Text: Romans 13: 8-14
I want to use my time today to encourage us to think about two virtues. A virtue is a quality of character. A virtue is an expression of who we are. All of us cultivate virtues over time. And the virtues we cultivate, or the virtues we practice, go a long way in determining how we respond to the things that happen to us. Down through the ages, this language of virtue has been a way for Christians to connect with good people outside the faith. Hope, self-control, justice, bravery, joyfulness, patience—these are virtues our neighbours praise and respect, just as we do.
I want to commend two virtues here: the virtue of love (of course) and the virtue of courage. Let’s do this in conversation with Paul’s words from Romans chapter 13.
Our reading from the middle of Romans 13 began with these words (v. 8): “Owe no one anything, except . . .” The recommendation from this community leader is that the little bands of Jesus-followers in Rome incur no debts, with one exception.
Some time ago I was paying my credit card bill and I happened to notice the actual minimum payment required. Regardless of what I actually owed for the month, all that I was required to pay was something like $10.00. I’ll just say that the difference between what I actually owed and what I was required to pay, was more than one order of magnitude.
What the credit card statement didn’t say, at least I didn’t notice it, was the rate of interest that I would be charged on everything that I didn’t pay. These interest rates are usually about 20%. Some cards will charge you nearly 30% interest.
Think about this: it’s counter-intuitive, but the credit company doesn’t actually want you to pay all that you owe them each month. They don’t make much money that way. Where they make their money is when you just make the minimum payment and they add the interest to your debt. The next month they add more interest. That’s when the company starts to make a whole lot of money just for doing math.
It’s easy to get into debt these days. I hope that none of you who are new to the Canadian financial system fall prey to this.
It was easy for the people Paul wrote to get into debt too. People in the ancient Mediterranean basin had bills. They had to pay taxes. Those Roman roads weren’t made from mud. The Roman legions didn’t hold bake sales.
But there is a difference between the sort of debt the ancient Christians often accrued and the debt we too easily find ourselves in. There’s a clue about the difference in Romans 13 verse 7, that’s the verse right before the passage that was read to us. We usually glide right past it. What Paul says is that the Christians in ancient Rome should give honor to those who were owed honor and respect to those who were owed respect.
Honor and respect were key concepts in that culture. It was the sort of stuff that kept you up at night: “Did I disrespect her?” “Are people taking note of the honor I deserve?” It might be a bit like the machismo we sometimes see displayed today, or what happens when a wealthy person gives a big donation to a school or some other organization and has their name plastered on the place. (Like when our congregation got that huge donation from Menno Simons)
Honor, respect, and the inverse, shame, were the social currency of the ancient near east. Those things were always exchanged in social interactions and relationships. It reminds me a bit of when I was in high school—but that might have just been my experience.
So what I understand Paul to be recommending is that we get all that stuff straightened out. Keep your accounts short. Don’t get into debt. Pay your taxes. Give honor and respect to those who deserve it. Don’t be needlessly antagonistic to the system.
Yet what Paul is really driving at is something else: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Paul goes on to list some of the guiding principles, or the commandments, of the Hebrew Scriptures. Then he sums them up, like Jesus, saying, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
There’s a lot going on here. Let me draw out a few things. First, consider that loving others isn’t something we finish. It’s not an account we can settle and clear. Maybe you remember paying off student debt or a car loan. You finally pay the last dollar and you can close the account—move on, focus on something else.
Love isn’t like that. It’s called forth from us constantly.
If loving others isn’t something we can finish and move on from, then we had better make it a part of our character. Some of the medieval theologians were fond of observing that you can never be too loving or too just. You can be too patient, too brave, too generous, too joyful, too serious, but not too loving.
Remember loving others isn’t being a doormat: it’s having their best interests at heart, even as we do for ourselves. Loving others also isn’t and excuse for being naïve. Love must be coupled with wisdom.
Yet it’s still true that we can’t be too formed by God’s love. Become more loving and you become more like God. There’s no risk in overdoing it. Paul is telling these ancient followers of Jesus that love is the fundamental currency of our social interactions. Love sums up our obligations to other people and to God. Hopefully being part of a church helps us do that.
At the beginning of this pandemic, people were pretty nice to each other (except for the guy in Tennessee who bought all the hand sanitizer and rubber gloves in the state). We were conscious of being “in this together.” However, for many of us, and the contexts in which we work or study, this has deteriorated. So these days I think we need to be mindful of another virtue. Love can’t stand alone. These days we also need the virtue of courage.
We need to be people of courage to continue to love our neighbours over the long haul. If we are to live up to this high calling, to continue in love, we need courage.
My family has recently been reading some of the early Harry Potter books. One of the things these books are about is courage. J.K. Rowling has woven this virtue into these books. Harry, who is the main character, continually needs courage to confront Lord Voldemort. Harry wouldn’t even have been alive if his parents hadn’t courageously stood up to an attack on their family.
This part of the story line is obviously important, yet like so many depictions of courage in our culture, it can also give us the impression that courage is primarily expressed in confrontation and conflict. This is what makes many super hero movies so boring. They can only imagine one kind of courage: Rambo-like confrontation, guns blazing, magic flashing, swords, fangs, screaming, explosions—that sort of thing. Fun, but morally immature.
This isn’t the kind of courage most relevant to us. If you know the Harry Potter books, you know there is another kind of courage presented. It’s the courage of Hermione Granger at the beginning of the story. Hermione is making her way in a world were some don’t think she belong. She doesn’t have the great family background that Harry and others do. But she studies hard. She keeps trying. For a year. Then two. She keeps on going.
What we need is the type of courage that is expressed in persistence and patience.
Here’s how Paul puts things together in another one of his letters: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” That’s I Corinthians 16, the conclusion of the letter.
So this I my prayer for our community these days: that we cultivate the virtue of love, as always, and that alongside love we cultivate the virtue of patient, courage. We cultivate these virtues by committing ourselves to them. We cultivate these virtues by praising them. We cultivate these virtues by telling stories where love and courage our expressed. And we cultivate these virtues by praying that God’s Spirit would grow our instincts to respond, in the little things, with love and courage.
So, wherever you are, receive this line as a prayer of blessing: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” Amen.