Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 3, 2023

Romans 12:9-21 Commentary

It’s important to note that near this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s beginning, Paul says not, “Hate who is evil,” but, instead, “Hate what is evil” (9). That summons’ close proximity to his description of love as “sincere” suggests that sincere love includes a counter-cultural perspective on and reaction to both evil and evildoers.

North American culture is increasingly deeply divided. We find it very difficult to agree on important matters regarding politics, theology and science. But it seems to me to be an increasingly short step from disagreement to vilification. We more and more seem to label those with whom we disagree not as people who don’t share our perspective on things, but as our enemies, if not evildoers. As a result, it can be very tempting to hate those with whom we disagree.

Romans 12:9-21 summons Jesus’ friends to a better way. Paul invites us to an imitation of God in Christ. God, after all, abhors evil. However, God also persistently offers God’s grace to evildoers. So we’re not surprised when Jesus prays from the cross for the people who are committing the ultimate evil act of crucifying him.

Those who would sincerely love people recognize at least two things about them that we so easily forget. First, God has created all people in God’s image. While some evildoers have badly blurred that image, they still resemble God in some basic ways. Secondly, God deeply loves even evildoers, longing for them to be well and whole.

This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson explores some of the ramifications of God’s love for all whom God creates in God’s image. All of Romans 12’s summons are in the plural. They offer a glimpse of what the biblical scholar Mary Hinkle Shore calls a glimpse of what life in Christian community looks like. In fact, Shore suggests that “one is tempted to imagine our text’s Paul saying with his syntax, ‘Don’t try this alone’.”

In some cases Paul only alludes to evildoers. He begins this Lesson by insisting that God’s dearly beloved people’s “Love must be sincere [anypokritos].”* In an earlier commentary Scott Hoezee notes that the Greek word Paul uses here means a love that’s free from hypocrisy. That suggests that the apostle implies that Christians don’t just act like we love people. Our love for our neighbors, including evildoers, is also heartfelt and genuine. It is, in other words, Christ-like.

What’s more, in verse 12 the apostle calls his Roman readers to be “patient [hypermenontes] in affliction [thlipsei].” Some of that affliction God’s adopted sons and daughter endure comes from people. So it’s as if the apostle is inviting us to be patient not just with afflictions, but also with people who cause them.

In verse 17 Paul also calls Rome’s Christians to “Be careful to do what is right [pronooumenoi kala] in the eyes of everybody.” Its context at least suggests that he’s summoning his readers to do what’s honorable even when people are trying to harm them.

The apostle, in fact, says something similar when he writes in verse 18: “As far as it depends on you, live at peace [eireneountes] with all” people. Christians’ actions aren’t, in other words, just reactions to people and circumstances. They’re always proactive in the sense that they’re grounded in God’s deep love for those whom God creates in God’s image. So Jesus’ friends always do what we can to live peaceably with even those who would do us harm.

In other places in Romans 12, Paul is much more explicit in his calls to love even evildoers whom God creates in God’s image. In verse 14 he invites Jesus’ followers to “Bless [eulogeite] those who persecute [diokontos] you; bless and do not curse [me katarasthe].” The Greek word that we translate as “bless” literally means to speak well of something (or someone). It echoes Jesus’ calls his friends to bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us.

However, this call doesn’t just point to the counter-cultural nature of Paul’s summons. It also points to the necessity of the Spirit’s work. It is, after all, natural to speak badly to and about those who would harm us. No one can naturally speak well of someone who’s persecuting him or her. Jesus’ friends depend on the powerful help of the Holy Spirit to join Jesus in speaking well of people who wish to or have actually succeeded in hurting us.

Paul understands, however, that it’s natural not just to verbally lash out those who wish to harm us, but also physically  respond in a similar way. Those whom others persecute naturally want to repay others’ evil toward us with our evil toward them. However, in verse 17 the apostle calls his brothers and sisters in Christ not to “repay [apodidontes] anyone evil for evil [kakon anti kakou].” As The Message paraphrases this, “Don’t hit back.”

“Do not take revenge [heautos ekdikountes], my friends,” Paul adds in verse 19, “but leave room for [dote topon] God’s wrath [orge].” God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t have to judge those who do evil. We may need to take steps to protect ourselves from their harm of us, However, we unconditionally love instead of taking revenge against them. Jesus’ friends’ job, as the biblical scholar Elizabeth Shivley writes, is to show love, not to act as judge.

After all, as the apostle quotes God as insisting in verse 19, “It is mine to avenge [ekdikesis]; I will repay [antapodoso].” The Message lyrically paraphrases God as saying, “I’ll do the judging. I’ll take care of it.” Here Paul summons Jesus’ friends to leave the taking of revenge and repaying evil to God. God alone, after all, is capable to doing so impartially.

Paul summons the Christians in Rome to a cruciform response to evil and evil doers. He quotes Proverbs 25:21-22 when he says, “If your enemy is hungry, feed [psomize] him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink (potize).” The apostle invites those to whom others do evil to show those evildoers who are hungry the grace of something to eat and evildoers who are thirsty the gift of something to drink.

It’s, however, hard to understand Paul’s grounds for this kindness. He insists that it will heap burning coals on evildoers’ heads. That seems to contradict the apostle’s call to let God avenge and repay evildoers. In fact, had Paul quoted all of Proverbs 25:22, he might be a bit easier to understand. There, after all, a wise person once wrote, “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you [italics added].”

Here again Shore offers a helpful insight: “Returning evil for evil has a way of escalating conflict and reinforcing the sense of righteous indignation on both sides, while showing hospitality to enemies is at least confusing to them and may disarm them altogether.” Romans 12:20 may also, however, be a case where wise preachers neither try to explain or defend Paul, but simply refer to the mystery of his assertion.

The apostle ends this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson with a lovelier and more lyrical summons. “Do not be overcome [niko] by evil [kakou],” he writes in verse 21, “but overcome [nika] evil with good [agathon].” This is military imagery that compares evil to a hostile force that seeks to win the battle over good.

Paul summons God’s dearly beloved people to wage a kind of war against evil by doing good. Such “warfare,” however, seeks to inflict no casualties, but to, instead, let that which is good, which honors God and blesses our neighbor, win out. That is, after all, as Hoezee also notes, God’s way in Jesus Christ. When Jesus confronted evil and evildoers, he did it with love and grace. Evil did not overcome him. Jesus Christ overcame evil with good.

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


Eric Liddell was an Olympian distance runner whom the Japanese army imprisoned while he was serving as a missionary to China. While in the Weishen Japanese prison camp, he “regularly read aloud … from … the Sermon on the Mount, and dwelled on one passage: ‘Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despise you. Do good to them that hate you.’

“Early in 1944 he began urging the internees to pray specifically for men in uniform – the camp guards. Liddell told his congregation and also his Sunday School classes: ‘I’ve begun to pray for the guards and it’s changed my whole attitude toward them. When we hate them, we are self-centered.”

(from For the Glory, Duncan Hamilton, Penguin Books, 2017)


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