Grace Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2017, Pentecost 13A
That’s Not What It Says
When North Korea fired a missile that passed over a portion of Japan this week (not to mention detonated a nuclear device overnight), it served as a reminder that, before the second once-in-a-lifetime hurricane of my lifetime and before the awful events in Charlottesville, Virginia, there was a point when this country was seemingly too close to a nuclear encounter with North Korea, to the point that both South Korea and the island of Guam were both caught up in the tension and seemingly in the crosshairs. Remember that, just a few weeks ago?
During that particular moment of crisis, a prominent evangelical pastor, Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church of Dallas (a prominent supporter of the US administration), offered the opinion that scripture gave the president authority to “take out” North Korea, and particularly its dictator. The particular scripture he cited was no less than Romans 13, the chapter we’ve just heard. This pastor also went so far as specifically to reject any application of Romans 12 to the situation – remember last week, those difficult passages about not repaying evil for evil and overcoming evil with love?[i]
While Romans 13 (particularly the first seven verses) has been a difficult and oft-abused passage of scripture virtually since it was first written down, the particular interpretation offered here (that these verses give a government carte blanche to do as it plases) is one that has been roundly denounced since the earliest days of the church. The precise theological term for such a reading is … “nuts.” “Bonkers” also works.
One could go through a laundry list of problems with such an interpretation; not all who study this scripture even grant that the “ruling authorities” spoken of here are governmental authorities; some contend that they are the “governing authorities” of the synagogue, or possibly military authorities; and as well, the description given isn’t really congruent with even Paul’s own experience (in enough Roman jails to qualify for frequent-stayer points) with the “governing authorities” of the Roman Empire (although it is interesting to note that when Paul is brought before officials of the Empire in Acts 26 and 27 – events after this letter was written – he did treat those officials with a formal, but not slavish, deference). Even the instructions given in those seven verses don’t seem to hold water in every case in scripture; the Hebrews in today’s reading from Exodus clearly are not submitting to the authority of the Egyptian government, for example.
But the biggest problem with such a reading is that the verses do not speak to those “governing authorities” at all. No, the passage speaks to those followers of Christ who are under the authority of such ruling authorities, addressing how they are to respond to those in authority. Paul is not a stupid person, and knows enough to know that he’s in no position to speak to “governing authorities” and tell them how to do their business. No, the only instruction here is to followers of Christ, and while their power is acknowledged, no “governing authorities” are given any kind of permission at all.
(As a side note, it’s interesting to see that Part of Paul’s instruction to those followers of Christ is to … pay their taxes, echoing Jesus’s instruction in Mark 12:17.)
In the bigger picture, though, one of the biggest problems with such an interpretation of Romans 13:1-7 is that it tends to drown out the hard-hitting teaching of Romans 13:8-14. Continuing with the theme expressed so vividly in chapter 12, Paul charges his hearers with a devastatingly simple command: “Owe no one anything, but to love one another.” Echoing Jesus’s words in Matthew 22:39, Paul rolls up instruction from the Ten Commandments into the mandate to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and caps the teaching with the powerful conclusion: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
There it is. All of Paul’s wrangling about the law and its insufficiency to save us; about the power of sin in our lives and the needfulness of God’s grace to overcome it; about presenting ourselves as living offerings and being transformed by the renewing of our minds; and in the end, it comes down to loving one another, which of course Jesus had already said.
The portion that follows addresses something that hasn’t come up so much in Romans so far but is a consistent part of Paul’s thought. Among many other things, Paul’s faith is apocalyptic – not in the sense of unavoidable future disaster that tends to cling to the word these days but in the sense of expecting an imminent return of Christ. It didn’t work out that way for Paul, clearly, but his point still holds: live like it could happen any time now. Live honorably, live in light, live in Christ. And of course, to live in such a way is inextricably bound in the love Paul has extolled in these chapters of this letter.
That love for one another is part of why we gather together like this, why we gather around this table, why we give of our time and money for the poor and homeless in our town served by Family Promise this week, or those ravaged by Hurricane Harvey out in Texas, facing years of recovery. It’s why we’re there for funerals and the receptions that follow, for weddings or baptisms or confirmation or the addition of new members; it’s why we don’t cut ourselves off from the community in which we live.
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #35, Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty; #366, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling; #503, Lord, We Have Come at Your Own Invitation; #754, Help Us Accept Each Other