Commentary on Romans 13:8-14
In the first part of Romans 13, Paul addresses what those in the Christian community owe the civil authorities.
He writes, “Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7, NET).
Many readers of Paul’s letters worry that the first half of this chapter can be easily appropriated by corrupt governments or misguided clergy to silence Christians who might otherwise courageously, faithfully resist systemic evil. In fact, the text has been used in this way. The ease with which Romans 13:1-7 is misunderstood may explain its absence from the Revised Common Lectionary.
From Obligation to Love
However, Paul is not counseling the Roman Christians to passivity vis-à-vis the Empire. In the second half of the chapter, Paul moves from the language of tax returns to the language of love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another” (13:8). With the mention of love, the scope of the imperative has changed. No longer is Paul talking about paying bills, but rather about seeking the neighbor’s highest good.
This transition — the move from fulfilling one’s obligations to living in love — is the same one Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you” (cf. Matthew 5:21-48). “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44, NRSV).
The language of the balance sheet does not adequately describe the Christian life. Why? Because we are children of God, and God sends rain on the just and the unjust (cf. Matthew 5:45) and otherwise gives to the undeserving.
Look at the Time!
The language of the balance sheet also does not adequately describe the Christian life because of the time. Paul says, “The night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:12). We know this way of speaking from our own culture’s political rhetoric. The language of a “new day dawning” has become a cliché in the speeches of our own leaders. It is shorthand for that more prosperous, peaceful time that politicians imagine when the policies they prefer replace those of their opponents.
Paul uses that rhetoric here to speak of the contrast between the former time, characterized by slavery to sin, and the present/future, characterized by adoption and an inheritance of righteousness. The contrast is perhaps most simply stated in Romans 6:17-18: “But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
The former time, the night, was characterized by bondage to powers that Paul calls “sin” and “the flesh.” The dawning day will be characterized by freedom and life “in the Spirit,” and “in Christ.” And so Paul says, “The night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:12).
The lateness of the time is warrant for acting as if the day were not just dawning, but already here. Notice that the warrant is not that we should “look busy” and thereby impress Jesus with our diligence and so turn aside his wrath. Paul does not use guilt or fear to motivate, but rather joy and hope. Paul says salvation, not condemnation, is nearer to us than when we became believers. In this text, the coming day is not a threat but a gift. We are on the cusp of an entirely new age. To anticipate it is to be already changed.
Putting on Christ
As the new reality begun in Jesus Christ dawns, what would have once been called a riotous good time (reveling, drunkenness, debauchery, licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy) will be shown to have been way too small a dream for the word, “party,” and in fact, nothing like a real celebration at all. To “put on the Lord Jesus” now, ahead of the dawn, is to know the difference between a disaster and a party, and to get dressed for the real party a little ahead of time.
The verb in Greek for putting on the Lord Jesus describes putting on clothes (cf. Galatians 3:27-29, Colossians 3:9-12). Putting on the Lord Jesus ahead of time is as public an activity as wearing new clothes. Done in public, it bears witness to the hope that it is in us. Lives characterized by loving one’s neighbor as oneself will offer testimony to an alternative future.
The future is not a choice between keeping your head down and quietly paying your taxes and other obligations on the one hand, and carousing and quarreling on the other. For those clothed with Christ, the future is characterized by seeing the “other” as neighbor and seeking the neighbor’s best.
In his conversation with a lawyer and parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus had broadened the definition of neighbor and given us a picture of love as the fulfilling of the law (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Paul echoes the same themes as he counsels the Romans on how they can bear witness to the lordship of Christ, even as they live out their lives in the heart of the Empire.