By Bill Leonard
We recently purchased a new car, the first we’ve bought since 2005. “Sticker shock” is an understatement in 2014. That’s why St. Paul caught my attention with his advice to the Roman Christians: “Leave no debt outstanding, but remember the debt of love you owe one another.” That’s how the Revised English Version introduces Romans 13:8-14, a recent lectionary text.
This fall my colleague Katherine Shaner encouraged our faculty to revisit Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer — “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” We who habitually pray Luke’s version might occasionally “trespass” into debt/debtor language for insights into the spiritual and economic implications of God’s expansive grace. (Strangely poignant when buying a new car?)
“Remember the debt of love you owe one another.” What debts of love do we owe individuals who’ve carried us along the way? During seminary in Fort Worth, I served as minister of youth at a now defunct congregation in Mesquite, Texas, 40 miles away. One member, a woman named Venna Bullard, owned a beauty parlor in east Dallas and most Sunday nights, before I drove my Volkswagen Beatle back to Fort Worth, she’d slip me 10 bucks. “It’s gas money, Billy,” she’d say, squeezing my hand. The 10-spots came from the tips she got perming church-women’s hair. I was beneficiary of those Saturday “cut n’ curls.”
Venna Bullard died years ago from Alzheimer’s-related illness, the memory of those benevolent moments long lost. But I remember. That Sunday cash helped me immensely — in those days you could drive a Volkswagen Beatle for a month on $10 — but it was more than economic, a debt of love I still owe. Such moments of grace make us debtors to folks who staked us spiritually, materially, unforgettably.
Extending love’s complexity, Paul adds: “Those who love their neighbors have met every requirement of the law.” What’s that love like? In First Corinthians, Paul says it is gentle, kind; doesn’t keep score; never fails.Yet such love often is not gentle or easy; it gets tiresome; wears us out. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Paul admonishes, and we respond: “OK, but you never met our neighbors,” the next-door ones with the damnable dogs, the workplace ones who condescend; the ones who _______ (fill in the blank). Perhaps love is easy; it’s the neighbors who are difficult.
And what if the neighbor breaks the law, is sexually inappropriate, abusive or life-threatening? What do we do when the people we trusted to keep the law in church or society actually misuse it? Barbara Lundblad writes that earlier in Romans Paul urges Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities.” She asks: “What happens when the government tramples neighbor-love into the ground? Whatever Paul’s reason for the shift in subjects, he probably knew what we know: loving our neighbors is not simple — not between Sunnis and Shiites, not between Palestinians and Israelis, not between white police officers and young Black men. Maybe it was easier for Paul to write about love to believers in Rome because he hadn’t visited them yet!”
She’s right. Sometimes you love your neighbors as yourself and they throw it right back in your face.
As if love weren’t complex enough, Paul adds: “Always remember that this is the hour of crisis; it is high time for you to wake out of sleep ….” Two thousand years later, the “hour of crisis” is old news. We can watch CNN for five minutes and know that! So then and now he advises: “Put off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light?” The debt of love we owe extends to those who, wearing light’s armor in times of crisis, stand up in the danger zones locally or globally. Love of neighbor is inseparable from justice.
Michael Eric Dyson says, “Justice is love when it speaks in public.” Sometimes life and gospel demand that we stand for justice because some of our neighbors are too bruised and broken to stand up for themselves. Recently Reverend William Barber, North Carolina pastor and leader of the Moral Monday movement, reminded a Wake Forest School of Divinity audience that some of our neighbors still can’t get health care, don’t have enough to eat, can’t find jobs or are jailed for crimes they didn’t commit. (North Carolina recently freed two innocent men after 30 years of false imprisonment.) Barber concluded: “Higher ground is where we see the poor as our neighbors — our brothers’ keepers, our sisters’ keepers — and where we keep them rather than the wealthy in the center of the political agenda. … Those who love freedom and justice cannot settle for lower ground.” We’d best stand up while we can, since there will surely come a time when we need somebody to stand up for us.
If the gospel really is true, then loving our neighbor isn’t merely an option, it’s a mandate. Why? Well, the frontier revivalists sang: “But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe. Here, Lord, I give myself away; tis’ all that I can do.” At the Cross. Remember?