First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 13

William Loader

Pentecost 13: 7 September  Romans 13:8-14

Paul has just been offering instruction about how one should respect to civil authorities. He even has a sense that secular institutions are also part of God's will and plan. We should pay taxes. Perhaps behind Paul's advice in 13:1-7 is a sense of the need for order in society. He does not allow his spirituality to be confined to just the church community or just to "spiritual matters". Responsible citizenship is important. Paul has learned well from his teachers. Among them there were likely to be those who stood under the influence of Stoic thought which placed great weight on order. It appealed to Jews who were also concerned to perceive God's order or law in every part of life.

Having just asserted such conformity, Paul shows in 13:8 that his starting point is something more than a concern for order. Already in 13:5 he tries to move people beyond conformity through fear. In 13:8 he moves us beyond laws and commandments to attitude and behaviour based in love. That is the heart of his gospel and it also informs how he sees behaviour. Paul goes beyond the "oughts" of obligation which we might owe others (13:8). Approaching others with love and respect is the foundation. Stand on that foundation and you will fulfil and more than fulfil the Law. Paul had already made that point in 8:1-4. Love is more than an ideal. It is a fruit of the Spirit. It is the outworking of allowing oneself to be loved and of the process of liberation which that initiates, freeing us from our fears and guilt and preoccupation with ourselves so that we are available for life and love with others.

In 13:9 Paul is not suggesting we return to the ten commandments and try to make them the basis of our living. Rather he means: when you allow love to be the centre of your being (being loved and expressing that love to others) then you cover all such commandments. As Paul explains in 13:10, such love is not going to act destructively towards another human being. Love fulfils the law not in the analytical sense that one could find that love informs each of the commandments of the Law, and this is why one should try to keep every one of them. Rather, life lived the Christ way sets up a dynamic which produces behaviour which meets and more than meets what the Law requires.

This does not sound convincing for those who are concerned with every command of the Law. They would soon notice that Paul was being selective. He was prepared to drop some commands, including circumcision, food laws, laws about special days, and so on. Paul's choice is not arbitrary. But he does have a value system which deems commandments relevant primarily on the basis of whether they conform to the love he sees in Christ. But even then he argues that it does not make sense to try to live by the commandments which he accepts as good. Rather we need to live from a relationship of love. That was the point of Romans 7. Then everything else will fall into place. We will more than fulfil the law.

It is an interesting ethical move and very helpful in discussing new issues in our own day. Paul would keep taking us to what this love and respect for people - which we have experienced and which we want to express - would want to say. He would not take us to laws or even sets of ideals, although he assumes that love will know what is good for people.

In 13:11-14 Paul changes gear, drifting into what seems to be traditional language perhaps derived from someone's preaching in the context of baptism. The nearness of the end, that is, the day of resurrection stimulates Paul to extra emphasis. For us such exhortations are rather limp after 2000 years. We can, however, understand the images. In joining Christ we have turned towards the light and away from the darkness. Paul is thinking in terms of power systems. We have deliberately incorporated ourselves into an alternative power system from the one which dominates much of human society. The notion of a power system is also reflected in the military metaphor - we join a new legion. It also suggests discipline and effort. Paul was never so naive as to believe that the process of liberation and love happened automatically in people. It was a process easily foiled and subverted. People need to remain focused.

Listing loose living, drunkenness, sexual immorality and excess as signs of the self indulgent life was common. Notice that Paul ends the list with divisiveness and infighting. That is a little closer to home for those who will be listening to his letter. In the next chapters he will address causes of division and suggest ways to handle them. Generally he is contrasting two different lifestyles characteristic of the two different power systems. One follows the desires of the flesh (13:14). Here we should not misunderstand Paul. He is not objecting to our natural hunger nor to sexual desire. He is objecting to when these take over to the extent that we exploit others and do harm to ourselves. When we reduce our lives to only that level of gratification we not only miss out too much; we are also bound to live abusively towards others and ourselves.

In other words, he is contrasting the love system with the non-love system. His way of putting it in 13:14 also stems from one image used of baptism: we put on Christ. We clothe ourselves with Christ. We immerse ourselves in the life which flows in his being which is the life of God and we allow that life to express itself through us. For in fact to do so is to find ourselves and be in touch with our own depths. Paul knows that such spirituality bears fruit which shows itself in lives of compassion and caring and generosity, because that is how God is.

Gospel  Pentecost 13: 7 September Matthew 18:15-18

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