species, when the command to avenge not ourselves is explained in a way that gives the impression that Christianity is a religion of weakness; as if it is God’s will is for us to get our butts kicked all the time–and smile while it happens. But this is not the point. The epistle says: “Beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” The reason for not taking justice into our own hands is that God plans to execute justice on our behalf in his good time.
Two problems arise when we attempt to avenge ourselves. The first is that we are not always just. Our attempts to right the wrong complicate rather than resolve the issue. This is seen in feuds that last for millennia. Some initial wrong was perpetuated by one party on another. The wronged party struck back in some disproportionate way–as, for example, when Simeon and Levi responded to the rape of their sister by killing every male in Shechem n (Genesis 34:1-26). The reprisal then leads to yet another attack by the original offender. A thousand years later all you have is long list of wrongs of which each side accuses the other–and wounds that are extremely deep.
The second problem with taking justice into our own hands that we run the risk of becoming guilty ourselves in the process. Take the aforementioned example of Simeon and Levi. Their family was the innocent party in the rape. But in their response they became guilty of murder. They were changed from innocent victims, who could appeal to the Great Judge, into guilty people worthy of punishment themselves.
This is a significant consideration in our lives. We are all wronged from time to time. If we are honest, we will admit that we harbor the occasional grudge. We begin to look at someone with angry thoughts and intentions. We may–only, of course, on the rarest of occasions–utter an unkind word about our adversary. This is a slippery slope. At what point in our unrighteous response do we transition from innocent victim into guilty offender? At what point do transition from people who can pray, “Lord, come and judge” into people who also have cause to fear that judgment?
This is why we are commanded to forgive. To forgive another is to surrender our right of retribution. It is to quit our job as judge and jury–a job we do very poorly–and commit the task of judgement to the One who alone can judge rightly. For “He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.” “Vengeance is mine I will repay, saith the Lord.”
Judgment is not a popular topic. However, the promise of the Lord to repay is at the very center of our faith. It would be very hard to believe in a God who did not intend to right the wrongs of this unjust world. As Jesus said, “Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Mat 12:36 KJV). No tyrant, murderer, or thief–and no one who has wronged any of us in significant ways–is getting away with anything. God will reward each for what he has done. There will be eternal justice for all transgressions in time.
Of course, there is forgiveness for those who confess their sins and put their faith in Jesus. This is the gospel. Jesus saves us by his blood from the wrath that is come on the world because of sin. That is why you are here. You have been forgiven. You have been saved by the cross from the judgment that is coming on the earth. In Christ, God had been gracious to you. He has not, and will not, give your sins all the recompense they deserve. This is why you must be willing to extend grace to those who have wronged you. You must forgive because you have been forgiven.
All sin will be dealt with in one of two ways. Either by repentance and the forgiveness God has made available to all through the cross; or by the just judgment of Christ, the Judge of the living and the dead, who will render to everyone according to what he has done (Romans 2:6, Revelation 2:23, 20:13).
The New Testament shows us that God will judge, both on the Last Day and in time. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” However, after a generation of time during which Jerusalem had opportunity to repent and did not, judgment came upon the city. Jerusalem was destroyed in A. D. 70, an act of judgement that Jesus prophesied in Luke 19:43-44. Thus, he who prayed for their forgiveness was also their just judge when they refused to repent.
When we respond to evil with good and forgive those who wrong us, we maintain our innocence and commit the responsibility of judgment to God. This is not about being weak. It is about fighting the right battle. We are not trying to vindicate our pride by proving ourselves right in some temporal dispute. We are aiming to win the larger eternal war. We are aiming to stand blameless among the redeemed on the Last Day.
And we are a sign of the presence of Christ in the world. In the gospel (John 2:1f.) Jesus turned water into wine, a miracle that revealed him to be the creator, the one who changes things. St. John says that in this sign, Jesus “manifested forth his glory and his disciples believed in him.” In a similar miracle, Jesus has changed us from ordinary, fallen, vengeful and angry people into blameless children of God who are able to be gracious as God is gracious. This transformation is revealed through our changed behavior, as we refuse to avenge ourselves, as we respond to the evil with the good, as we love, even our enemies. In this way God’s glory is manifested through us, so that others might see and believe.