Romans 13:7-10 (12th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 17—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
September 4, 2011
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is from the Epistle lesson recorded in Romans 13:
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
Our theme for today is debt—what we owe to another. Last month we just watched the government go through a whole big to do about the nation’s “debt ceiling.” However, most of us know debt very personally. We have mortgages, auto loans, education loans, taxes, bills, and credit card payments. Americans on the whole are pretty much debt experts. As of this past May, the total U.S. consumer debt totaled $2.43 trillion. The average credit card debt per American household is $15,800. All combined, the average U.S. household has a debt load $118,000. You and I are all too familiar with debt.
Taking on a debt, of course, isn’t a problem in and of itself. There isn’t a thing wrong with borrowing money with a bank loan. There isn’t a thing wrong with buying things on credit, which is just a different way of borrowing. It was Jesus who proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42) No, borrowing is not the issue; taking on debt is not the issue. The issue is paying what you owe.
If you take on more and more debt, that means you owe more and more, usually with interest. The problem that Americans illustrate is that we take on debt loads that we cannot handle. We owe amounts of money that we cannot pay. If you are one who falls into that category, you know this all too well. Sometimes people take on more debt than they can handle because they cannot or will not control their spending. But many times life situations dictate that people take on debts that they otherwise would not have. It turns out to be a vicious cycle. A need arises that we cannot take care of without borrowing—from the bank or the credit card company. Then another need comes up, and then another, and another. The debt we owe mounts and grows astronomically. Yet, that doesn’t change the fact that we have a debt and we must pay it when it comes due.
In our Epistle lesson this morning, St. Paul is talking about the Christian’s relationship with the government. Government, whether or not they know or acknowledge it, is instituted by God and is to be His servant. “The authorities are ministers of God,” Paul writes, “to attend to things like taxes.” And so we have the Word of God through the pen of Paul, “Pay to all what is owed to them.” If we owe taxes, we pay our taxes when they are due. If we owe mortgage payments, auto or school loans or credit card bills, we pay them when they come due. As Christians we do not want to let a debt stand after payment is due.
That’s simply Biblical stewardship. It’s the right use of God’s gifts to pay what we owe when we owe it. But what happens if we can’t? We seek help from others—from other Christians who can assist us, perhaps with interest free loans or even gifts without expectation of repayment, from debt counselors who can help us consolidate and get a handle on the situation we have. With these people and other tools, people can pay down and pay off their monetary debts. It takes time, but it can be done and should be done.
But there are other debts that we also owe, especially to those whom God has placed in authority over us. Paul speaks of the owing respect and honor to whom respect and honor are owed. This is a matter dealt with in the Fourth Commandment, isn’t it? “Honor your father and your mother.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” Parents are our fathers, mothers, and guardians. Other authorities are all those whom God has placed over us at home, in government, at school, at the place where we work, and in the church. We pay our debt to respect and honor these authorities by regarding them as God’s representatives, by gladly providing what they need or require, obeying them in everything in which God has placed them over us, and cherishing them as precious gifts of God.
These are the things we owe that we can pay—taxes, revenue, respect, and honor to those to whom these things come due. We are expected by God to pay these debts. “Own no one anything,” He tells us today in His Word. “When it is due, pay it.” But there is a debt that we owe that we cannot ever pay. We have a debt piled up against our account with God that is impossible to pay off.
Of course, I am talking about our debt of sin. We have sinned and grieved God by our thoughts, words, desires, and actions. The commandments: “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet.” They all lie broken and transgressed. While you may not have broken your marriage vows by sleeping around on your spouse, we have all lusted, had impure thoughts. We have not always been clean and pure in what we say and do. We have not likely killed someone by taking their life, but we have demonstrated hatred to others in words and in actions that have hurt and harmed another person. While we might not have taken something from a store shelf, we have all stolen in our failure to help others protect what is theirs, by cheating on a test, copying answers from another, plagiarizing information from books, and the Internet, or copying CDs and DVDs that we did not purchase.
With each sin, the debt against God grows. If we put it in monetary terms, our debt against God because of our sins and failures to keep His commandments trumps even the national debt of this country and every country in the world combined. In Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus compared our debt of sin to 200,000 years worth of wages. And do you remember what happened to that debt? Listen to Jesus’ words which follow our Gospel lesson this morning.
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” (Matthew 18:23-27)
A debt that we cannot pay is mercifully cancelled. Our debt of sin is wiped out. Our debt of sin against God was paid for, not with silver or gold, but with Jesus’ precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. Here was a price so much more valuable than all the money in the history of the world. God the Father accepted the blood of Jesus poured out for us on the cross as payment in full for your debt of sin, for mine, and for the sins of the entire world! We read this good news in Colossians 2, “God made us alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (13b-14)
With our debt of sin cancelled and paid in full by Jesus our Savior, a new debt is given to us that will never end. Another debt that we cannot pay off? No! a debt that never ends!
When we own, we pay it off when it comes due. Jesus paid off our debt of sin when it came due. He faced God’s wrath that we should have endured. He suffered our hell in body and soul on the cross. He died our death. Now, as His forgiven people, He has placed into our lives of forgiveness a debt that doesn’t have a due date, a debt that is fresh and new every morning. It is a debt that isn’t a burden or a hardship. It is the debt of love. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other.”
The best way to describe this debt of love is to let God do it Himself through His Word in 1 John 4. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the sacrifice of atonement for our sins.” That is what God has done to show us His love. Now, loved and forgiven by God in Christ, He gives us our proper response. “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. . . . We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:7-21)
In the forgiveness of Jesus, filled with God’s love, we love others. We owe everyone this love as God’s love in Christ flows through us. That is why this debt never ends. As God in Christ keeps loving and forgiving us, we too empowered by the Holy Spirit keep on loving and forgiving others in Jesus’ name. Think of all the opportunities the Lord gives us day in and day out to show God’s love to others. You sit next to someone new in school at lunch so that they won’t feel left out. You help the new worker in the office find her way around. You help someone get something off the top shelf at the grocery store. You speak up for someone who’s being put down. These are but a few examples of how we can love others. I challenge you to find more this week.
As you do, rejoice! Jesus Christ has paid your debt of sin. You are forgiven. As Christians, pay to all what is owed to them. Owe no one anything, except to love each other. Jesus’ love for you never ends. So let Christ’s love that flows through you to others do the same. Amen.