Owing Love | Proper 18

Romans 13:8-14

8 Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. 9 The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.

11 As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. 12 The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. 13 Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. 14 Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires. (CEB)

Owing Love

Before I was ordained, I was asked the historical questions of John Wesley as outlined in the Book of Discipline. One of those questions was, “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?”

Now, when I answered that question, I had just completed my master’s degree at Duke, which followed immediately upon the completion of my bachelor’s degree at Findlay. I had also gotten married two years prior, so Joy and I not only joined hands in marriage but also joined school loans. We had a combined debt that was fairly substantial. I don’t remember the exact number, but our debt from education and auto loans was more than $50,000. I was starting a job at $27,500 as an associate pastor. Was I in debt so as to be embarrassed? Well, I remember chuckling at the question. I think I may have even answered “Yes” under my breath.

We owed a lot of money back then. So, when Paul tells us not to be in debt to anyone except for the obligation to love each other, if financial debt was what Paul meant, then I don’t think I would have passed his scrutiny. But I don’t think that’s quite what Paul means. While the verb owe or debt comes across in English as a financial thing, the word used in Greek has the connotation of meaning any kind of obligation. In fact, we know Paul isn’t telling us to not take on any debt as an absolute because in verse 7, he tells us to pay everyone what we owe them.

What Paul means by “Don’t be in debt to anyone except for the obligation to love each other” is that we all owe everyone love. Love is, in fact, the primary characteristic of the Christian. Last week, we examined Paul’s discussion of genuine love—love without hypocrisy—in Romans 12. Now, Paul speaks about love as the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. “Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the law.”

Now, among some Christians, an idea has taken root that the law is bad or irrelevant. But the laws handed down by Moses became the community’s rule. Every community has rules and laws. Community would be chaotic without laws, which are developed and defined as an attempt to protect those within the community. There’s a reason why you can’t test the upper speed capabilities of your car on 4th Street. It would be unsafe for the rest of the public. The same idea is behind those laws that say you can’t assault, abuse, steal, murder, or walk down the street drunk as a skunk. Law exists for the sake of the community, so law is a good thing that is very relevant.

At the same time, law can become laws. Look at our own civil law as an example. The United States Constitution has 4,543 words including the signatures. Add in the 27 amendments, and you have 7,591 words. The U.S. Code, which contains the codified statutes of the United States, has 53 volumes. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, which contains the administrative rules and regulations, has 50 volumes. On top of all that, there are volumes upon volumes of decisions, precedents, and interpretations of those laws.

So, if you can obey and adhere to the codified laws and regulations of those 103 volumes in the U.S. Code and C.F.R. plus all the interpretations and court decisions, which contain millions upon millions of words, then you know you’re obeying the 7,591 words of the U.S. Constitution. Sounds simple enough, right? That’s not even mentioning state law and regulation, and local ordinance. Laws can multiply almost endlessly. It’s a wonder we’re not all on jail for breaking some obscure law we didn’t even know existed.

Paul realized that law has its limits. Law can tell us how we’re not allowed to treat other people or their property, but law cannot tell us that we ought to act kindly toward others. Government can’t legislate anyone’s attitude or renew anyone’s mind.  And there are things that are lawful but not loving. Law can be passed or rescinded to harm people who lack a certain legal status. Law can make it incredibly difficult for people who want to change their legal status to actually do so. Law has limits.

Love does not. What law can never accomplish, love can. There’s a reason why Paul wrote, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature” (Romans 12:2 CEB). God’s will is not always what human law or regulation says. Laws that harm are not God’s will, no matter how we might try to frame, justify, or defend them. Ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, for example, is perfectly legal, but it is not loving. No matter our political leanings or party affiliation, it is legal but cannot be construed, in any way, as loving. These are people who came here seeking an escape from things most of us can’t properly imagine: poverty, corruption, and the violence of gangs and drug rings. Is it loving to send any person back to that in a home they no longer know? Love for others transcends politics and party affiliation.

Christians are supposed to love. Real Christians exemplify love without hypocrisy. Love is our defining characteristic. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Love changes our heart. Love builds community. Love fulfills the law. And the ironic thing here is that love for one’s neighbor is actually a requirement of God’s law. Paul quotes the same text, Leviticus 19:18, which Jesus quotes in the parable of the Good Samaritan of Luke 10; and which Jesus quotes in Matthew 19:19 when he spoke to the rich young man about how to enter the kingdom of Heaven; and in Matthew 22:39 when a legal expert asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Jesus mentions Leviticus 19:18 several times and expands the definition of neighbor. Paul only reiterates what Jesus has already said: that loving one’s neighbor fulfills the law.

If we take Jesus’ conversation with the legal expert in Matthew 22 as a guide, Jesus suggests that there are two parts to love: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. But, it’s not as though we have to love God first, and then love our neighbor. The nature of love for God is that it is inseparable from love for neighbor. That’s why I mentioned a while back that the love we show to others in our every day is worship of God. Christians are called to regard everyone as Christ: even people we don’t like; even those with whom we don’t want to associate. And that’s not an easy thing to hear, let alone do. I understand that, but the fact that it might be difficult for us isn’t an excuse to disregard it.

For Christians, God becomes the neighbor, and how we treat our neighbor reveals what we think of God who made that person in God’s own image. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus clearly states that how we treat others is how we are treating him. There is no way to make excuses or rationalize our way around this. For Jesus, the definition of our neighbor is not merely “your people,” as it might be interpreted in Leviticus 19:18, but every person.

In fact, if you keep reading in Leviticus 19, you eventually come to these words: “When immigrants live in your land with you, you must not cheat them. Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.” (Lev. 19:33-34 CEB). Biblical law declares that we must love immigrants as ourselves and treat them as our own citizens.

Now, should the question come up about what it means that we are to love people, we might note that, in the five instances of the word love in this text, three of them are verbs. In the two instances where love is a noun, Paul still describes love’s action and purpose, “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the law” (Romans 13:10 CEB). Love is something we do. Love is how we act. Love is how we treat and regard other people. Paul insists that love is what we owe to everyone, no matter who they are or where they’re from.

In fact, if love is the measure of the law, then the law must serve love. Law must submit to the demand that we love God and neighbor. It can’t be the other way around. Law must bow down to the demands of love and carry God’s desire for justice, which is what love works to accomplish. Love seeks liberty and justice for all. So, what would Jesus have us do when law and authorities violate the demands of love? Christians throughout the centuries have answered that question by working for justice in times when the law forgot what justice is. Some were arrested. Some were slandered. Some were martyred. But they did what love demanded of them.

The early Christians thought Jesus would return fairly soon. Almost two-thousand years later, we don’t feel quite the same urgency as Paul did, but the ethical implications for how Christians live and act toward other people haven’t changed. Our behavior matters, and we owe everyone love. Paul lists a few of the commandments for reference, and repeats the words of Leviticus that each of us must love our neighbors as our self.

The point of all this love stuff is to ready ourselves and, as much as we can, prepare the world for God’s kingdom. The church does have a mission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). We can only accomplish this mission if we exhibit love. We can only succeed in the mission to which we have been called if we live out love to its fullest demands.

Love is the essence of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Love is the basis for the kind of transformation that takes place in people’s lives when they repent and believe in the good news of God’s salvation. But love requires a transformation and renewal of everything that we are. Genuine love involves and is measured by all that we say and do as individuals and as a community of faith. Love doesn’t take a day off. Love stays awake, clothes itself in Christ, and rolls up its sleeves to work, not for what we want, but for what others need.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!


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