Romans 13 … again: love in the night, longing for the day

by Brian Walsh

Returning to Romans 13.
Wine Before Breakfast, March 5, 2013

The whole thing is really rather curious.
This injunction to obey the governing authorities.

Curious because it seems so out of place.
Curious because it just doesn’t seem to follow
from all that has proceeded it.
Curious because it is in such profound tension
with the vision of community that Paul
has just so powerfully evoked.

Could it have been ironic?
Could it have been that Paul doesn’t
mean exactly what he says
in these seven verses?

And could so much Christian legitimation
of violent and oppressive states hang on such a misreading?
If so, then this is a joke that has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

I’ve been down this path before.
Six years ago, in a rather infamous sermon
called “To hell with Romans 13”
I offered my reading of these seven verses
that tries to catch the irony,
and tries to set this text free from its political shackles.

So this time around, I’d rather go to the next seven verses
in this enigmatic chapter.
Seven verses that put the final nails in the coffin of the empire,
even as they open up paths of resurrection for the church.
In these seven verses, Paul answers two foundational questions:
in the end, what is the law to which we are subject?
… and …
what time is it?

What is the law that fulfills (and judges) all law,
and what time is it?

And in answering these two questions,
things get curiouser and curiouser.

After bringing his discussion of our relation to the state to a close by writing,

“Pay to all what is due them – taxes to whom taxes are due,
revenue to whom revenue is due,
fear to whom fear is due,
honour to whom honour is due”,

St. Paul then writes,
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”

And again, you gotta think that this is kind of curious.
In a hierarchal culture of debt,
in which you are always indebted to those above you,
in which there is always something ‘due’ to another,
and all social relations depend on such a system of debt,
and just after Paul has said,

‘yes, yes, make sure that you cover your bases,
and don’t piss off anyone in the system above you,’
he then shifts gears and says, that we should not live by the terms of such a culture of debt at all!

Now on one level, we might have expected such a move.

I mean, hadn’t he just overthrown this system
by calling the community to a life of mutual honour,
with a special concern with associating with the lowly,
associating with those before whom one has no debt?

And hadn’t he already demonstrated his disregard for such a system
way back in chapter one
by saying that he was indebted to the uneducated ‘foolish’
and to uncivilized barbarians
– people for whom an educated citizen like Paul –
would have had no obligation?

But here, just after seeming to have invoked obedience to the laws of the empire,
laws that are all about obligation, and being in the debt of others
– most supremely the emperor himself –
he relativizes the whole system by reference to another law.
Another law,
that trumps Roman law.
Another law,
that passes judgement on all law,
especially laws that hold the seal of Nero.
Another law,
that is decidedly Jewish.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
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 neighbour as yourself.’
Love does no wrong to a neighbour;
therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

In three short verses,
most of which is a quotation from the ten commandments,
Paul has undermined the very foundations of Roman law;
undermined the whole system of honour and shame,
the whole system of obligation and debt,
and judged all law by the law of love.

If love is the fulfilling of the law,
then any laws that call us to anything short of love,
any laws that set us in obligation to some at the expense of others,
any laws that would legitimate the oppression of others,
are judged by the law of love as null and void.

And as if to make his point painfully clear
to anyone who hadn’t been catching the earlier irony,
Paul then cites the injunctions against adultery, murder,
stealing, and coveting,
in the face of an imperial household that is based on precisely such sins;

Nero’s household established by the murder of Claudius,
Nero’s bedroom where he would copulate with anyone that he liked,
Nero’s economy based on the pillaging of lands far and near,
Nero’s empire of insatiable greed and expansion.|

And then, as if to dismiss the imperial order once and for all,
the apostle adds a comment about what time it is.

“Beside this, you know what time it is.”
You know, that “the night is far gone and the day is near.”

You know that time is up for this imperial house of cards.
You know that while Nero’s poets have declared the dawning of the new Augustan age,
an age of peace and virtue,
an age of benevolence and security,
the truth is something very different.

You know that this too is an age of darkness,
this too is an age stuck in the night.

But you also know that this age is coming to an end.
It is darkest just before the dawn,
but the dawn is coming.

That’s what this whole story of Jesus has been all about.
That’s what time it really is.
It is time for the creatures of the dark in disarray
to fall before the morning light.

It is time for this endless night to give way to dawn.

What time is it?
It’s time to wake up.
Wake up from our culturally imposed slumber.
Wake up to what God is up to in transforming our world.
Wake up to live in the full light of the coming Kingdom.

What time is it?
It is time to put aside the works of darkness.

But if you are going to do that,
then you’ll need the ‘armour of light’;
you’ll need to clothe yourselves in this light,
because the forces of darkness will try to hold you down
with a strong arm up their sleeve.

What time is it?
It is time to put on the Lord Jesus Christ.
That is what it means to wear the ‘armour of light’.
It is time to put on the Lord Jesus Christ,
it is time to be dressed in Christ,
to be transformed as the body of Christ,
to be precisely the kind of community|
that Paul has just evoked in the previous chapter:
a community of mutual love;
outdoing one another in showing honour to each other,
and especially to those who the system dishonours;
a community of patience, care, perseverance,
radical generosity and hospitality,
non-violence and peace.

The night is far gone, the day is near,
so live in the day.
Time is up for the oppressive laws of the state,
so obey the law of love.
Time is up for the empire,
so live in the kingdom.
Time is up for the emperor,
so put on the Lord Jesus Christ.

The night is far gone, the day is near,
and I know, dear friends, I know,
that it sure as hell doesn’t feel that way most of the time.

I know that for many of us it feels like the night is endless,
and there is no day in sight,
no slight glimmer of dawn on the horizon,
not even the Morning Star is visible to you.

I know, I know, even the Morning Star can be hidden
in the clouds of despair and sadness,
blocked by the overcast of deep darkness.

And I know, I know, that its been a long time since Paul said
that the night is far gone and the day is near.

Maybe that is why we live by faith and not by sight.

Maybe that is why we come together on Tuesday mornings
to eat bread and to drink wine,
to sing in the day,
to practice the love that Paul calls for,
to hold each other when the night is unbearable,
to confess that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,
to pray week in and week out,
“your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven,”
to clothe ourselves in the Lord Jesus Christ
in hope of the dawning of the new creation.

The night is far gone, sisters and brothers.
With Paul we come to confess that together, even against the evidence.
The night is far gone, the day is near,
so let us live as in the day.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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