Some further thoughts on Romans 12:20 from this past Sunday’s message:
This passage must be taken in the context of the rest of the passage in which the Apostle Paul is giving instruction on how to give your whole self, your “bodies” as a living sacrifice to God in worship. This is expressed both in how we live our lives within Christian fellowship, the church (vs. 3-13) and how we live among our neighbors and in our community (vs. 14-21). So, when we get to the last part of vs. 20, we can find ourselves a bit confused about this tricky bit regarding heaping coals on the heads of our enemies. Outside of this being a very unfamiliar practice to our 21st century ears, it’s also an relatively obscure historical and cultural reference that is , like many other things, open to interpretation. There are typically three general ways of interpreting the last part of vs. 20 but they all point to one intended result: repentance.
The first popular interpretation (and the one with which I first became familiar) of the heaping of coals on heads is that it is a reference to the Egyptian practice of placing a red-hot plate of coals on the head of a convict or captive in order to sear the shame of their conduct into their conscience and bring them into submission. This concept may have been vaguely familiar to the Roman Christians to which Paul is writing. Despite the penal/revenge overtones of this interpretation, the implications of bringing about repentance is maintained. This interpretation can be problematic, however, in that it can give us license to give food and drink to our hungry and thirsty enemy while entertaining thoughts of their suffering and enjoying it in some passive/aggressive manner instead of hoping the best for them, praying for their repentance, and entrusting vengeance and punishment to God.
The second interpretation, while less popular, has to do with repaying hostility with generosity. In first century Rome, it wasn't uncommon to transport things on top of the head, as is still seen in parts of the world today. Thus, the heaping of hot coals on top of our enemies head could be seen as giving of ourselves to ensure the livelihood of those who have wronged and persecuted us. Since fire was a precious commodity used for heating and cooking in the home, the giving of hot coals was a way of blessing our enemies with the ability to warm their home and provide food for their family. While this interpretation may be a bit strained, it is still consistent in working to bring about the intended outcome of repentance or turning one from bad behavior and turning to God.
Lastly, the third interpretation is to take the heaping of coals as being purely metaphorical or symbolic. One doesn't need a grasp of first-century history or of ancient near-eastern culture to understand that 1.) red hot coals on top of your head would hurt and motivate you to change some things about your situation/behavior and 2.) responding to persecution and abuse with peacemaking and generosity can be an effective method of “killing with kindness.” In this interpretation, Paul is appealing to the readers’ imagination and, as in the other two interpretations, is fixing in their minds the same outcome of repentance among those who mistreat and misunderstand us.
So, in the end, what’s important isn't necessarily how we interpret the historical/cultural meaning of this unusual passage in Romans 12 but, rather, what we understand about God’s desire and Paul’s instruction for us, which is found in vs. 21, “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” In all we do, we seek the repentance of our neighbors, hoping they too will be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ.