“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”
Since when has love been a debt?
Our epistle passage begins with Paul’s advice to not owe anyone anything—which seems fair. It’s not a good habit to rack up IOUs, whether that’s money or favors or time. Nobody wants to always be looking over their shoulder come pay-day, knowing that the creditors are on their way. But then the apostle goes on. “Owe no one anything,” he says, “except in this one area: love.”
“You have a continuing debt,” Paul tells us. Don’t forget to pay up.
For many of us, that’s news. Digging around in our purse or rifling through our briefcase, we pull out the relational checkbook. Who is it that we’ve borrowed from and not paid back? Our neighbors? Besides a cup of sugar and an occasional tomato, not really. God? What happened to needing nothing but faith? And how does this kind of transaction work? If we miss a payment, do we forfeit . . . something? Will we watch as creditors carry off what once was ours, leaving us with an empty house, an empty garage, and an empty feeling in our stomachs?
Paul has spent much of his letter to the Roman church assuring them—and us—that faith in God and faith in God alone is what saves. Nowhere has he hinted that there’s some kind of cosmic loan shark watching the mail for our monthly payment. What does it mean, then, that we are in debt, that we owe love to people we’ve never borrowed from? And that, according to Paul, we should keep ourselves in such a state?
The answer lies in what has been done for us. “Jesus paid it all. All to him we owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow.” This fact doesn’t mean that God has given us a free gift and neglected to tell us that we actually have to work for it. What it does mean is that we have been freed by Christ to live like him, freed once and for all to love our neighbors—even the grouchy ones—as Christ loves us: with no holding back.
Paul tells us to outdo one another in doing good because Christ died for us. Always be in debt, he says, always owe more love to your neighbor—for this is the way of Christ, the overflowing cup of his love that testifies to God’s mercy in the world. And it really does. Every time we bring water to an enemy, every time we return blessing for cursing, every time we count ourselves less than those around us, God is glorified and the Gospel is proclaimed.
We have been redeemed and the debt we owe is really no debt at all but is rather the constant search to worship God by loving our neighbors. Christ has revealed to us what we have been saved from; he has also shown us what we have been saved for: communion with God that will transform everything, right on down to our most mundane relationships. He has done this not so we might earn his regard but so the world might continue to witness his Spirit as we love another.
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” May we remember this week Paul’s command to us and the power in which we can fulfill it, the power that can “change the leper’s spots and melt the heart of stone.” AMEN.