Text: Romans 13:8
Series: “Seven ‘Ups’ for the New Year”
One of the great debates taking place in the field of economics in recent days has not been the matter of free trade versus trade agreements or a return to the gold standard or even the question of stimulus versus bailouts. While each of these issues has no doubt been on the front burner for experts in the field of economics, most Americans have been grappling with a much more pernicious question, the question of debt, and the difference between good debt and bad debt, and even whether there is such a thing as good debt at all.
For many, debt is truly a four-letter word, and I understand their position on the question. Whenever we owe someone anything, we are in a position of obligation to that person and in some cases dependence, which is why if you ask most persons what their aspirations are with respect to the debt, they will tell you none too quickly that their ultimate ambition is to reach a place in life where they are “debt free.”
But is that really possible? I remember when I was a teenager working in my dad’s store how when customers would come in and speak with my father about what was for them a major purchase and would my dad give them credit, he would always tell them, “Well, you got to owe somebody, so you might as well owe me.” It was my father’s way of assuring the customer that given the ups and downs of the West Alabama economy, he would be willing to work with them as long as they made an effort to pay their bill, which of course the vast majority of them did.
I’ve been thinking about my father’s philosophy and the illusion of living “debt free” this week as I’ve been studying this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans and how Paul addresses the matter of debt and obligation and dependence and responsibility. It comes, of course, in that section of Romans where Paul has shifted his attention from theological matters to practical ones, from what New Testament scholars call the indicative of justification by faith to the imperative of how one lives into it.
And one of the signs of being a true believer in Jesus Christ is the commitment of Jesus followers to pay their debts, all except one, which is a debt that they will never be able to repay. “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”
Today, of course, is Valentine’s Day. I hope you were aware of that fact before I mentioned it. If not, then the good news is that it’s not too late to remember to do something for that person nearest and dearest to you. But as we learned back in elementary school, Valentine’s Day is also a time to remember everyone else also. That’s because everyone needs to know that he or she is loved and we don’t want anyone ever to feel left out, not special, disregarded, and not taken seriously.
According to Paul, this desire to “lift others up” is something God had always wanted His people to be about. That’s why in the next verses Paul specifically mentions those commandments that deal with our relationships to others: Don’t commit adultery. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Each of these commandments flows out of our dependence upon God and our desire to show our gratitude for who God is and how He has given us life. We might even think of it as Paul’s way of affirming what the Old Testament believes to be the key to faith: “If you’ve got to owe somebody, you may as well owe God.” Paul, as a former Pharisee, would have surely adhered to that philosophy from his early years also.
But where Paul departs from it, or better I should say where Paul elaborates upon it, is in his appreciation for how our love for others shows best the manner in which God’s love through Jesus Christ is alive in us because of how it lifts us from our self-centeredness to lift up others in the same way – unconditionally, undeservedly, without expecting anything from them in return. Such “agape” love, which is the term Paul uses in this passage, is the best evidence we could muster that we belong to Jesus and more than anything else, we want to live each day in every way for him.
On this Valentine’s Day Sunday, when hearts seem to show up everywhere, is that how your heart beats? Do you have a place in your heart for others, especially those who on this day feel ignored and rejected? Do you have the bandwidth or better I should say the “love-width” to love others in Jesus’ name?
I know what some of you are thinking. “There are some people I don’t even like; how can I love them?” “There are some I have nothing in common with; how can I love them?” “There are some people that every time I’m around them bring me down; how can I love them?” I have to admit that I have asked all of those questions myself at one time or another. And the only answer to that question I have found is to remember what Paul says earlier in Romans, in the fifth chapter, “But God has demonstrated His own love in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). In other words, there was a time when we weren’t likeable, when we had nothing in common with God, and when we brought God down and grieved Him with our sins and transgressions. But in those very moments, God loved us anyway.
Are you familiar with the late Southern novelist Walker Percy? I was introduced to his writings back in seminary days, during a Ph.D. seminar on “Preaching and Contemporary Literature.” I had somehow missed reading Percy in high school and college literature classes, even though Percy was born in Birmingham and was an acclaimed novelist at the time.
One of Percy’s novels was titled Love in the Ruins. The story centers around a man embittered by the paltriness and insignificance of modern life, a life in which people have given up hope in the institutions and collective gatherings that once held them together. He sees that his own soul stands in need of radical deliverance, a salvation that only God can bring about. In particular, he reflects on a time in his life when he needed God to perform a miracle for his young daughter who was dying of neuroblastoma, but chose not to, a choice he continues to regret, even as keeps seeking to rationalize his decision. He learns to live with his choice in this way: “I was afraid. I was afraid my daughter might be cured. And suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes. Very well. How then do you live the rest of your life?” (Love in the Ruins, p. 196). What Percy’s character concludes is that when God does something marvelous like that, you become indebted to God in a way you never can repay.
But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try; and according to the Apostle Paul, the best way you do that is by lifting up those around you in a spirit of love. You become so aware of the love God showed you in Jesus Christ and the miracles that love has brought about in your life that you cannot help but look around for someone who has fallen and cannot get up, someone who has had the props knocked out from under him and doesn’t think it’s possible to recover. You go to that person and in the power of Christ’s love flowing through you, you love that person in some way, some word, some deed, that the power of love lifts him up, and in the process, you are so much better for it.
It's like the story I once heard of the man who was driving along an isolated road one night, when his engine started sputtering and chugging and eventually stalled out. Out of the blue, a miracle of sorts occurred. A friendly traveler came along, stopped, took a rope from the trunk of his car, hitched it to the man’s stalled car, and towed it some thirty miles to a garage. When the grateful man insisted that the traveler accept some money for his troubles, the traveler refused. “Well, let me at least buy you some gas.” “No,” said the traveler, “that’s not necessary.” But the man was insistent because he was obligated. “I just feel like I must in some way return your kindness.” To which the traveler replied, “Well, if you really want to show your appreciation, buy a rope, and carry it in your car.”
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Because if you’ve got to owe somebody, you might as well owe God, which when you do and are serious about repaying your debt to God by loving others in the love God in Christ has shown you, it feels, in truth, like you don’t owe anything at all.