Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

In this paragraph the theme of love as a force in interpersonal relationships emerges after Paul’s tangent in the first paragraph of chapter 13 on why one could obey an institution that repays evil for evil.

September 7, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 13:8-14

In this paragraph the theme of love as a force in interpersonal relationships emerges after Paul’s tangent in the first paragraph of chapter 13 on why one could obey an institution that repays evil for evil.

It is certainly true that in our personal lives, we are not to repay evil for evil. That was Paul’s point in Romans 12:17-19. He takes a short digression on why a believer might obey a government that does repay evil to evildoers, but then cannot keep himself from returning to love, which is the main force behind the practical commands in 12:9-21.

Here in the second paragraph of chapter 13, Paul is more explicit about love. Why does Paul say here that the one who loves his/her neighbor keeps the whole law when he has already said that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for those who believe (Romans 10:4)? Although Christ is the culmination of the law, and though Paul considers his readers as not under Mosaic law, he still is concerned that they live moral lives (Romans 6:14-15), fulfilling a natural law that he elsewhere in this letter calls God’s righteous decree (1:32) or the law that the Gentiles keep without knowing Mosaic law (2:12-15). Nonetheless he still is convinced that his gospel is consistent with the main message of Mosaic law. This is why he describes the righteousness of faith as something toward which the Mosaic law points (3:21) and why he clarifies that righteousness by faith is established by the section of the Bible called the “Law” through the example of Abraham (3:31 — 4:21).

Since God’s love for us has been poured out on us (5:5), Paul here calls us to allow this love to extend towards our neighbor. Why doesn’t Paul mention what Jesus calls the first commandment–to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength? Perhaps because he sees the two commandments as closely related. If a person truly loves neighbor as self, the person is simultaneously loving God. There can be no mystic or recluse who is fulfilling the first commandment of loving God while breaking the second commandment of loving neighbor.

Toward the end of this chapter, Paul asks us to be aware of what time it is. It is time to wake from sleep, for now our salvation is nearer than when we believed (13:11). Paul’s language of putting off the deeds of darkness and putting on the weapons of light reminds us of what he already said in this letter in 6:19, where he asks us to present our body parts as servants toward righteousness for sanctification.

In many aspects of life, timing is everything. When we know what time it is, we can best live as stewards of what God has given us and where God has placed us. Paul is thoroughly gripped by the timing in history of what God has done in Christ. In this letter he has used the phrases “but now,” “now,” or “the now time” (3:21; 8:1, 18; 11:5, 31) to communicate the excitement of what is happening through Christ’s death and resurrection and what is happening with God’s first love, Israel. It is significant that Paul’s last reference to the present time in regard to how God is working in the world is this wakeup call to moral living in God’s daylight.

The reason for this wakeup call toward moral living is that the time of God’s salvation is near. Paul said earlier that all creation is under a servitude that leads toward decay and disintegration, groaning and experiencing birth pangs as it awaits the salvation that God will bring for the world (8:21-22). This is the same idea he has here. Now he makes it clear that since God’s salvation is about to break into our world, we need to live as children of the day. The list of behaviors that Paul describes in verse 13 of chapter 13 reads like a summary of a People magazine from the years 56-59 in Rome. The Roman elite society was famous for excessive eating and adultery. Led by Nero’s example, the Romans at the top of their society lived as omnivorous consumers. Paul just said earlier in this text that true love of neighbor will respect the commandment prohibiting adultery, so he is perhaps concerned that the members of church in Rome ignore the examples of their society’s leaders (13:9).

Paul’s directions here form a specific reprise of the opening of this section of the letter, in which he asks us to present our bodies as living sacrifices to God, to rebel from conformity to the world and instead to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can approve God’s will (12:1-2). The hints Paul has been referring to in Jesus’ words regarding blessing in return for cursing (12:14; see Matthew 5:44) and submitting to government in the areas in which God endorses a government (13:1-7; see Matthew 22:21) now lead into the refreshing image to put on the Lord Jesus Christ and clothe yourselves with Christ. This is surely a call to follow the specific commands of Jesus and remember how we participate in baptism with Jesus’ death to sin and resurrection to life in Christ, an idea Paul first mentioned in Romans 6:1-11.

Just imagine–despite what the messages on television and Web advertising tell us–we don’t need to worship the gods and goddesses of financial security, the perfect body image, or even our limited ideas of personal honor and respectability! God’s love has been poured out to us through the mercies he has shown in Christ. In response, we present our bodies in love to our neighbors as a way of loving God and preparing for life in the new world God is bringing.