The 17th Sunday after Pentecost (September 7, 2008)
“Pay What You Owe” (Romans 13:1-10)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In today’s Epistle lesson, St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is owed them.” And I bet you all owe something. Everyone is in debt to one degree or another nowadays. Most of you have mortgages or rent to pay. You have car payments. You have utility bills to pay. You have credit cards with high interest that you have a hard time digging out from underneath. And lately it’s been getting harder and harder to keep up because of such high gas prices and rising food prices.
Now if it sounds like I’m about to give a give a political speech, don’t worry. I’m not. You’ve heard enough of those over the last couple of weeks at two different party conventions. And you’re going to hear a lot more in the weeks ahead leading up to the presidential election in November. But if I was a candidate, I’d probably be up here telling you what the government is going to do for you to make things easier for you. Cut taxes! Reduce the federal deficit! Reduce our dependence on foreign oil! Help you afford to pay for your child’s college education! Yada, yada, yada.
But I’m not going to tell you what the government owes you. I’m going to tell you what you owe the government. Ouch. That gets us right where it hurts. We don’t like to hear that kind of talk. “Sure, I may owe taxes, but other than that, I don’t owe the government anything. They need to just stay out of my business!” We don’t like being told what to do, especially when the government passes laws that seem so petty to us or that intrude on our personal freedom, like mandatory seat-belt laws, or forbidding smoking in eating establishments, or making it illegal to use our cell phone while driving.
You Owe the Government Obedience
St. Paul, however, makes it clear in Romans 13 that you do owe the government something. You owe it obedience. Paul begins by saying “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” You and I are subject to the highest authority, which is God. At the same time, God has placed us under earthly authorities. You know this from the time you learned the Fourth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother,” the first authorities under whom God placed us. And in Luther’s explanation in the Catechism, he explains that we are to honor, serve, obey, love, and cherish “other authorities” beside our parents.
Created in the image of God, we are all equal ... man, woman, child, servant, master, Jew, Gentile. But on this side of heaven, God has ordered things so that there are some who are above us in society, in our communities, and in our families. In particular, God has placed rulers over us. Thankfully, we live in a country where we get to choose our leaders. But the bottom line is this: they are placed there by God and we owe them obedience and respect. He uses governmental authorities to preserve life, keep guard, maintain order, fight against enemies, put down rebellion, and punish those who rebel and resist.
In our text, Paul calls them “servants (diakonos)” of God: “For he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God’s wrath, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” So, rulers are servants of God for the good. God blesses us with his care and protection through the governing authorities. But they are also servants of God as agents of his wrath upon wrongdoers. God is actually the one doing the punishing through our rulers. This is their vocation, both protecting and punishing.
Interestingly, in verse 6 Paul also calls them “ministers,” but literally the word is “liturgists (leitourgos).” “Liturgy” is a church word, of course. When we use it, we refer to the way God serves us in Word and Sacrament, and then our response of sacrificial living out of gratitude for what God has done for us. But in Paul’s day, “liturgy” referred to the work that a citizen did on behalf of the empire. And so in that sense, our rulers are “liturgists” of God. They are doing public service on God’s behalf, whether they acknowledge this or not. For example, the Roman rulers in Paul’s day certainly thought they were serving the gods, but not the one and only Triune God. Yet they were still acting as God’s servants, God’s liturgists. Also, God called the unbelieving Persian ruler Cyrus “my shepherd” (Is. 44:28) and “my messiah” (Is. 45:1) because the Lord used Cyrus to bring the people of Judah out of exile in Babylon. And so, in the Church’s liturgy we pray for pious and faithful rulers who understand what it means to be “liturgists” of God, so that we might “lead a peaceful and quiet life” as Paul wrote to Timothy (1 Tim. 2:2). And we ought to pray that this would make a difference in the lives of politicians who act and rule accordingly and do not let the trappings of power change their hearts and their motivations for public service.
Too many times we’ve seen that there are those who don’t understand this. Some think they are above the law. They allow themselves to be bribed. They look out for their own self-interests. And so we tend to lump politicians all together. We rebel and resist God’s servants. We speak hateful things against those with whom we disagree politically. We buy into the slander and lies that get told about them, whether by the media or by what gets thrown around on the internet. We curse them instead of praying for them. For all this, we must repent.
Yet there may, indeed, come a time when we are allowed to resist the government. We must resist when we are impelled to do something against God’s Word. In the Book of Acts, the Apostles were ordered to stop teaching about Jesus. Peter and the others answered, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) In our day, the government says that abortion on demand is legal. We must resist and do all we can to change those laws and support pro-life causes, pregnancy resource centers, and adoption agencies. In our day, state governments are redefining marriage as no longer only between a man and a woman. We must resist this, even if it means the possibility of legal action against pastors who refuse to perform ceremonies which are against his conscience ... but more importantly, against God’s Holy Word. But when we do this, we must never do it in a spirit of hatred or vengeance, but as St. Peter urges, “do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” (1 Pet. 3:16)
You Owe Your Neighbor Love
In the second half of our text, Paul moves from talking about owing obedience to your government, and asserts that you also owe your neighbor love. “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, 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: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”
So how are we doing here? When we compare ourselves to the commandments Paul mentions in our text, we recognize that we’re not doing so hot. In fact, we’ve failed miserably. We’ve had impure thoughts. We’ve wished harm on others. We’ve resented the fact that others have more than we do. We’ve not fulfilled the law. We are in debt to God, and we’re in deep, way over our heads. Like someone buried under a heavy financial burden, we’re going to have a hard time trying to dig ourselves out.
Jesus Paid What We Owe
But our Lord Jesus paid what we owe. Where we owe obedience to the government, Jesus obeyed the governing authorities perfectly for us. Jesus obeyed the government, the very government that unjustly sent him to the cross. Pontius Pilate was the agent of God’s wrath, even though Jesus was perfectly innocent. But this was all a part of God’s plan. Jesus suffered the wrath of God for our sins and died with those sins laid upon him. He paid the price for our sins of resisting the government, our sins of hatred against those with whom we disagree politically, our sins of not loving our neighbor as ourself.
And talk about loving your neighbor! Jesus treated us as a neighbor. Jesus fulfilled the law for us by loving us to the very end, by giving his life in exchange for ours. And he continues to treat us as his neighbor. Remember the definition of “neighbor.” It’s anyone whom God brings near to you and needs your help. That describes us and our relationship to God. We desperately need his help ... his mercy and forgiveness. And he draws near to us to help us ... to save us and forgive us ... in the waters of Baptism, in the Word of the Gospel, and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion.
Jesus didn’t come to start a rebellion. When he was being arrested, Peter drew his sword in defense of his master. But Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled?” (Matt. 26:52-54) And when Jesus was on trial, he made no attempt to defend himself. Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given to you from above.” (John 19:10-11)
Jesus didn’t come to start a rebellion. He didn’t come to establish a new earthly government. He already rules and reigns over all creation, what we call his kingdom of power. He rules and reigns over all earthly governments, because he is God Almighty. But Jesus also said that His kingdom is not of this world. Instead, his kingdom is his rule of grace in our hearts by faith.
Jesus has brought you into his kingdom of grace, the Church, by Baptism and by faith.
Jesus feeds you in his kingdom of grace with his body and blood.
Jesus forgives you in his kingdom of grace with the Word of the Gospel, the Word of Absolution, that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, your sins are washed away; your debt has been paid.
Through all of this, your Lord Jesus is preparing you for his kingdom of glory where you will live forever with him in his unveiled presence.
As we await that day, with the Holy Spirit guiding us and directing us, we can obey the ruling authorities whom God has placed over us. We can pray for them. And we can participate as conscientious Christian citizens in the political process, insuring a stable society so that we can be freed to be on the lookout for more and more opportunities to love our neighbor as ourselves.