September 01, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
In some segments of the Christian church, “Matthew 18” has become rather like “Miranda Rights.” As anyone who has ever watched police dramas on TV know, when arresting a suspect for any reason, the arresting officer is supposed to “read him his rights,” which is a set series of statements that most of us have heard so often on TV and the like that we can quote at least parts of it by memory. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can or will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one . . .” and so on. It’s part of the legal system now in the United States. It’s standard. It’s rote. It’s cut-and-dried.
The verb “to mirandize” is now even listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary! “Did you mirandize him?” someone might ask a cop who has just brought in a robbery suspect. Failure to do so can lead to a miscarriage of justice as suspects might have to be released—or a judge will throw a case out—on account of this.
In some places, Matthew 18 has become something like this. When dealing with a seemingly recalcitrant sinner in the church, a lot of people’s first line of response is something like, “Well, did you ‘Matthew 18-ize’ him? Did you give him the treatment, follow the rules, read him his rights as Jesus laid them out?” If the answer is “No,” the person with a grievance against another person is sent back to do due diligence. If the answer is yes, then the church proceeds forward with some manner of formal discipline, distancing itself from the woeful sinner. It’s rote. It’s cut-and-dried.
But you have the overwhelming feeling from Matthew that Jesus never quite intended his words here to be turned into a template, a method, a routine set of steps to be followed woodenly and legalistically so as to arrive at a certain outcome. Yes, Jesus is giving advice for dealing with troubling situations and persons within the midst of his people but it just seems so unlike Jesus to reduce the complexities of life to some simple set of 1-2-3 steps that would have all the nuance of a recipe for baking bread.
So many people in history have turned Matthew 18 into such a simple set of steps as to give the impression that by following this method, you will know when you may be finished with the need to forgive or pray for a certain person. But little if anything in the surrounding verses here lend any credence to the notion that the goal here is to arrive at an end-point when it comes to mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Jesus has just told a parable about a lost sheep that demonstrated—among other things—that God at least knows no bounds when it comes to seeking out those who stray, who wander, who find themselves in need of his mercy and care.
Immediately following Matthew 18:15-20 comes another strong parable about the need to forgive and not be unmerciful. We are, Jesus says, every one of us people whose debt has been forgiven again and again to astonishing degrees. Only a self-deceptive fool would ever conclude that the amount he has had forgiven in his life amounts to a relative pittance. No, we are each one of us the servant who had a billion-dollar debt canceled free and clear. The harshest words Jesus speaks anywhere in Matthew 18 come not in these Year A Lectionary verses but at the end of the final parable regarding what could happen to those who have been forgiven much but who then turn right around and refuse to forgive someone else even a little.
Whatever else you make of Matthew 18, please don’t preach it in a way as to make people conclude that by following Jesus’ words here and reading a brother or sister his or her Miranda Rights from Matthew 18 that you will then know when it is OK to dam up the stream of mercy toward someone.
Because that is absolutely not Jesus’ point!
“Ahhh,” someone may object, “that is all well and good but doesn’t even Jesus conclude this with the call to treat the unrepentant person “as a pagan or a tax collector? Looks to me like that is, in fact, the end of the story.”
But really? After all, it was Jesus who said those words and that must change everything in terms of how we view this.
If most anyone I know said something like this to me, I think I’d know intuitively how to understand this. If the average person tells you to treat so-and-so like “a lowlife and a bum,” you’d know that this means to ignore the person, brush him aside, have as little to do with him as possible.
And in Jesus’ day if the Pharisees or most anyone else in the religious establishment of the day told you to treat someone like a pagan or a tax collector, you’d know what that meant, too, because all you had to do was observe how the Pharisees treated people who fit into either one of those categories. Pagans and tax collectors were bums, lowlifes, undesirables. They had no place among God’s chosen people, no seat at God’s holy table. They could not eat with you, and you would never be caught dead eating with them because that kind of tight association with sinners was precisely what a religious person in good moral standing would not and could not do.
Yes, we’d know how to understand this if the Pharisees said it. But what about when Jesus says it? Did Jesus ever meet a pagan he didn’t seem to like? Did Jesus spurn and shun tax collectors and other “sinners” who fit into these broad categories of people? Of course not! He got into trouble with the religious establishment of his day precisely because of his routine willingness to flout moralistic convention and associate with these folks. If Matthew had anything to do with the gospel that bears his name today, he surely knew himself how good and wonderful it was that Jesus did not avoid and disdain tax collectors. Where would Matthew be if that had been how Jesus operated?
Precisely because all of that is true, it seems at best unlikely—and at worst all but impossible—that Jesus would have used the terms “pagans and tax collectors” in their most robust, pejorative sense. By way of analogy: A person whose life was devoted to racial reconciliation and to fostering peace among persons of different skin colors could never invoke racial epithets in a way as to validate their negative, pejorative use. It would undermine his whole life and all of his integrity. If you spend your life devoting yourself to fostering understanding of Muslims over against stereotypes, then how could you ever say to someone, “So far as I am concerned, you can treat old so-and-so over there like a turban-wearing, wild-eyed terrorist fanatic!”
No, that would never do. And it would not have been anything Jesus would have done, either. Instead I would suggest that Jesus was being gently ironic here, telling his disciples that even when you’ve done all you can to come to an understanding with a person whose behavior is genuinely difficult—and even if you had to keep some distance from such a person for various reasons—you are even so never finished with reaching out to that person in grace and love. Even as Jesus started his ministry reaching out to those deemed pagans and tax collectors in his day, so we continue being loving toward and hopeful about (and much in prayer about) even those people who don’t want to listen to us or to the church.
When you combine this insight about Jesus with the surrounding material in Matthew 18 (especially the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant that comes next in this chapter), you realize that what Jesus is actually saying is that even when things to about as wrong as they can go within the Christian community, the need to proffer love and grace never ends.
You never just “read ‘em their rights” and be done with it.
In The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans 2001) section on this passage, Marguerite Shuster points out that verses 15-20 really are a unity and we should not lop off verses 18-20 from the more famous verses 15-19 where the “method” of ecclesiastical confrontation is laid out by Jesus. A key unifier of this passage in the original Greek is the repeated presence of the word EAN or “If’ as the set-up of many sentences. EAN is used repeatedly in verses 15, 15b, 16, 17, 17b, and again in verse 19. Throughout these verses Jesus is helping the disciples—and now all of us—imagine their way in to likely scenarios that would take place—and that would repeat themselves, alas—in the life of the church throughout all future times. And although the words on loosing and binding are difficult to understand precisely, what they make clear is that the power of forgiveness is not only a main task of the church community, it is also one of the church’s singularly most powerful expressions of divine grace. Grace has the power to change the world. In Christ, it already has. And it is just this power that the church wields. We handle it with care but also hold it with no small amount of awe at what the Lord of the Church has given to us.
Some years back the Templeton Foundation funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
If you assign the average high school student to read the unabridged version of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick and then ask the student about it, the odds are good that the first thing he or she will talk about will not be the story. At its core Moby Dick tells an intriguing tale of obsession and adventure on the high seas, including even a climactic battle between Captain Ahab and the mysterious white whale. But when I’ve heard people talk about their experience in reading this book, I’ve often heard mostly loud laments about how Melville told the story. People complain that close to a whole chapter (or so it seemed) was consumed by a description of the ship’s mast. The mast! The big pole that held up the sails. Why couldn’t Melville have dispatched that entire subject by writing no more than, “Behind the captain, the ship’s towering and impressive mast soared into the sky.” Period. End of sentence. End of mast!
But that’s not how things go in Moby Dick, and it has driven many’a reader to distraction over the years. Conceivably, however, a person could have a similar reaction to Exodus 11-12. Narratively speaking, things get a little tiresome here. You wouldn’t expect that to happen at this climactic juncture in the narrative. Things in Egypt are coming to a head. The most terrible of all plagues is about to happen and the result will be a glorious exodus from slavery for a people who had been held in bondage for over four centuries. You expect this to be a gripping narrative told straight out. That’s what we do when we tell this story in Sunday school.
That’s what Cecil B. DeMille did when making his famous movie. And in 2014 another big movie is coming out directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) and starring as Moses Christian Bale—yes, that Christian Bale who played Batman. One suspects that Ridley Scott’s movie won’t slow down for all these details, either. When you’ve got good drama, you want simply to savor it, run with it, light it up with the special effects and CGI. (By the way: the trailer for the new movie makes it clear that this will be Gladiator meets Ben Hur meets Batman meets . . . let’s just say I doubt it will bear much resemblance to Exodus!)
However, if you’ve never read these chapters in their entirety, you should try it sometime. What will immediately strike you is how this incredible portion of the Exodus story gets all-but buried beneath a welter of liturgical details and instructions. I went through and did some counting. In Exodus 11-12 there are 23 verses devoted to telling the actual story of the tenth plague and the subsequent release from Egypt.
But nowhere in those 23 verses is this story told straight out and without interruption. Because weaving in and out of those 23 verses are a whopping 52 verses of Passover instructions. The verses devoted to instruction outnumber the verses that tell the story by better than 2:1. Chapter 11 gives us pretty much a straight narrative. But then Exodus 12:1-28 is all instruction. Then we get a brief interlude of story again before chapter 12 concludes with another nine verses recapitulating the Passover restrictions, rules, and regulations with still more to come in the first 16 verses of chapter 13.
History, it seems, is encased by religious practice. Life imitates liturgy and liturgy imitates life. The two are mutually informing and shaping.
Most modern scholars believe that as many as three or four distinct versions of this story were eventually cobbled together by some editor into the form we more or less have now. If the Exodus story sometimes seems like a patchwork, that’s because it is a patchwork, an edited-together version of one story told by several voices. But as we have also noted before, even if that documentary hypothesis is true, nevertheless there was a final version of Exodus composed by someone. And that person, unless he was very careless, surely was aware of, and in control of, the final form this took. So I suspect that the final author or redactor of Exodus composed chapters 11-12 the way he did for a reason.
The events reported here represent a new beginning for Israel. At one time or another we have all had central and shaping events happen in our lives. You get married, you have your first child, you receive a promotion that secures your income for the rest of your life and maybe sets you on a path toward even some fame and notoriety. These are seminal turning points, things you’ll never forget, events that even when you near the end of your life you will still be able to claim as key components that made you who you are. But even so, none of those events caused you to do something as radical as to tear up all the calendars in your house so that you could invent a whole new system of time-keeping with that day–the day of your child’s birth or your wedding day or the date on which you got that vital promotion at work–that day would become New Year’s Day for you from then on.
Yet that is exactly what Yahweh tells Moses would be true for Israel. At the beginning of chapter 12 God tells Moses to create a brand new calendar with that day and that month being the equivalent of January. In other words, God is doing an act of new creation. In some way God at least sees what is happening to Israel as re-making the world. History is going to start over right here and right now. That’s why the events themselves are so encumbered with instructions on how best to remember the events forever. True, had there been no tenth plague and exodus, there would be nothing to commemorate but because of the world-renewing nature of those events, the proper remembrance of what happened will in future times be every bit as important as the events themselves.
Let us never underestimate the power of memory. Let us never underestimate how God himself may use memory to make us part of something that otherwise could very well remain outside of us. To this day, when observing the Passover, the Jews do not say, “We remember this night how God led those people long ago out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.” Instead they let memory hook them into the divine narrative by saying, “We remember this night how God led us out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.”
By the act of remembrance, we become something we would not otherwise be. We become that people. That story becomes our story.
When we remember the sacred story, when we connect ourselves to that narrative, we become part of the very act of new creation that God accomplished on also that day. But in Exodus 11-12, the key is not just that we remember but also what we remember. And to put it bluntly, what the people of Israel remembered and what we remember is awful, brutal, and ugly.
In the Harry Potter stories some of the books in the library are enchanted such that if you open one book, the air is immediately filled with a piercing scream even as the pages themselves morph into the shape of a face whose mouth is wide open in its full-throated screaming. If the pages of the Bible were able to come alive like that in keeping with whatever the narrative was about, then upon opening the Bible to Exodus 12 you could expect to hear the air filled with the cries of mournful Egyptians even as the pages themselves might drip blood all over the place.
Because make no mistake: these chapters run red with blood. They cry out with sorrow. Even the text of Exodus takes no delight in reporting these terrible deaths. Even for the Israelites the way to ward off this plague came through the shedding of blood as innocent lambs are slain and their blood is then gruesomely splattered on doorposts. There was finally no free and easy pass given to anyone. If you lived, it was because a lamb died.
But out of the throes of all that bloody death the people moved forward toward new life. The Passover is a traveler’s meal, eaten with your coat already on your back, your best walking shoes on your feet, and your bags packed. You ate the herbs, lamb, and unleavened bread with one hand while holding your walking stick in the other hand–today that would be like eating with your car keys already in hand. This was a meal for people on the way out of death, through death, and into life.
The situation the Israelites left behind in Egypt was not pretty. It was the end of a war, and war is always ugly. Pharaoh had declared war on Yahweh back in Exodus 5 when he asked the sneering question, “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him?” Ever since then God had been fighting chaos with chaos in the various plagues. Now the ultimate chaos of death has taken a terrible toll. As the Israelites go, they are lavished with gifts but the original Hebrew here and there uses language reminiscent of despoiling someone of goods the way victorious soldiers may do after a war. If this has been Yahweh’s long war with Pharaoh, then it is not surprising to see the battle end with the spoils going to the victors.
But even the victors were never to forget the death that bought their life. They were to keep taking a lamb home every year and keep slaughtering it to remember. They continued to identify themselves with the deaths in Egypt long ago as a reminder of the grace of God that alone secures life in the midst of a world where the innocent still suffer, still die, and where God’s long battle with evil, though perhaps now winding down, is nevertheless continuing until that day when death itself will be the final enemy to go down into utter defeat.
Our vocation every day is to remember the sacred story and take our place within it. We are to remember that life is not what you read in the newspaper and life is not even what you tell your spouse in the evening about how things went at work that day. Life’s true meaning is to be found in liturgy, in the reminder that as important as the events of your life may be, the meaning of those events, the meaning they take on when you remember that the Lord God is with you, is the key to knowing the most precious truth there is: God loves you and is with you forever.
Someone once asked the famous black preacher James Cone, “Why is it that sermons in black churches are so long!?” Cone replied that all week long, six days a week, society tells black people they are of less value than white folks. “Come Sunday,” Cone said, “we have to preach a little longer because it takes a while to talk people back into remembering who they really are as children of God!” Maybe we all need regular reminders of that. It’s too easy most days to forget. That’s why the central call at the heart of the gospel is our Lord saying to each one of us, “Remember.”
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Who or what are saints? Those who preach and teach this psalm might begin leading worshipers through Psalm 149 by exploring with them their own definitions of sainthood. This psalm, after all, refers to saints not once but three times (vv. 1, 5 & 9).
Christians sometimes think of saints as people who are extraordinarily godly. They’re exceptional in their Christ-likeness. Saints in the Roman Catholic Church must have at least two posthumous miracles attributed to them. There are even secular definitions of saints. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a saint as, among other things, “a person who is very good, kind or patient.”
In the Hebrew, however, saints are the hasidim. Their name is related to the noun hesed, which refers to God’s own steadfast love. So we might say according to the Old Testament, saints are people who respond to God’s gift of God’s steadfast love with their own steadfast love.
By God’s grace through Jesus Christ, then, all those who worship the Lord in spirit and in truth are saints. So how might Psalm 149 help us to think about what that means? Saints are those whom the psalmist invites to “sing a new song” (1). While that might sound like an summons to sing only the latest songs, hymns and spiritual songs, it’s perhaps better understood as a call to sing about the new things God is doing in our lives.
Saints are alert to God’s movement, new and old, in both their lives and the world, and are eager to praise God for it. That praise offered by the saints is also exuberant and noisy. They praise God with dancing, making melody to the Lord with tambourine and harp (3). To some Western Christian ears, however, such forms of praise sound dissonant. Perhaps that dissonance, however, can open avenues for those who preach and teach Psalm 149 to help worshipers, the “saints,” to explore what it means to sing to the Lord a new song within their own contexts.
Saints are those in whom God “takes delight” and whom God “crowns … with salvation” (4). This concept of God delighting in God’s adopted sons and daughters may be new for (or perhaps largely forgotten by) some worshipers. People influenced by the Stoics’ views of God may be uncomfortable with the idea of God being moved at all, to say nothing of being moved to delight. Those who preach and teach Psalm 149, then, have a wonderful opportunity to remind them worshipers that, while we’re naturally sinful, for Jesus’ sake God delights in us. God takes pleasure in God’s children. God even crowns God’s sons and daughters with “salvation.”
If only the psalmist had just stopped at verse 5a. If she’d just ended her stirring psalm with, “May the praise of God be in [the saints’] mouth.” But the poet doesn’t. She goes on to write, “May … a double-edged sword [be] in [the saints’] hands …” Suddenly this lovely psalm seems to take on a violent edge. It’s as if the saints are to not only fill their places of worship with praise. They’re also to fill their hands with weapons of revenge and punishment (7).
Of course, we sometimes try to soften the end of Psalm 149 by pointing out, as Richard J. Clifford does, that the conjunction “and” turns the statements of verse 6a and 6b into a comparison. In that interpretation, the psalmist says something like, “May the praise of God in their mouths be a double-edged sword in their hands.” In that way the saints’ steadfast love for God and their proclamation of God’s sovereignty becomes a kind of military campaign against kings and kingdoms who claim to be sovereign.
While that may be a valid interpretation, those who preach and teach Psalm 149 using the New International Version translation of the Bible must remember that the NIV doesn’t leave much room for such an interpretation. Its “May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands” sounds like a call for saints to “arm” themselves not only with praise to God, but also weapons of war.
Some biblical scholars, like James Mays, see the psalmist calling Israelite worshipers to literally take up the sword to execute God’s vengeance. Of course as Mays notes, “Sword without praise would not serve; only the sword that can be drawn in praise of the Lord can serve.” Worshipers do not take their own vengeance. They only carry out “the sentence written against them” (9) by the Lord.
While our contemporaries, whose 21st century is already drenched by blood spilled in warfare and violence, may shrink back from such an interpretation, it finds some support in the holy wars to which God called Old Testament Israel to launch against God’s enemies. God, in fact, did call Israel to take up the sword against the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites in the land of promise. Israel, of course, failed to take carry out God’s punishment against all of those enemies of God. The results were spiritually devastating for Israel. It’s sobering and perhaps worth remembering that as the Israelites took up the praise of those enemies’ gods instead of asserting God’s rule over them, their praise to the Lord quieted.
In a sadly ironic twist on Psalm 149’s end, some of James Foley’s Roman Catholic contemporaries call him a martyr, with a few saying he should be considered a saint. Foley was an American journalist whom Middle Eastern thugs brutally beheaded earlier this summer. David Gibson, in an article of the Religious News Service (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/26/james-foley-martyr_n_5718335.html) notes, however the difficulty of determining whether someone is a martyr. First, the Roman Catholic Church says someone must show evidence they held onto their faith in their final moments. Martyrs must also be killed explicitly because they’re Christians.
All people of goodwill genuinely grieve Foley’s death and its manner. However, Christians can be thankful the Bible sets the bar for “sainthood” at least somewhat lower than parts of Christ’s Church does.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Since Romans 12:1, Paul has been explaining what it means to “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” in view of the mercy God has lavished on both Jew and Gentile. If we don’t “conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” but are instead “transformed by the renewing of your mind,” we will “be able to test and approve what God’s will is” in all the spheres of our existence. Paul has been working his way through the various spheres of life, showing in some detail what God’s will is for each realm of the Christian life: self-image and the use of our gifts (12:3-8), relationships with people who are friendly (12:9-16) and hostile (12:17-21), duties toward government (13:1-7), arguments among Christians over disputable questions of lifestyle (14:1-15:13). Here in these few verses the lectionary takes us back to Paul’s summary and preview of the basic Christian duty, namely, love for everyone.
It is understandable, but lamentable, that the Revised Common Lectionary should skip over Paul’s important words about the Christian’s relationship with the state. He urges us to “submit… to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Such advice could be, and has been, construed as permitting (even commanding) a cooperative stance toward vicious dictators and unjust systems. Paul’s call to submission could cut the nerve of prophetic outrage and revolutionary action in the face of systemic evil. So, perhaps because of the outrages of the 20th and 21st centuries, the RCL skips over Paul’s old-fashioned advice about how Christians should relate to a godless government. That is lamentable, not only because his words here are no less inspired than any other words in Romans, but also because the conundrum facing these 1st century Roman Christians was as complicated as any we face today. So I must say a word or two about these first 7 verses of Romans 13 before moving on to the lectionary lesson for today.
Like us, the early Christians had to figure out how to relate to the state, because the government is the 800 pound gorilla in everyone’s living room. Some in the church of Rome undoubtedly thought they should rebel against the Empire. They were Jews of the Diaspora, after all, with a long history of serving only God. By tradition, they were opposed to cooperating with anything pagan, especially a government that had taken over their beloved Promised Land. These evil pagans are the enemy, and their government is the instrument of oppression. Others who felt that way were Gentiles who were more like today’s Christian militia movement or the less violent Tea Party or, more accurately, the Libertarians. They claimed total freedom from all human authority, believing that their allegiance to Christ prohibited pledging allegiance to any human government.
Others of Paul’s readers may have felt very differently, because they thought of themselves as Roman citizens. All their lives they had enjoyed the wonderful privileges of citizenship. Theirs was a history of patriotic duty, of cooperation with government, of appreciation for the peace and prosperity the “Pax Romana” had brought them. They saw no reason to change that attitude now, even though the government was beginning to put pressure on some Christians.
In the midst of those clashing opinions, the Holy Spirit moved Paul to spell out this classic theology of government and how Christians ought to relate to it. The fundamental duty of Christ’s followers toward their government must be submission, because all government is established by God. Now, of course, that raises all kind of knotty problems. What about patently wicked governments, like that of Assad in Syria, or Nero in Rome? And, in the midst of a revolution, when does the new government, the revolutionary one, become “the existing authorities?” Paul doesn’t speak to such permutations; he only gives the basic stance. And he chooses a good word, “submit.”
That is a good word because it is a stronger word than “obey,” and a weaker one. It is stronger, in that we must do more than simply obey; we must have a submissive attitude, rather than a fundamentally rebellious one. And “submit” is weaker than “obey,” in that there are times when submission will not involve obedience. Peter put it this way in Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than man.” But our overall attitude must be submission, for the sake of societal stability, for the sake of the church’s survival, and for the sake of God’s kingdom. If we rebel, we rebel against God, unless, of course, the authorities try to make us rebel against God himself. If obeying the authorities will make us enemies of God’s kingdom, we must still submit, but we may not obey. We must obey God and do his will in society, loving kindness and doing justice.
That raises the question of our non-Christian neighbors. Paul has just said a very unpopular thing in verse 7, unpopular back then and very unpopular with the followers of Grover Norquist today: “Give everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.” Picking up on that idea of what we owe, Paul now issues a blanket command. “Let no debt remain outstanding.” “Owe no man anything.” “Don’t have debts.”
In the hands of today’s Christian financial advisors, that is taken to mean that Christians should not have any financial debt. Quoting the old proverb, “The borrower is slave to the lender,” counselors like (the basically sound) Dave Ramsey say that the key to financial peace is to get rid of all debt. While such advice is undoubtedly helpful, it simply is not true that the Bible always speaks negatively about debt (cf. Ex. 22:25, Matt. 5:47, Lk. 6:35). More to the point, Paul is not talking here about how to achieve financial peace, but about how to live in societal peace as Christians. His real point is that we owe a “continuing debt to love one another….” And he is not talking only, or mainly, about our fellow Christians. He is addressing our duty to the Other (heteron in the Greek), the folks who are not like us, who are outside our circle of love.
This word takes the Christian life far beyond mere submission to the state, beyond simply keeping our heads down and being good citizens who don’t break the laws of the state. According to Paul, God’s will for those who have been saved by God’s wide mercy is that we spread the net of love very wide to include everyone around us. That love is the fulfillment of God’s law. Don’t think that we have kept God’s law because we have studiously avoided all the negative things it prohibits. All of the “nots” of the Ten Commandments are designed to show us the minimal requirements of God’s will, but they don’t plumb the depths of God’s “good, perfect, and pleasing will.” All of those negatives are summed up in this one rule: “love your neighbor as yourself.”
This one text is proof that Paul was no antinomian, even though he was a converted legalist. In spite of his negative comments about God’s law earlier in Romans and in places like Galatians, Paul still maintained that God’s law is in force for the Christian. And in spite of his insistence that love is the main Christian duty, Paul did not contrast love and law. Law is not the opposite of love, nor is love the opposite of law. Rather love fulfills the law, because love for God and love for your neighbor is what the law was all about from the beginning.
When Paul says “love does no harm to its neighbor,” he is using the literary device called litotes, which is a negative expression that strongly implies a positive affirmation. For example, “he’s no fool,” really means, “he’s a very wise person.” So here, what Paul really means is that love seeks the benefit of the other, in the same way as we all seek the benefit of ourselves. By not merely avoiding adultery and murder, but actually promoting marriage and life, the Christian fulfills what God intended when he said, “Thou shalt not.” Christians have a perpetual obligation to love their pagan neighbors.
Paul says a surprising thing when he tells us why we should do this very difficult thing. In verse 11, he says, “And do this,” not because it is the law of God, though, of course, it is. He doesn’t say, “And do this,” because of your gratitude to God for his mercy, or because of your love for Jesus, or because of your fear of punishment. He doesn’t even say, “And do this” because of the Holy Spirit in you, as he so often does. He gives a very unusual motivation for consistent Christian living—“understanding the time.”
Back in the revolutionary 1960’s a musical group named Chicago sang, “Does anybody really know what time it is, does anybody really care?” The conclusion of that rock anthem was that it was a time to cry and die. Paul claims that his Roman readers should understand what time it was. It was the time to live out of God’s mercy, into their faith, by loving the other completely. It was time to do that because “the day is almost here.”
That kind of expression always raises a question about Paul’s eschatological expectations. Did he really expect Christ to return the next day or at least within his lifetime? If so, then he was clearly wrong. And what does such an error do to the doctrine of inspiration and the rest of Christian truth? If he was wrong about that, what else was Paul wrong about? Is all Christian truth simply a human conjecture about ineffable experiences of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth? What did Paul mean by “the day is almost here?”
Well, he was certainly talking about Christ’s return, but not as an isolated event in the future. “The hour has (emphasis mine) come….” What Paul means here and always is that the death and resurrection of Jesus have ushered in the end of the age. The last days have begun. It is the last hour of darkness; dawn is just over the horizon. As one minister put it, “God’s ever lovin’ day is dawning.” In view of that dawning day of love, we Christians should love the Other as we love ourselves.
Supporting my reading of Paul is the fact that the word “time” in verse 11 is not chronos, but kairos. As every student of Greek knows, chronos refers to clock time, calendar time, while kairos refers to “critical time, the decisive moment, a moment of destiny.” Paul was not talking about what year or hour Christ would return. He was saying that, since Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been living in a moment of great importance, a moment to make critical decisions, precisely because Christ is coming to establish his kingdom. The next great Act in the drama of salvation is coming, and this is the moment to get in step with the times. This is the time to walk into God’s future kingdom by living according to God’s loving will.
Note that Paul doesn’t try to motivate us by dangling the prospect of condemnation before us. Rather, he says, “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” So, live your salvation today. That’s not just a reference to sanctification; it is a summary of all that will come to us when Christ comes to us. There’s a new day coming; so live like it. I love the way Wesley put it in his magnificent hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
“Finish, then, thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.”
In view of the dawn of that day, “let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Perhaps harking back to baptism, Paul once again uses the imagery of changing clothes. Take off your night clothes and get dressed for the work of the day. It is no accident that Paul uses military imagery in talking about getting dressed for the new day Christ has brought. Clearly it isn’t easy to live according to God’s will; it’s a constant battle against the world, the flesh and the devil (though Paul doesn’t mention the devil here, as he does in a similar appeal in Ephesians 6).
When the day comes, even the world stops its night-time revels. Verse 13 made me think of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s classic portrayal of wasted living in the 1950’s and 60’s. In those wild times, even people dedicated to “orgies and drunkenness, sexual immorality and debauchery, dissension and jealousy,” eventually got tired and fell into a dead sleep when the night ended and morning came. So Paul calls his Christian friends to leave behind the deeds of darkness, and behave decently, honorably, according to good form (euschemonos).
How can we do that? How can we win the battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil? Well, for one thing, we can refuse to “gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (flesh, sarx). Paul is not talking about the normal human desires God has given us, but about those desires as they are misdirected, distorted, and exaggerated by sin. The way to keep those desires under control is “do not think about how to gratify them.” The word “think” there is pronoiav, meaning “think ahead, make plans.” Most of the deeds of darkness require some planning. When will I get that fifth of vodka? Where shall I meet her? How can we defeat that rival gang? Paul says the place to stop doing the deeds of darkness is at the planning stage. Once you start to think about satisfying those sinful desires, you have taken that first step down a dark alley.
The most important thing we can do to live according to God’s will is to “clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” Not this discipline, or that practice, or that resolution, or that plan, or that effort, but clothing yourself with Christ. Whatever else Paul meant by “clothing ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ,” he was surely referring to our union with Christ. Even as we are pardoned, forgiven, justified, saved from condemnation only in union with Christ, so we can live for God only in union with Christ. (Cf. John 15:5) And even as Christ lives in us by faith, we must let his presence show in every part of our lives. Being a Christian, in other words, is not just about having a private personal relationship with Christ; it is also about putting him on public display, clothing ourselves in him even in our political activities and in our interactions with our pagan neighbors.
Even as sinners make plans to perform the deeds of darkness, so survivalists make plans for the dark times that will come at the End of all things. Distressingly, some of these survivalists are Christians, who take Paul’s bright words about “the day” as a call to self-preservation when the pagans are perishing, rather than as a call to live in love with their pagan neighbors.
Harry Potter escaped many a dark danger by hiding under a cloak that made him invisible. The cloak of Christ’s righteousness won’t make us invisible, but it does cover our sins so that his righteousness might become visible in a dark world.