The Law of Love
Debt is the norm in the world we live in today. Now, to be fair, some debt is kind of necessary. Most people don’t have a couple hundred thousand dollars or so lying around to buy a house with. Without mortgages, most of us would be homeless or renting our living space. But we DO love to borrow money. We borrow money to buy cars, furniture to put in our houses, clothes, even things like vacations and boats and snowmobiles and things like that. Young adults borrow tons of money to finance their educations, and the amounts they have to borrow have gone up dramatically over the past couple of decades.
Most churches borrow money too. We do that because worshipping in a tent in northern Michigan in February is problematic. I mean, where would we put the bad church coffee coffeemakers? We need protection from the elements, and so we sometimes borrow to build and then maintain buildings to house our worship and our ministries, like the food pantry. We already have the fattest squirrels in Michigan living in our dumpster. If we didn’t have a building, given the numbers of squirrels right here in our neighborhood, they’d be the only ones we’d be feeding. Even nations borrow and lend money back and forth on a regular basis.
In Romans 13, St. Paul has some important things to say about debt, including a debt that we will always be paying and never pay off. Turn with me to Romans 13:8-10.
So, remember – Paul has described in painstaking and painful detail the depth of sin in the human heart and the depth of brokenness in our world. And then he spent quite a bit of time talking about God’s response to our sinful hearts and broken world – the love and the grace of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That Christ took upon himself our sin, the sin that separates us from God, and gives to us his righteousness so that we can be reconciled to God. And we receive this undeserved, unearned gift through faith.
And then he talks about our response to God’s grace and the reality of what God begins to do in our lives when we place our faith in Christ – he transforms our hearts and renews our minds as we offer ourselves, our lives, to him. That transformation begins with a new view of ourselves as deeply sinful but also dearly loved children of God. Not worms who have no inherent value and worth, but deeply loved and valuable, but also sinful and broken children of God. And when we begin to understand that and take that truly humble view of ourselves, we begin to really love others as God loves us. We love our brothers and sisters in Christ. We love those outside the church in our community, in our city, in the circles in which we live and move. We are even able to love our enemy, and set aside our natural human desire for vindication and justice when we are wronged. We refuse to take revenge when we are wronged, leaving that level of justice to God.
And one of the ways God metes out justice is through our also broken and flawed human governments. Those in positions of authority are there to punish evil and reward good. They are servants of God, whether we agree with them or not. But because they’re human, and often don’t acknowledge God, their sense of justice is flawed. Our legal system is flawed. It isn’t perfect. Sometimes we get the punishment for a crime as right as is humanly possible, and sometimes we get it very wrong. So justice in this world is just a taste of the justice that will come when Christ returns and the Kingdom of God comes into our sphere of existence in its fullness. At that time, peoples sin and the evil we do to one another and to our world will either have been dealt with by Christ on the cross, or we will stand alone before God and answer to him.
Now, look back at V. 7. The way our renewed minds and transformed lives are to interact with people is to pay what we owe fairly. If we owe taxes, we pay them. If we’re buying something from someone, we pay a fair price. If we owe a debt, we repay it as agreed upon. And we DO owe honor and respect to those in authority, not blind obedience, but honor and respect, and we pay them that. That means if they ask us to do something that really is against the will of God as revealed in the Word of God, we disobey, and we accept the consequences.
And then he makes this statement in V. 8 to “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.” The first phrase has often been used to say that those who follow Christ, and churches as non-profit organizations, won’t go into debt. And that really isn’t what Paul is saying, because he’s just told us, “If you owe someone something, repay it.” In other words, don’t default on the loan. Pay it back. Doesn’t mean we should just borrow borrow borrow willy nilly until we can’t handle the debt. It means we need to be sure that we can repay debts according to the contract with the lender.
But then he transitions into his real point – our debt to love. We are to love one another as if it were a debt we have to repay, understanding that this is a debt we will never finish paying. We will never get to the point where we can say, “I am done loving. I have loved enough. I have loved all that God has asked me to love. I don’t have to love anymore.” No, loving one another is like a debt that will never be repayed. We continue paying it over and over again, every day of our lives. This is our unpayable debt. Funny, isn’t it, that Paul couches his description of the love we are to have for others in the language and imagery of finance and debt.
Now, in the financial world, bank accounts can run dry, can’t they? We can run out of money. And if that happens, we’ll default on our debt, won’t we? We won’t be able to repay the loan. But when it comes to love, for the person who follows Christ, unlike our bank accounts, the supply of love given to us by God will never run out. It will never dry up.
Amy Carmichael was a Christian missionary in India in the late 1800s and well into the 1900s. She founded an orphanage there and a mission, and she served God in India for 55 years without a break, without a furlough to come home. In one of her many writings, she said this, “Recently I was sent a picture of a jug into which water was being poured. The idea was that love, or whatever we need, is poured into us like that. I don’t think of it so at all. I think of the love of God as a great river, pouring through us as the waters pour through our ravine in flood-time. Nothing can keep this love from pouring through us, except of course our own blocking of the water. Do you sometimes feel that you have got to the end of your love for someone who refuses and repulses you? Such a thought is folly, for one cannot come to the end of what one has not got. We have no store of love at all. We are not jugs, we are riverbeds.”[i] I love that! We are not jugs that can be emptied. We are riverbeds through whom God’s endless supply of love and grace flows into this world.
BUT, we are still human beings, redeemed and being transformed, but so long as we are in this world, still sinful and broken too. So unlike God’s perfect love, OUR love, even when it’s motivated by God and flowing from God to others, is imperfect. Just as human governments will never perfectly dispense God’s justice in this world, so we as human beings will never pour out his love perfectly in this world. Our love is imperfect.
So when Paul says “… for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” he’s echoing Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel chapter 22, starting in V. 34, we read “But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Love God, love your neighbor.
Now there’s two things to notice here. The first is that love for God and love for neighbor aren’t two completely distinct things. Jesus says that the command to love neighbor is JUST LIKE the command to love God. They’re mutually dependent on one another. Two sides of the same coin. You see, until we love God and place our faith in God, we can’t really love our neighbor, as we’re going to see in a minute. But it’s in loving our neighbor that we show our love for God. Our love for God is visible in our love for one another. If we worship God deeply with passion and conviction, with heart and mind and body, but we don’t love our neighbor, we don’t love others as God loves us AND THEM, our worship of God means nothing.
The second thing we need to notice is that these two commands, love God and love your neighbor, fulfill the entirety of God’s law. The problem is, our love is imperfect. Even our love is flawed, tainted by sin. That’s why we still need the rest of God’s law to guide us, to remind us what the love God wants us to have for one another really looks like. So Paul quotes a bunch of the Ten Commandments, which sort of serve as a summary of the rest of the Old Testament Law. Look at V. 9.
Because our love is broken, imperfect, we need reminders of what love really is. And that’s what the rest of the Old Testament law of Moses and what we sometimes call the New Testament law of Christ, or law of love, is about. So adultery and lust aren’t loving. They can destroy our own family and the other person’s too. Murder. Definitely not love. Stealing and greed and jealousy … basically wanting or taking what rightly belongs to someone else … not loving. You see, we’re good at convincing ourselves that our thoughts, words and actions are motivated by love when they really aren’t. Because selfishness is really stealthy and it creeps in without us realizing it. So what IS love? Well, look at V. 10.
When you break it down, love doesn’t harm. Period. It does no wrong to the person or people being loved. That, in essence, is love. It is desiring and working for and toward the good of another person or group of people. It absolutely is NOT selfish. It seeks the good of the other. But this doesn’t mean that love always FEELS good, because this kind of love isn’t just an emotion, a feeling. In fact, it can exist IN SPITE OF our negative emotions and feelings. This kind of love is an act of the will.
But it isn’t always easy. Sometimes love says “No.” Sometimes love holds the other accountable. Loves tells the truth and speaks the truth. But it does so in a way that the truth can be received, in a way that reduces the defensiveness and reactions of the other if at all possible. It isn’t unnecessarily harsh, and when something hard has to be said, it takes no joy in it. Just as we can sometimes fall into the trap of associating the love God wants us to show to others as the emotion, the feeling of love and good will toward the other person, so to can we fall into the trap of being harsh, being a jerk, believing that we’re speaking the truth in love. Love may be hard sometimes, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be gentle and kind and filled with empathy.
And this brings us to one last point this passage makes – we are to love OUR NEIGHBOR. Look again at V. 10. And that begs the question, “Who exactly IS my neighbor? Who am I supposed to be loving?” Back in V. 8, we read that we are to love each other. Sounds like Paul is back to our loving each other in the body of Christ, doesn’t it? People who for the most part look like us and think like us and live like us. But “each other” really isn’t the best translation of the words Paul uses here. And that’s how most translations render this. But that isn’t exactly what Paul says here. Oh, the words he used INCLUDE that meaning, and that can be hard enough sometimes, can’t it. It’s hard enough to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, the people we worship and serve with, sometimes. That, I think, is one of the main reasons people church hop so much. There is someone, or a group of someone’s at that church that I don’t like, so I’m going to worship somewhere else. Until we find a person or group at that church that we don’t like. And on and on and on.
The words Paul actually uses here are “love the other.” Love the other person. A more accurate reading might be “love your fellow man.” The people around you. The people in your awareness. Not just your physical presence, but the people you are aware of. And then down in V. 10 he makes himself absolutely clear when he says “Love does no wrong to a neighbor …” He’s pointing back to the words of Jesus. Because Jesus was asked the question, “Well, who is my neighbor? Who am I supposed to love?” he answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which for the people who heard it was an oxymoron. In their world view, there was no such thing as a “good” Samaritan. And to think that the Samaritan is the hero of the story. Unthinkable. A Samaritan who cares for a wounded traveler when good Jewish people wouldn’t? That was complete and total nonsense. And yet, that’s what Jesus said. Love the people around you, no matter what they’re like.
Love … the other. In fact, love the other who is most different from you. The person on the other side of the political spectrum. The person who’s skin and culture are different than yours. The person who views the world through a different lens than you do. That is what Paul tells us to do here. Love the other. So how do we do that? We know we are beginning to love when we listen to what others are saying before we speak, and we are trying to understand what they are really saying. That doesn’t mean our own perspective doesn’t matter, or is wrong. It simply means that, in the words of Steven Covey, we seek to understand BEFORE we seek to be understood.
When someone is behaving in a way or doing something that we don’t like, instead of going on a long rant or getting angry first, we try to figure out why they are doing what they are doing. What are they trying to accomplish? How has my experience been different than theirs? What would it take for me to act that way or say that? If you get the chance, sit down with them over a cup of coffee or tea or a good beer and ask questions. Why? Because they are your neighbor, and as a follower of Christ, your job is to love them. Doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. Or accept everything they do or say. Sometimes love means saying hard things and holding the other accountable. But it does mean you seek their good.
Julio Diaz was a 31-year-old social worker in the Bronx, and one day he just wanted to do what he did every night on the way home from work: grab a quick bite to eat at his favorite diner. Only one thing stood in his way from doing just that – a mugger. When he stepped off the train and onto the subway platform, a teenager ran up to him, pulled out a knife, and demanded Diaz hand over his wallet. Realizing it wasn’t worth a fight, Diaz fished the wallet out of his pocket and gave it to the boy. Much to the mugger’s surprise, Diaz decided to go the extra mile. As the teen ran away, Diaz called out, “If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
Well, that stopped the boy in his tracks. Diaz explained that it was quite clear the teen needed money, so he told him to keep the wallet, take the coat, and if he wanted, grab a bite to eat with Diaz. The boy was too shocked to say no.
As the two ate dinner at Diaz’s favorite diner, the teen marveled over how many dishwashers and waitresses offered Diaz a wave or a friendly word. He figured Diaz owned the place. When the boy shared his observation, Diaz smiled and said, “Haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yeah,” the teen replied, “but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way.”
The two continued to talk about life and other matters. When the bill finally came, Diaz told the boy that he needed his wallet to pay. The boy handed it back over without thinking twice. Diaz paid for the meal and offered the teen $20. He also asked that his would-be mugger surrender the knife – which he did.[ii]
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” And love is the one debt, the one obligation, we will never fully meet. Let us pray.
[i] Amy Carmichael in Whispers of His Power. Christianity Today, Vol. 34, no. 14.
[ii] Source: StoryCorps: Recording America, “A Victim Treats His Mugger Right,” www.npr.org (3-28-08)