“Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and whatever other commandment — all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:7-10 HCSB)
For the past 30 plus years, I’ve worked and lived in a small town at a private, Baptist university in central Oklahoma. I knew, without any doubt, that God had called me to this place in service to Him. During my years there, the students often talked about “living in the OBU bubble.” To them, this statement simply meant that they lived in a sheltered world that was different from and separate from secular society. They were right and that’s why the university has been called “in loco parentis” or “in the place of the parent” providing guidance and protection for her students. But there comes a time when those students have been trained, prepared in their fields of study and they move from being a student to being a graduate. Someone who is charged with using their knowledge, skill and their Christian calling and virtue to impact our world – to make a difference, to shape the future, to live for Christ. This isn’t a debt they owe their University, it is a debt they owe to their God.
It’s also a debt we owe…
Last week, we concluded that Paul had challenged us to obey those in positions of authority over us and to pay our debt or obligations to anyone we owed. Whether taxes, tolls, respect or honor we should pay those obligations. I also mentioned that Paul’s admonition was in response to the command to overcome evil with good and all of this is our loving response to God’s amazing grace (see 12:1-2). Now, Paul moves from obedience to the governing authorities to a more practical and even pragmatic way of overcoming evil with good, by loving our neighbors. If we owe taxes, tolls, honor and respect to governing authorities then just imagine the incredible debt we owe to God, a debt of love so vast that it can never be repaid. But Paul says that the only reasonable response to such love and grace is to give ourselves as a living sacrifice in loving service. If we owe God, then let’s live in a constant state of debt repayment by loving in the way He commanded and demonstrated.
In today’s focal passage and in a very practical way, Paul says this is practiced and lived out in society by living in a constant state of loving one another: “Don’t owe anyone anything, except to love one another.” We can and should pay all of our debts, both monetary and interpersonal, but we can never repay the debt of love we owe. We will be in a constant state of repayment, forever owing God more than we can possibly pay off. Forever in debt to Him but repaying Him through obedience to His command to love one another because loving each other is the fulfillment of God’s law. Again, Paul is reminding his readers of Jesus’ teaching: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:37-40 HCSB)
But one of the struggles we see in our culture is this very issue of love and what that entails and, especially, how it is expressed in a practical but God-honoring way. Our culture says, “love is love is love.” This is translated to mean, I define who and what love is and how you may express your love of me. But, Paul says that loving one another is defined through obedience to the law: “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” So, love has parameters and isn’t just giving someone what they want but is loving them the way God intended, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
God knows that we generally have no problem with “self love” as evidenced in our self-centered motives, choices and attitudes. As a general rule, we make choices that benefit our own needs, desires and goals. While we know this is what drives us, we also know it drives us crazy when others do the same. For example, the very thing we so despise in politicians we tend to do – make decisions that benefit us or those we love. But what God calls us to do is suppress our own needs, desires and goals while loving others in that way – focused on their needs, desires and goals. Instead of seeking what’s best for us, we should seek what’s best for them. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The problem is that we tend to seek what we believe is best for us while ignoring what God says is best for us – Love God first and foremost, then love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.
When Jesus was challenged on this very issue with a question – “Well, who is my neighbor?” – He told that Jewish law expert a parable about a man traveling down to Jericho. In the story, the man encountered a thief who beat him, stole his possessions and left him for dead. As he lay there, beaten, bloody and presumed dead, Jesus tells us that a priest and a Levite came along on that same road. They simply avoided the man because, if he was dead, then they would become ceremonially unclean and unable to participate in priestly or Levitical duties. Let that sink in a bit, they believed their religious duties and rituals were more important than caring for another human being. Then we’re told that a despised Samaritan merchant came along, cared for the man, cleaned and dressed his wounds and then cared for him at a local inn overnight. He then left money, the next morning, for his continued care while he completed his journey. Jesus then asks, “who was the neighbor to the injured man?” It wasn’t a trick question, it was simply Jesus pointing out the obvious. We aren’t obedient to God, even when we abide by our religious duties, if we forsake the primary commands regarding love for God and love for others above ourselves.
It was recently pointed out to me, there are three kinds of people this man encounters along the road to Jericho; 1) those who take from others, 2) those who refuse to help others, 3) and those who truly care about others and show it. That really does describe life, in general, doesn’t it? God is calling us to be that last type; those who have experienced His love and, in response, we love God above all else and love our neighbors like we love ourselves.
I wanted to move on, but I feel like I need to spend a few more minutes on this issue of obedience and spiritual duties. Like many pastors, I’ve emphasized the importance of the fulfilling the Great Commission as the primary duty of the church. While that is still true, the primary duty of individual Christians is to love God above everything and everyone and then to love our neighbors as ourselves. However, we cannot and must not do as the priest and Levite did in Jesus’ parable. We cannot use duty to the Great Commission to ignore the commands of the two Great Commandments. To do so, is to risk the condemnation of our Lord.
In fact, these two things are intricately tied together. In order to love God supremely and to love others in the way God demands, we must be willing to take the risk and seek to make them true disciples of our Lord. Conversely, if we truly desire to make disciples for our Lord then we must be willing to love God supremely and to love our neighbors as ourselves. To put it simply, there’s no other way to achieve either goal – they are mutually dependent on one another. In this age of cultural divisiveness and social turmoil, the church cannot hope to be successful in her calling without recognizing this interdependency. The success of the church’s calling and mission is dependent on the obedience of her individual members and the obedience of individual members is incomplete when it is absent the desire to make disciples of those we love.
Finally, I want you to notice that all of Paul’s admonitions flow out of his desire to see evil overcome by good. He ends this section by clearly stating, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.” We overcome the evil in our culture by living out the love of Christ in relationship with our neighbors. We don’t overcome evil with boycotts or protests. We don’t overcome evil with hatred or religious rhetoric. We don’t even overcome evil with demeaning Facebook posts or sarcastic Tweets. We overcome evil with good by loving our neighbors like Jesus, with kindness, goodness, gentleness, respect and personal sacrifice. Yes, personal sacrifice.
Why does it take personal sacrifice? Because it isn’t possible to love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself while loving yourself more than you love Jesus or even while loving yourself more than you love your neighbor. Love does no wrong to a neighbor and that requires self-sacrifice. First, we must self-sacrifice in order to follow and faithfully serve Jesus and then to serve our neighbors. “Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25 HCSB)
So, we’re told that love is the fulfillment of the law. Let that sink in a bit. The fulfillment of the law isn’t just suppressing the desire to cheat on a spouse or to resist killing an enemy that has wronged or injured you. It isn’t even overcoming the temptation to steal or covet someone’s possessions, their status or achievements. The fulfillment of the law isn’t just about what you don’t do, it’s about what you do. LOVE is the fulfillment of the law. It is to love your spouse so deeply, like God loves them, that it naturally overwhelms any thought that might lead to a desire to cheat on him or her. To love your neighbor like you love yourself is not just refraining from murder, but to truly desire and seek for them what you would desire and seek for yourself. To love your neighbor is not simply to resist stealing or coveting their things, but to seek and pray for God’s richest blessing on them.
Do you see how we get it so wrong? Is it any wonder that we fall so short of God’s glory. It’s no wonder we can’t live like Christ without supernatural intervention that changes our hearts. It’s no wonder that we must be transformed in our minds instead of being conformed to our culture. Instead of being transformed into new creations who love like Jesus, we’ve settled for a shiny cross necklace, a Christian t-shirt, a bumper sticker and a “Jesus Loves Me” graphic on our social media profiles. Loving like Jesus looks more like the Samaritan merchant and less like the High Priest. Which one do you resemble?