Back in the day, when papyrus was expensive, educated people read by sounding words out loud, and "writing" generally meant dictating to a scribe, which is to say, someone with good handwriting and enough dexterity to avoid knocking over the bottle of ink.
One really can't emphasize these things too much sometimes in studying Paul's letters. Today's text is a fine example: here in the midst of a major ethical and theological reflection, the apostle strikes a conversational, almost chatty tone. It's tempting to imagine him exhaling, taking a little break before pushing on to the end of the epistle.
These sections in Paul's letters freak out the commentaries. They sometimes have a difficult time understanding the seeming randomness of a section like 12:9-18. The key, of course, is that Paul is making no grand systematic thought, but giving some examples to illustrate his vision of the new life to be found in Christian community. They are
a hodgepodge: quotes from Hebrew scripture, pieces of early Christian thought, ideas from secular philosophy of the day.
The examples break down into couplets. The NRSV translation is particularly weak; a much better one comes from one of those commentaries I make fun of:
Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil, cleave to what is good;
with the love of brothers and sisters, show each other family affection;
anticipate one another in showing respect;
cast off all slackness in your eagerness,
be aglow with the Spirit,
in service make the most of the time remaining,
rejoice in your hope,
be steadfast in affliction, persevere in prayer,
contribute to the needs of the saints,
seek out opportunity to show hospitality.
Bless those who persecute (you);
bless and do not curse them.
Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep.
Aim at having a common mind amongst yourselves;
do not adopt a haughty frame of mind, but associate with the lowly;
be not wise [perhaps "too clever"-p.d.] in your thoughts.
Repay no one evil for evil,
but in the sight of all take thought for what is honorable.
If possible, so far as it depends on you,
live peaceably with all.
Little needs to be added: it's good advice. But notice how the rhythm slows at the end of the excerpt; Paul is moving into a new thought here.
He unveils it casually, almost on the sly:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
We are to love not just the people of our own community, but those outside it, and not just those outside our "extended family," but those who cause us the most grief.
The first thing that usually springs to mind when we talk about the commandment to love our enemies is its seeming lack of justice. Most reasonable people want to know how things can be set right if evil is not confronted.
It is confronted, just not in the way we expect. We're not called to be doormats. We are called to avoid adding to the world's misery.
The best example of how this works comes from a story I heard in seminary. A farm family had been done wrong: the local bank had chosen to foreclose on their loans, and wouldn't hear of alternatives. The farm and the homestead were to be auctioned off, leaving the family destitute.
The day of the auction came, and as the family's household goods were being sold to the highest bidder, they came to a spontaneous conclusion: they stripped off their clothes, down to the underwear, and put them on the block with the rest of their possessions. The sheriff was so ashamed by this simple act that he stopped the auction; the neighbors returned what they had bought, and the community eventually rallied around to save the farm.
It's a nice story, but it's got a bit of an edge. Who's to say those clothes couldn't have been sold like everything else? In fact, the family's tactic depended on that possibility. By going above and beyond, they overcome evil with good, but the only way to do that was to strip themselves naked, literally, and expose themselves to great vulnerability.
It's a principle with wide application. Non-violent civil disobedience depends upon it. Without it, we wouldn't have Thoreau, Gandhi, or the Civil Rights Movement.
It might seem more difficult to apply in today's world of terrorists and governments who are apparently without the gift of shame, but that's a dodge.
It was difficult for Gandhi, and for Dr. King. Repayment of violence with violence, brutality with brutality, insult with insult, is always a temptation. But there is always a better way, if we are willing to be creative and patient, and to assert the quiet power we all possess.
For that, I am deeply grateful, and you should be too.