Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.“
Talking about flying in the face of a usury based culture… “Owe no one anything.” How would you interpret such a mandate? Does it mean to pay your debts? What would that mean about a declaration of bankruptcy? Don’t get yourself indebted to another. Does being indebted make you obligated? I’ve been over my head in reading a Gonzaga Jesuit’s new book called ‘Rethinking Christian Forgiveness‘. There’s this interesting connection between giving and forgiving. To give some one something, according to some, creates an obligation that needs to be satisfied. By the same token, to have harmed someone creates an obligation to replace, repair, resolve the indebtedness that was created in the action that did harm. In the second case the courts wrestle with a huge problem, that of persons serving time needing to make reparations and being incarcerated and unable to work the interest on the debt continues to grow and once the sentence is served the offender has this enormous debt that is beyond their capacity to retire.
But that’s not the focus of Paul’s discourse. He clarifies things by providing an interesting caveat: “don’t owe anyone anything expect to love one another.” O.K. we can understand that. But the phrase goes on and the Greek has a surprise hiding in the word we have translated ‘another’ that for some reason doesn’t get reflected in our English translation. A literal translation of the text says that it is in loving the “different one” that the law of love is fulfilled. Paul is really pulling our chain. Go ahead, let you mind consider the implications or the consequences of loving the different one.
In the next verse Paul lists several of the Ten Commandments. He writes: 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He says “Adultery, murder, theft, envy and any other commandment you’d like to name are summed up in this word: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We know that such an expression wasn’t unique to Paul. As a Torah scholar he knew it from what he would have known from the Law of the Priest, we know it as Leviticus 19:9-18.
9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
11You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the Lord.
13You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
15You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
The context is quite a description of how we are to treat others. It is the very core of ethical monotheism.
Food is to be left in the field and vineyard for the poor and the alien, those who have to glean in order to survive; stealing, wage theft, dealing fraudulently, swearing, making fun or taking advantage of the disabled, specifically the deaf or blind are proscribed as is judging someone based on their wealth or position. Did you catch that about not benefiting from the blood of your neighbor? Can you imagine what that might mean? One more thing, bearing a grudge and taking revenge against anyone is also forbidden.
We have no idea how old is this language. But we have every reason to believe that it circulated in oral form from the time immediately after the Exodus until, five hundred years before the Apostle Paul, it became hard copy. Interesting enough Jesus was of the same opinion. Remember when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the law? He conflates the famous in passage Deuteronomy 6:5: 4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. with the last line of the Leviticus passage you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Of course there is the perennial issue about who is one’s neighbor. I like the fact that the Greek uses a word best translated ‘nigh one’, one who is near in time, place or relationship. How about that ‘nigh one’ and “neighbor.” He clarifies that by saying “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Being a Torah scholar, fulfillment of the Law was a big thing with Paul.
That’s the first half of our text for today. So after Paul instructs us about owing no one anything but the requirement of loving them he throws us a curve: 11Besides this, he writes you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. Paul calls us to open our eyes, pick up our ears, our minds and our hearts so we become fully aware. And here is why:
08For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Paul’s language suggests that some within the church may have been engaged in questionable living, living in ways that seem to thrive in the darkness of night. It’s an accusation of being complicit with the injustice, oppression and violence of the culture. One of the problems of living in the night is that you tend to want to sleep in the day. Paul is clear that people who put the flesh first have yet to wake up. Paul’s call is to open our eyes, our ears, our minds and our hearts.
What Paul points in our putting on the Lord Jesus Christ is, at least from a Quaker perspective is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, who clothes us, or fills us in such a spiritual gift, this gift of God’s radical love that carries us beyond our own nights,through and beyond our own desires of the flesh and to live not just for ourselves but for the neighbor. Such a Christian life is a daily practice, a continual exercise of practicing Christ’s presence in our life.
If you’d like a secular illustration go watch the movie The Matrix. Remember how the young computer hacker awakens to the reality that humanity has been imprisoned by a world of machines in a net work that harvests the heat and electrochemical energy of human bodies to power the machines themselves. The minds of humanity is busied within a artificial reality.
Paul’s call to wake up is a call to live in the light of day by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. +Putting on Jesus is living with Jesus as the sole motivation driving us forward. I’ve got to tell you that a culture wrapped in darkness won’t take kindly to your meddling in their fraudulent schemes. When asked on the heels of the English Civil War which side Quakers were on, Edward Burrough, a wonderful early Quaker said, “We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of government, nor are we for this party, nor against the other…we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace, and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation.”