Romans 12:17 – Romans 13
RELATIONSHIP. That one word has crept into our lessons for the past few weeks.
We’ve discussed how Paul is desperate for others to see what a real relationship with God is like. We’ve talked about those who try to do all of the right and good things assuming that’s what God wants but missing out on a relationship with Him. And last time we met, we discussed how when two people are in a deep and committed relationship, they both sacrifice not only for each other, but they sacrifice for the health of the relationship. Jesus sacrificed so much for us that we need to be willing to sacrifice for Him as well so that we nurture our relationship.
While having a relationship with God is critical, it isn’t enough. We must have a relationship with others as well. 1 John 4:20 GNT “If we say we love God, but hate others, we are liars. For we cannot love God, whom we have not seen, if we do not love others, whom we have seen.”
Hate is a strong word. I can’t say that I hate anyone. So I am able to read the first part of 1 John 4:20 and think I’m doing okay. I love God, I don’t hate anyone so I’m not a liar. But the second part of that verse makes it a little harder to qualify. Scripture tells us that we cannot love an unseen God if we don’t love others that we have seen. Let’s be real for a moment. Some people are just hard to love. They irritate us. They insult us. They don’t appreciate us. They lie about us. They talk about us. They bring drama to us. They don’t include us. They hurt us. There are many reasons why some people are just hard to love.
Just coming through the holidays, many of us spent time with our families. Any of you have that irritating brother who does everything better than anyone else? Or that nagging mother-in-law who is never satisfied with anything? Or how about a crazy aunt who says whatever pops into her head no matter whose feelings get hurt?
1 John 3:11 NRSV “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
There’s a period after the word “another”. There is no comma, no conditional statement, no exclusions. We should love one another. Period. We are to love the irritating brother, the nagging mother-in-law, and the crazy aunt just as they are. As humans, though, we like to place conditions. We tend to run people through a list of qualifications before we choose to love them. Do they act like we expect? Dress like we expect? Have acceptable beliefs and ideas? Vote the same way we do? Are they kind to us?
Paul understands humans and the way we sometimes treat one another. In Romans 12:10 GNT “ 10 Love one another warmly as Christians, and be eager to show respect for one another.” Knowing, however, that not everyone will love warmly and show respect, beginning in verse 17 he addresses how we should respond. Romans 12:17 GNT “If someone has done you wrong, do not repay him with a wrong. Try to do what everyone considers to be good. 18 Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody. 19 Never take revenge, my friends, but instead let God’s anger do it. For the scripture says, “I will take revenge, I will pay back, says the Lord.” 20 Instead, as the scripture says: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them a drink; for by doing this you will make them burn with shame.” 21 Do not let evil defeat you; instead, conquer evil with good.”
Paul’s instructions are to not seek revenge, do everything you can to be at peace with everybody. And if that’s not enough of a challenge, take care of your enemies by doing good. That’s asking a little too much, isn’t it? At least we tend to think so. It’s one thing not to retaliate or at least make sure that everyone knows what our enemy did to us. Let’s be honest with ourselves. When someone has hurt us or done wrong to us, we don’t hesitate to pick up the phone or nowadays post it on social media to make sure that we get the word out as much as possible to tell our side of the story. We make ourselves out to be the poor, pitiful victim. Christians are particularly skilled in this. We know that God’s vengeance is greater than anything we could come up with but instead of leaving it in His hands as we should, we’ll tell our story over and over again to make sure that ill feelings are felt towards the one who wronged us. Much like a squirrel gathers nuts for the winter, we gather allies and defenders. Most of us don’t even entertain the thought of following Paul’s instructions of feeding our hungry enemies or giving a drink to our thirsty enemies or anything of the equivalent.
Paul then moves from discussing enemies to government officials. He writes in Romans 13:1 ERV “All of you must obey the government rulers. Everyone who rules was given the power to rule by God. And all those who rule now were given that power by God. 2 So anyone who is against the government is really against something God has commanded. Those who are against the government bring punishment on themselves.”
You may be thinking that it was easy for Paul to write that. He wouldn’t have known of the evil, sadistic, knuckle-headed rulers that would be in control so many years later. A few names come to mind: Hitler, Stalin, Atilla the Hun. You may be thinking of more recent rulers or perhaps local officials. It’s important to note that when Paul wrote this to the Romans, Nero was the ruler. Nero, as you may recall, despised Christians so much that he falsely accused them of setting fire and destroying Rome. Then he sought to inflict punishment on them. He would host lavish parties in his own gardens and the acts of punishment of the Christians served as the entertainment. He had them covered with animal skins and attacked by dogs to their death. Some Christians were nailed to a cross. Some Christians were set on fire to serve as a luminary at the party. Pretty gruesome, huh? Paul would have had great reason to despise and reject Nero but instead, he not only suggests that Christians obey rulers, but he also insists upon it. It is believed that Paul was beheaded under the direction of Nero a little more than 10 years after writing this letter to the Romans. Nero, a cruel and selfish ruler, ordered the murders of his step-brother, two of his wives as well as his own murder. He was not a lovable person.
So far, Paul has given instructions to do good towards our enemies and to obey rulers. He goes a step further involving indebtedness which may seem off-topic here. Romans 13:6 ICB “And this is also why you pay taxes. Rulers are working for God and give their time to their work. 7 Pay everyone, then, what you owe him. If you owe any kind of tax, pay it. Show respect and honor to them all.”
Now he’s getting too demanding, right? Pay our taxes?! I mean most of us are diligent about paying the taxes that we have to pay, but how many people do you know scrambling at the end of the year to make donations in order to get those tax exemptions? Goodwill experiences a 50% increase in donations during the last week of December each year. Churches and charities also benefit from end-of-the-year contributions as people do their best to exempt themselves from paying taxes as much as they possibly can. We’re looking for exemptions; Paul is asking for exemplary Christians.
And then Paul goes from government rulers to paying taxes to the bottom line of it all. Romans 13:8 CSB “Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and any other commandment, are summed up by this commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law.”
As Paul makes this transformation from discussing enemies to paying what we owe, he brings up the “L” word. LOVE. Did you catch what he says in verse 10 of Romans 13? Love is the fulfillment of the law. Other translations read it like this: “No one who loves others will harm them. So love is all that the Law demands.” (CEV) “Love avoids doing any wrong to one’s fellow man, and is therefore complete obedience to Law.” (WNT)
It almost seems like Paul is rambling a bit and that his words aren’t flowing naturally. Who goes from discussing enemies, then taxes and debts, and then talking about loving your neighbor? Seems like those should be three separate subjects. But I think Paul is drawing parallels between our relationship with God and our relationship with others.
I believe we would agree that anyone whom we would deem to be our enemy is someone who has done wrong to us or someone we love. Would you agree? Most likely, at some point in your life, you’ve had an enemy. Have you, yourself, ever been the enemy? Just a few chapters back Paul reminds us all that “For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life!” Romans 5:10 HCSB Yeah, that’s right. God sent His Son to save us when we were His enemies. Jesus died when we were His enemies. Therefore, is it unreasonable for us to show kindness and genuine grace to those whom we classify as an enemy?
Let’s talk about the debt aspect. Paul says to pay everyone what you owe. I don’t believe he’s just referring to money. What are other things we might owe to others? Time? Attention? Dignity? Respect? Psalm 37:21 HCSB “The wicked man borrows and does not repay, but the righteous one is gracious and giving.” Perhaps you have experienced a human leech in your life. Someone who takes and takes and never gives. Someone who drains you of energy with their constant demands, complaints, and selfishness but is never available when you need them. Someone who expects you to jump into action the minute they snap their fingers but is too busy when you ask something of them. Those people can be irritating, to say the least. Can I ask you a personal question? How often are you kneeling in prayer and instead of making requests of what you want God to do for you are you asking God what He wants you to do for Him? It’s so easy to see how others take advantage of us and yet painful to think that we may treat God in the same manner.
And then it comes to this simple statement: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What does that really mean? Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
The time after Christmas is always a bit depressing for me. Have you ever noticed how in the days just before Christmas there’s a difference in the air? There’s unusual kindness and generosity. I found myself having to go to WalMart on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t something I had planned on doing, but I found myself with no choice. I jokingly called my sister and warned her I was going in and gave her instructions if I didn’t make it out alive. But you know what? It was actually a very pleasant experience. Most everyone was kind. They gave others the right of way while navigating the crowded aisles. People made eye contact and said, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”. There was a certain feeling of unity and compassion. I left and called my sister and told her of the experience. We both said we wished people would always be like that.
Ironically, the day after Christmas, I was walking into a grocery store to pick up two items. As I was making my way in, a young man exited the store and purposefully knocked over a large advertisement sign. Two store employees followed him out while he screamed expletives at them. One employee was videotaping the incident and the other employee was calling 911. Sure enough, as I left a few moments later, blue lights were flashing and the police had the angry young man next to the patrol car. I was saddened because I thought this was so indicative of our world. Grace, kindness, and compassion abounded for a short period of time as we focus on the birth of Jesus and His sacrifice in order for us to have a relationship with Him. But as soon as the calendar is flipped and the focus is off, hatred, division, and selfishness rear their ugly head.
You may think that isn’t your problem. You may assume that you’re doing your part in loving one another just as they are. You may pride yourself in thinking that you’re not stirring up division or hatred or selfishness. Just this week, I’ve heard a complaint about our pastor not wearing a tie while preaching. I listened to someone gripe about the music that the choir sings. Someone commented that one of the choir members needed to cut their hair. I heard criticism about a person who doesn’t attend church as regularly as someone thinks they should. These were Christian’s negative opinions voiced against fellow Christians. That’s sad to me. What if instead of complaining, griping, and criticizing each other, we just loved one another? What if instead of assuming the reasons people do what they do or don’t do, we just loved them and let the Holy Spirit deal with them? What if we make an effort to see others as God sees them…and as He sees us? Redeemable, righteous, and loveable.
M. Catherine Thomas offers this approach. “Instead of the usual things we think as we look randomly at other people, rather, silently bless everyone you see, looking at everyone and everything through eyes of compassion and understanding; especially observing that when obnoxious or abusive acts are committed, there is pain and ignorance in the person who commits those – always. So we think like our Lord – ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Colossians 3: 12 GNT “You are the people of God; he loved you and chose you for his own. So then, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with one another and forgive one another whenever any of you has a complaint against someone else. You must forgive one another just as the Lord has forgiven you. 14 And to all these qualities add love, which binds all things together in perfect unity.”
Love enables us to see people from God’s perspective and to accept them as they are. We love to sing “Just as I Am” when we are asking God to love us, but we rewrite it to be “Just When I Approve” when we are called to love others. Using song titles, Love Will Keep Us Together, All You Need is Love, Endless Love, Love Ain’t for Keeping, In the Name of Love, I Will Always Love You, Let My Love Open the Door, The Power of Love, Love Me Tender. All of these apply to God’s love for us. How much better would our world be if we applied these to our neighbors?
Former President Jimmy Carter said these wise words: “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can, with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
Are you willing to make a difference by loving people with the love God has given you? What a wonderful world that would be if we all did just that!
 M. Catherine Thomas, The God Seed: Probing the Mystery of Spiritual Development