Proper 18A

September 01, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 18:15-20

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 12:1-4

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 149

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 13:8-14

    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.

    Illustration Idea

                 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.