By Elizabeth Baumann
A Reading from Romans 13:1-14
1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.
7 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. 8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 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, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
11 Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12 the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13 let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
I am someone who believes that the morality of our actions is particular to our circumstances. When it comes down to it, God gives us surprisingly few absolute moral laws, and sometimes even those spin out into complex arrangements. Take “Do not bear false witness,” and then move out to the more general “Lying is wrong” — which is pretty clearly only almost always true — but then what about the classic example, where the Nazis knock on your door and want to know about the Jews in your basement? Then which kind of “witness” is most “false”?
I begin to appreciate Paul’s complicated relationship with the law.
As a Pharisee, Paul loves the law — he sees all its wisdom, all its goodness, all it reveals of God. But he knows better than anyone how following the letter of the law without understanding its spirit can lead precisely away from God. The law lays traps as well as clears paths for sinful humans. Worse, to make ever-more-elaborate laws is to risk becoming a Pharisee: to begin to ask not, “What is right?” but “What can we get away with?”
Today Paul writes that love, rather than complex amendments, fulfills the law. The commandments describe nothing more or less than how to go about loving your neighbor. Owe nothing to anyone but love.
Our lives are usually complex. If I’m right, no two moral situations are exactly the same. Every one we face is new. Complicated legal codes are tempting because we need help navigating — but no moral code, however sophisticated, will be enough. Instead, we’re told to turn to a simple question: what would love have us do?
Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, Texas
The Diocese of Buhiga (Anglican Church of Burundi)