Love is the Law
This sermon is the second sermon in our series: Chosen. It has been formatted for presentation and not for the prevention of errors. Enjoy!
<Click to Listen>
When our family still lived in La Mesa, we lived in a 106-year-old bungalow that was built by hand by a man called Addis Lincoln Witter. He and his wife Minnie had moved to the San Diego area from Wisconsin, for retirement and for the increased health benefits of living in sunny southern California, and they had built our little house as a live/work space in which to live out their days while Addis used the living room as a photography studio.
As I did the research to discover who these people were, the people who built our little house so long ago, I learned that they had had only one son and that he had died long before they moved to San Diego and I became overwhelmed by the truth that it was really likely that no one had ever visited their graves and I made it my goal to find them and to pay my respects.
And so it was that, after a few years ago of searching, our family was strolling through Mount Hope Cemetery, trying to find the graves of these former owners of our home. And as Christina, Katherine and I walked among the stones, I noticed something interesting: while most older graves had no words of honor, a lot of the newer graves had epitaphs that were the same as other graves. I saw that, maybe, there was a couple dozen that said something like, “Devoted wife, loving mother.” Another couple dozen said something like, “Wonderful father, faithful friend.”
I can’t think of a better way to be honored by my family than to be called ‘good’ at the things that matter most me: being a father, a husband, and a friend, but I was surprised at how common these phrases were. And I thought that it must say something about what we value. These words that we use to honor each other, perhaps, tells us that in our culture we value family and connection and community.
My surprise at how people use common phrases to honor began to subside when I was reading about the Roman world and the words that they tended to use on their grave markers. And, two-thousand years ago, in the days that Paul was writing, one of the most common phrases written upon Romans graves said, “Lived well; owed nothing.”
Lived well and owed nothing. Like “Loving mother” or “Faithful friend,” this was considered to be the highest form of compliment in their society. If you lived without debt, that made you free. You lived free and you died free. It was an important distinction in one’s life and it would probably be something you might brag about. In a debt-riddled society like ours, in which it feels impossible to live without debt of any kind, it is interesting to hear how much the Romans were concerned with it.
There were few things in Roman society that were more important than freedom, wealth, debt, and citizenship. This is made most clear when we begin to look at the Roman world that was preserved in Pompeii, after the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius. I reminded the Bible Study a few weeks ago, on August 24, that we were meeting on the 1938th anniversary of Pompeii’s destruction. It was at the forefront of my mind because a new book had recently come out about how the last 200 years of excavation in Pompeii has changed the way Christians have read The Book of Romans. It’s called Reading Romans in Pompeii by Peter Oakes and it is a fascinating account of the real people who were covered by the ashes, the people that we get to meet because of the work of archeologists in uncovering these people who were entombed and who give us a real picture of Roman life that should shape the way we read Paul’s words. We get to meet people that we would have never known about and we get a clearer picture of the fact that in the ancient world, especially near Rome, there truly were very few things more important than freedom, wealth, debt, and citizenship.
Pompeii’s excavation gives an example, and tells us the story of a man, a Syrian, who had earned his citizenship from serving in the Roman military. The proof of his citizenship was printed on bronze. It was a diploma showing 25+ years of military service with his reward, citizenship, listed there upon it. It was the proof that he was free, that he was a citizen – that he lived well and owed nothing.
It was so important to him that he kept it hidden near him, even as he slept, in a tiny compartment in his bedroom, just above his head, in the small space above where his bed would have been.
It was so important to be able to show that he was a free man and a citizen that he kept the proof of it close by all the time. Because, if he were not a citizen, the likelihood is that he would have been deeply mistreated by everyone who was. Because he was Syrian, he probably looked like he was not a citizen, but he could prove that he was with this little strip of bronze. And the only thing he could do to be considered a lesser class of person, now, would be to get into debt. Getting into debt would have made him even less than a foreigner in the eyes of all who met him. It would have made him a slave.
That’s where we find the Apostle Paul today. We find ourselves in a deeply practical section of Romans. It is a passage on how to stay out of trouble, as an outsider, in the Roman world, under Roman rule.
I was in the room with several hundred pastors as Brian McLaren talked about being one of the many clergy who were marching in opposition to the neo-nazis in Charlottesville. He said that they had a training beforehand in which they were taught how to fall well, how to cover their kidneys so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by a well-placed kick while they were on the ground. This was deeply practical advice for pastors who probably have never experienced the kind of violence that was possible in that situation. They needed to be trained how to stay safe.
Paul is, likewise, teaching the members of his churches how to not get beaten and killed as a Christian in Rome. He begins, in the few verses just before our reading, by telling them to obey the authorities. Follow the law as best as they can – that is the Roman laws, not necessarily the Jewish ones because it was Rome who was in charge.
We have to do some imagining here, but, if you lived in Rome, you lived a life surrounded by crosses. The roads were lined by criminals who were murdered on the same torture device that took Jesus’ life. If you lived in and around Rome, you knew the penalty for not doing as you were told. Paul wanted to help his people not end up there.
Likewise, Paul told them to pay their taxes. This is a sneaky one, in that we get to know something new about his churches by this prescription: It lets us know exactly who Paul was talking to. Roman citizens, living in Rome, were exempt from paying taxes until the year 217. So, in this way, we know that a significant portion of the people in the churches of Rome were not citizens and, like our Syrian from Pompei if he did not keep his diploma on him, we know that they could be seriously mistreated by authorities. So Paul is trying to keep them safe.
But then, when we finally come to our passage, Paul says, “Owe no one anything except for love.” Debt could very well mean slavery for people. And by telling the churches not to have a debt to each other he is saying: “Christians don’t make slaves.” “Nexum” the Roman practice of offering oneself and one’s labor as collateral for a loan was abolished in Rome nearly 400 years before Paul is writing, (imagine asking to borrow money and, once the loan was approved, you had to live in the bank and work there). This practice was abolished, but if a person defaulted on their loan, if they were unable to pay back a debt, they could be enslaved to the person owed until it was paid back.
Debt was dangerous business. Paul thought that they shouldn’t get involved in debt in the Church because it was dangerous and could lead to a life imprisoned – and he knew about prison! He thought that if a person in the Church needed something, it should be given it to them without strings attached. And that is what Paul experienced, for himself, in the Church most of the time.
A couple of years before Paul wrote Romans, he had received a great gift from the Philippian Church and he had written a thank you note to them that we find at Philippians, chapter 4. Paul had needed some money, to continue his ministry, and the Philippian Church sent it. It’s as simple as that. Paul needed something. The Church provided it. And Paul responds with thanksgiving, saying, “The Lord has made me very grateful that… you have thought about me once again…. I have been paid back everything, and with interest. I am completely satisfied with the gifts that you had Epaphroditus bring me” (Phil. 4:10, 18, CEV). He needed. They gave. No debt. End of story.
“Let love be your only debt.” Paul teaches that the gospel is not a practical teaching. The Law said, both Jewish and Gentile law said, that you can hold a debt over a person’s head, even enslave them until it is paid back. Those are the rules. We like rules. We like regulations. We like things to be fair and for everyone to give equally.
But Paul says that the only thing we can expect in return from one another is love. And Paul asks us to consider things like life and debt differently than we ever have before. He says that if we just remember one thing, then, the rules for the way that we treat one another are no longer needed. These rules are dead. He writes that “If you love others, you have done all that the Law demands. [Though] there are many commands…. all of [them] are summed up in the command that says, ‘Love others as much as you love yourself’” (Romans 13:8-10, CEV).
Jesus lets us know what Paul wants us to know. The rules aren’t hard. Love. Be loved. Treat well. Owe nothing. Be owed nothing. Hold nothing against each other – even when the rules say that you can. Even when the rules tell you that you should, Paul says that we must remember that the Law is now love. It’s not rules and regulations; it is Christ living through us. Christ did not make slaves but freed us from our debt to sin. Christ is the model which we must follow.
Paul’s message is so deeply counter-educational. The people he wrote to would have been taught something totally different for their whole lives. They would have walked through graveyards, even, and received an education by looking at the gravestones that said that a lack of debt made you better than everyone else. Being free made you better than slaves. Being right made you better than everyone who was wrong. Being a citizen made it right for you to mistreat those who were not.
If we know that in Rome there was nothing more important than being free, wealthy, debtless, and a citizen, then Paul turns everything the Roman churches thought they knew upside down. And Paul lets us know, in contrast, that in the Church, there is no wealth, there is no debt, everyone is free, and everyone is a citizen. In the Church Christ is king and we all must live the law of love.
Reading Romans in Pompeii
The Uncontrolling Love of God