TEXT: Romans 12:9-21
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14)
Heinrich Heine once said, “One must forgive one’s enemies—but not before they have been hanged.” 1
And you know, many of us feel that way. It’s what works on the football field and the hockey rink. It’s what works in nature. You don’t see cats turning around and saying to dogs who are chasing them up a tree, “I forgive you.” You don’t have dolphins saying to the shark, “We forgive you for eating our brothers.” It’s a “dog-eat-dog” world out there, not a “dog-forgive-dog” world.
If that is the world of nature—and if that’s what is supposed to be instinctive to us—why does the Bible stress forgiveness? Why does Paul, in his letter to the Romans, urge believers to bless those who persecute them?
Well, maybe because Jesus said it first!2 We know it’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s why we pray: “forgive us as we forgive others.” Forgiveness is at the core of our religion—and yet, it’s not easy for most of us.
But then there are people like Dale and Diane Lang. Their son Jason was 17 years old when he was shot and killed by a 14-year-old boy at a high school in Taber, Alberta, in 1999. I’m sure you all remember that. I’ve never been able to forget it.
For some reason—even though I’ve never met any of the people involved—this tragic, terrible incident has gotten under my skin, and I still feel a tide of anger rising within me whenever I think about it. I guess that’s because I’m a parent, and I imagine my own son in Jason Lang’s place. I know how I would have reacted if my child had been murdered, and forgiving the murderer would have been the last thing on my mind.
The Langs, however, reacted differently. Dale Lang—an Anglican priest—publicly forgave his son’s killer, and prayed for the boy and his family. At the teenager’s sentencing—after he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and received three years in a youth facility—Diane Lang told the Canadian Press: “We have been asking God to give wisdom to the judge … to do what is best for this young man.”3
Now I know the Langs are Christians, obviously … but I’m still shocked by what they did. It flies in the face of the human desire to retaliate. Who hasn’t been tempted to exact some kind of revenge? Fighting back and responding in kind seem to be basic human impulses when we are mistreated.
Most of us have a strong built-in sense of justice—or, at least, we know when we have been treated unjustly. So when we have the chance to implement a little justice of our own, we jump at the chance. Mind you, it’s our own version of justice that we like to execute, and it often involves a pretty subjective application—one that’s based on however we’re feeling at the moment.
Maybe you’ve used the expression—or had it used on you: “I have my scruples and I’m going to stand on them.”
Most of us assume “scruples” mean “principles.” To be scrupulous, we think, is to be concerned with what is honest and right. But a scruple is actually a sharp stone. The phrase “to stand on your scruples” comes from the experience of being irritated by a small sharp stone in your shoe.
That small stone may feel uncomfortable, but you stand there anyway. You stand there faithfully. “Standing on your scruples” means to stand firm. It implies—because of that little stone—that we are going to stand with sensitivity or with tender feet.
Jesus teaches a kind of walk through life that involves tender feet and sensitivity—not just a stubborn tromp, believing that we’re always right. Read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew sometime—all three chapters—and you’ll see what I mean. Jesus encourages tender-footed walking.
The apostle Paul lays out a whole set of scruples in our reading from the 12th chapter of Romans—little sharp stones in the shoes of Christian people. Here are those scruples in all of their beauty:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.4
What a beautiful little treatise on the Christian life! But then Paul follows it with a most demanding ethic—one that’s all about loving and blessing our enemies. Remember? He said:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them … Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 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 … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.5
Wow! Try telling that to the Department of National Defence! Can you imagine the reaction? Those who are in the business of conducting military operations do not want to hear, “Bless those who persecute you.”
Paul has taken the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and—after assessing its core principles—ruled out any use of revenge. Personal vengeance is excluded. It is forbidden.
Now, in its place, you might think Paul would recommend passivity. But no. Instead of passivity, he recommends that we actively bless our enemies with kindness. Imagine that. We’re supposed to go out of our way to bless them!
That’s not the way the world does things. You did not hear Romans 12 quoted by the President of the United States this week when he announced that he would be sending federal troops to “restore law and order” in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In fact, the Trump administration swiftly deployed nearly 1,000 National Guardsmen and 200 federal law enforcement personnel, including FBI and US Marshalls, to subdue protests in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake this Sunday past.6
Paul’s critics say he is soft on justice. But, actually, Paul is full of justice. All he is doing is placing the burden of vengeance exclusively in the hands of God.
Both the Old and New Testaments pronounce the same idea as Paul gives us. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. Vengeance is not ours to do with whatever we want.
Here’s a story. It comes from a clergyman and author named Myron Augsburger, and it was told to him by a friend of his, a man named Herman Riemple.
Herman Riemple’s father was Aaron Riemple. He was a very wealthy Mennonite farmer in Gnadenfeldt, Russia, and had a large estate. He was so well known that the Czar of Russia would visit and go hunting on his land.
In the early teens of the 20th century, when the Red and White Armies were battling, they raged back and forth across Gnadenfeldt. One evening Aaron Riemple was coming home from the market where he had gotten some things for his wife, and he came by a railroad siding. And there was a boxcar full of people about to be shipped off to Siberia. From inside, a man called out and said, “Sir, we’re so hungry. We’ve been in here all day with nothing to eat. Can you help us?”
And Aaron Riemple, out of the goodness of his own spirit and heart, went over and shoved his bolognas and his bread and cheese through the slats and the man said, “Thank you.”
Aaron Riemple said, “God bless you.” And he went on home.
Sometime later the Red Army overran the whole territory. They rounded up the Mennonite farmers and put them in boxcars and shipped them off to Siberia. Now Aaron Riemple had lost his estate. He went from wealth to poverty, but he still had his own ingenuity. He was quite an entrepreneur, and in Siberia he began getting tea imported from China, and he was selling tea.
But this was contrary to the ideals of the new Communist regime. So Aaron Reimple was accused of a kind of capitalism, and he was brought to trial.
In the courtroom, of course, the evidence was given against him and he was found guilty of capitalism. The Commissar asked him to step forward to be sentenced, and Aaron Riemple stepped forward, expecting this to mean his death.
The Commissar looked at him and said, “I believe we have met before.”
Mr. Riemple said, “Your Honor, I think not.”
“Yes,” he said, “I think we have. Have you been in Gnadenfeldt?”
“Yes,” he said, “I lived in Gnadenfeldt.”
The Commissar asked him, “Do you remember one evening when a man called to you from a boxcar and said, ‘Sir, we’ve been in here all day with nothing to eat. Would you help us?’”
“Ah, yes,” he said, “I remember.”
“And what did you do?”
“Why, I went over and shoved my bolognas and bread and cheese through the slats.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said, ‘God bless you’.”
The Commissar said, “We have met before. I was that man!”
He said, “I’m not going to sentence you. If you would like, I will sign papers so that you and your family can emigrate.”
And Aaron Riemple said, “Sir, if you will sign those papers for all Riemples, I’ve got brothers here with their families.” And this whole family emigrated to California.7
Now, when Aaron Riemple shoved that food through the slats, he had no idea what would happen in the future.
He simply did it out of the character of his being, and by so doing, he overcame evil with good—in that present moment, and also, as it turned out, in a future moment.
This is the challenge offered to us today in chapter 12 of Romans: to become God’s people in truth; to put into practice the quality of the Christian life—to overcome evil with good.
I think that’s what Dale and Diane Lang were trying to do by forgiving their son’s killer. And I think it’s what they are still doing, when they travel across North America speaking and teaching about restorative justice and the importance of forgiveness.
Others might disagree with their choice to leave vengeful thoughts and actions to the Lord. And, of course, love shown to a victimizer is never popular. But, for these two people, their course of action seemed clear from the beginning. In a newspaper article, Dale Lang was quoted thus:
“… as someone who had been a follower of Jesus Christ for 22 years, forgiveness was the only response that I could give. I didn’t think about it, my wife and I didn’t sit down and talk about it, it was a response out of our faith. We did it because it was the way we understood who Jesus is. And we did that, and it had a significant impact on people in the country. I can’t explain, except to say that people just are not used to forgiveness.”8
Sadly, I think he’s right: people in this “dog-eat-dog” world are not used to forgiveness. Maybe none of us are really used to it … I guess that’s why we appreciate it so much—and why we’re so shocked and relieved when someone forgives us. But listen! Listen to these words, which are at the very heart of the Christian gospel: “… God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 9
This is the good news. It’s not about condemnation or punishment or vengeance. It is about mercy and grace. It’s about forgiveness offered “seventy times seven”—actually, offered an infinite number of times. This is the message the world needs to hear. But more than hearing it, this is the message the world needs to see.
People need to see this message made real in the lives of Christians like us. That, it seems to me, is the only way the world’s evil can be overcome by heaven’s goodness.
May God grant us serenity, courage, and wisdom to live our faith—and live it for the benefit of all. Amen.
2 see Matthew 5:44
4 Romans 12:9-13
5 Romans 12:14, 17-20a, 21
9 John 3:17