The 7th Sunday After Epiphany February 19, 2006


Itches that Shouldn’t Be Scratched

Romans 12:17-21

Scripture Readings

2 Kings 5:1-19
Matthew 8:1-13


5, 28, 421, 382

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted

Dear Fellow Saints:

As I recall, I first heard the expression when we were in Florida, and I was so instantly enamored with it that I adopted it as my own on the spot. I think I had been talking to a friend about a bratty child whose father finally saw fit to issue some applied love to the seat of his pants. I think I made the comment that it might, in that case, be too little too late. To which my friend replied, “Maybe, but as far as I am concerned, it sure scratched a deep itch.”

There are some natural inclinations that most of us have in common. We see a fluffy ball of puppy and want to pet it and tousle its ears. We see an abused or neglected child and we want to protect and comfort her. We hear of a good family in trouble and we want to pitch in and lend a hand.

These are all good things—positive things—and such emotions or inclinations should be expected among Christian folk. Yet, there are also negative inclinations—bad tendencies—that are common to human beings. These are the sorts of natural emotions that give us a little thrill of delight and a healthy dose of satisfaction when an enemy fails or is embarrassed in some way; when a rich and arrogant man falls to ruin; or when a famous person is revealed as a deviate or criminal.

For every one good and decent human emotion, there are probably two that we would label as bad or negative. Of them all, revenge probably reigns as king. From the earliest days of childhood we encounter this most basic of all our natural inclinations—the innate desire for give pain for pain.

This is one of the messages of our text for this morning—a condemnation of the evil that is human vengeance. Through our study of these divine words we will learn not only which of our natural itches shouldn’t be scratched, but, more importantly, why. Our text is found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the twelfth chapter:

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

So far the verbally inspired words of our God. What a tremendous comfort and blessing to be able to turn, time and again, to the words of Holy Scripture and to know, without doubt, that there we will always find God’s own truth. That our God would work in our hearts, as He promised, through these words, so we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.

There is an old Russian proverb that says, “Revenge is a dish that is best served cold.” That pretty well sums up the state of the human heart in connection with revenge, doesn’t it? A man named Decimus Janius Juvenal—who was roughly a contemporary of Paul—wrote this on the subject: “Revenge is always the delight of a mean spirit, of a weak and petty mind.” Even the secular world understands the true nature of revenge. The thrill and satisfaction of getting even seems to be hard-wired into the hearts of sinners of all times.

The general thrust of Paul’s message deals with how we are to live among the ungodly— those who seem to live with the pilot light for vengeance always burning. This is obviously very appropriate and applicable for us today. One of the greatest lessons we need to learn in this regard, as we’ve said, is which of our natural itches should and should not be scratched.

No one needs to remind us that we are made up of both old man and new man. No one needs to remind us that there is good and evil in each of us. What we do need to be reminded of from time to time is how that fact affects us day by day and in what ways. It is good to remind ourselves, for example, of the fact that each inclination of our hearts has one of two fathers, and can, therefore, be good or bad. The fact that a certain inclination is natural to all human beings means nothing. The real problem is that we instinctively come to imagine that whatever comes naturally is good and right. The hard cold reality is that the human heart is so fickle that we need an outside source to judge our basic inclinations for us.

Need proof? How many times have you heard the old justification for sin: “How can anything that feels so right be wrong?” Has such a thought ever crossed your mind? How about the crass and rather barbaric: “If it feels good, do it”? Part of the art of Christian living is learning to determine the source of each of our inclinations. The fact that it just somehow feels right is of absolutely no value or consequence. Think for a moment just how satisfying it feels to get even, or to get somebody back for something that they once did to you. Now ask yourself whether that feeling (which is shared by virtually all of humanity) is right or wrong in God’s eyes. Is it good or is it evil for a human being to want to pay someone back for the evil they have done?

We would like to believe our natural desire for vengeance is actually a good thing, wouldn’t we? God leaves no doubt that it is anything but “a good thing.” God plainly says, “Repay no one evil for evil.[v.17] If any doubt lingers as to how God views our desire for vengeance, we need only to skip forward a verse and the text continues: “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.[v.19]

What does it mean to “give place to wrath”? (Note well that it certainly does not mean “give way to wrath.”) Most Bible scholars and translators believe that Paul is assuming that his readers will supply the word “God” in this sentence. In other words, they translate it “give place to God’s wrath.” This obviously agrees with the words that follow: “for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.

This is all well and good here in this safe and secure environment, isn’t it—the rather detached idea of letting God handle the revenge department? These words sort of tiptoe lightly across our minds and we generally regard them as a true fact in such a serene and benevolent setting as a worship service. It is much different out in the “real world” when friends and enemies alike stomp up and down on us with hobnailed boots. Then the idea of getting back and getting even turns into that deep, insatiable itch that just begs to be scratched.

So why not just indulge and scratch? Why not just give in to that which feels so satisfying and right and try to exact some revenge on those who wrong you? The answer ought to be obvious to us, both from a logical standpoint and from an evangelical perspective.

First the logical: To seek and exact revenge might yield some temporary satisfaction, but it will certainly never bring resolution or harmony to any conflict. If everyone seeks revenge, every single act of injustice will spawn a never-ending cycle of violence and strife. No one ever wins such a game since the only thing that can break the cycle is forgiveness. That is undoubtedly why God reserves judgment and vengeance to Himself. Left in the hands of man, revenge would destroy all civilization. Obviously then (even from a logical perspective), giving in to the basic instinct for revenge is a bad thing.

But there is obviously more to the Christian life than logic. God could have avenged himself upon every single sinner, and He would have been fully justified in doing so. He chose instead to reserve His vengeance over against sin and to vent it not upon the world of sinners, but upon His own Son, Jesus. That’s what happened on the cross—God was fully visiting His wrath upon His Son for all the wrongs that mankind had ever committed. The results, as far as you and I are concerned, couldn’t possibly be any better. That which had separated us from our God and thus closed the door of heaven to us—our sin—was removed. It is now gone. Jesus did that for us. Your sins are forgiven.

All of which leaves us with an incredible truth to ponder: The one Being who had a right to seek revenge, did not do so. What a different light this casts on our sinful and petty desire to return hurt for hurt, evil deed for evil deed, heartache for heartache.

Our text follows with some practical, nuts-and-bolts advice when dealing with enemies among the ungodly. First, as much as it depends on you, strive to get along. Then Paul adds: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.[v.20] We don’t need to fret about what it could mean to “heap coals of fire on his head.” This means simply that acts of kindness will shame your enemy, rather than inflame him. The ungodly just don’t know what to make of an act of kindness or generosity coming from someone he regards as an enemy—someone he has wronged in the past. When the godless hurt someone, they expect more of the same in return. Kindness, under those circumstances, is jarring and disquieting to them. In the last verse of our text Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.[v.21]

We make a mistake when we imagine that this advice applies only to our dealing with the unbelievers. The same advice applies just as well to your attitude toward that family member who once said something hateful to you, and you just haven’t allowed yourself to really let it go. It applies to your church brother whose past actions stung you and you now sinfully use them to harbor animosity and self pity. It applies to friends at work, fellow students, parents, children—even the pastor when he does one foolish thing after another. It is, in short, a way of life for the child of God—the way of humility and forgiveness.

Just a few chapters prior to our text in this same epistle, Paul gave something of a thematic statement that certainly applies also here. There he wrote, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us(Romans 8:35-37). This is the key that unlocks all of this—we are to be “more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

Our goal is not to defeat our enemies, it is to win them over. We have not been called to crush even those who oppose our Lord; we are called to “make disciples of all nations(Matthew 28:19). That is how we become “more than conquerors.” If it were all just about conquering —being top dog—then revenge would rightly be a staple in our mental and emotional diet. Our Lord expects more for us and from us. He wants the joy of the angels at the birth of the Savior to be our joy. He wants the comfort of sins forgiven to be our comfort. He wants the heaven that his Son earned on the cross to be our heaven.

Harboring animosity and seeking after revenge works against all of these goals, both for us and for our neighbor. God, purge all such sin from our hearts and lives. Amen.

—Pastor Michael J. Roehl

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