Monday, 5 September 2011

Owe no one anything...except to love

Romans 13.8-14, Matt 18.15-20

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…” That was St Paul’s advice to the Christians in Rome in the first reading we heard today. That passage was part of a much longer letter, and just before the words we heard Paul had been telling his hearers to make sure they honoured their obligations. “Pay to all what is due to them, “ he’d said, “ – taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenues are due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.”

Those words were just common sense and wouldn’t have been surprising to his Roman audience. They knew it was important to honour their obligations – they lived in a world that was shaped by obligations, a world where there was a rigid hierarchy, a world where everyone knew their place and mostly kept to it. Roman society ran on a system called patronage, where richer people - the patrons – supporting poorer people, known as clients, not employees as such, but hangers-on of one sort or another, who were supported by the patrons. The clients obviously got money out of this, but it also gave them friends in high places, which was very important when there was no welfare state and no concept of universal human rights – you needed powerful people who were on your side. But the patrons benefited from this system too. It gave them status and respect. Every morning there was a formal ceremony where clients came to greet their patrons – the bigger the crowd who attended on you, the more important, and wealthy, you obviously were. In return for your support, your clients had to be loyal to you, to vote for you if you stood for public office, for example. This system of obligation was the glue that held society together, but it was a rather fragile glue because it depended on people living up to their promises, playing their part. If a patron decided to drop a client there was nothing the client could do about it, and if a client got a better offer, the patron might find himself sliding down the social scale. “Pay to all what is due to them,” says Paul, “Owe no one anything” as the passage we heard began. Roman society wouldn’t work otherwise.

But then Paul goes on, and what he says next gives us a very different world-view, and one that was, and is, profoundly challenging.

“Owe no one anything except to love one another…”

You can pay all your dues, he is saying, meet all your obligations, fulfil all your contracts, do what you said you would do, but when you have done all of that, if you really want to call yourself a follower of Christ, you will only just have started. It is when obligation finishes, says Paul, that love begins. You may be able to pay people the money or work you owe, but love can’t be bought or traded. Love isn’t a transaction where “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”; it isn’t something we can get because we deserve or have earned it. Love, in the Christian understanding, is a gift without strings, freely given and freely received. If it has strings – conditions – limits – then it isn’t really love at all, says Paul.

For Christians the model for this love is the love God has for us. He loves us, says the Bible, not because of anything we have done to deserve it but simply because he chooses to. It is in his nature to love his children, just as it is in Jemima and Annabel’s parent’s nature to love their children. When Jemima and Annabel were born you didn’t sit down and work out how much love you thought it was worth giving them, how much they might repay over their life time – at least I hope you didn’t! You didn’t open an account and start recording how much love you put in and how much love they gave back, with the aim of giving them a final account to settle when they left home. And though I’m sure there are times when you feel frustrated or cross with them, that doesn’t mean you stop caring about them. God loves us like that, says the Bible, but the really challenging part of Paul’s message is that we are all called to love like that too, not just our families, but everyone who needs our help, whether they have anything to give us in return or not. Paul calls us to is a whole new way of looking at the world, not in terms of what’s in it for us, what we can grab and cling to, but what we can give. He calls us to love that is patient, that doesn’t give up.

Our Gospel reading tells us the same thing. It doesn’t look as if it does at first sight. In fact it looks as if it is stating the opposite, but bear with me and I’ll explain.

In it, Jesus tells his disciples what they should do if someone in their community does something seriously wrong. It is bound to happen – we are all human, and flawed, prone to hurting one another. When that happens, says Jesus, first of all you should try to sort it out face to face, honestly. If that doesn’t work, take one or two others with you and try again – they can act as mediators and witnesses. If things still aren’t sorted, let the whole community know what’s wrong. If that doesn’t work, and you really can’t persuade the person to change their ways, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” That’s the bit that sounds rather unfriendly at first sight, because Gentiles – non-Jews – and tax-collectors were widely despised in Jesus’ world. Respectable Jewish people weren’t supposed to associate with them – Gentiles didn’t keep the Jewish food laws, so they were unclean, and tax-collectors collaborated with the Romans. It sounds as if Jesus is telling people to have nothing to do with those who have hurt or offended them – put them out, ignore them, avoid them.

But there’s an irony in Jesus’ words here which perhaps only really becomes clear to us if we remember how Jesus actually treated Gentiles and tax-collectors himself. These people – and a whole bunch of others who were thought of as sinners – were just the people he went out of his way to spend time with. He was famous for it. He was often criticised for it by the respectable leaders of his society, but that didn’t stop him. He healed the child of a Roman soldier – a member of the occupying forces. He made a beeline for Zaccheus, a tax-collector who everyone hated, and invited himself into his home and into his life; “today salvation has come to Zaccheus’ house,” he declared to the crowd. They were horrified, but it turned Zaccheus’ life around completely. We don’t know for sure who wrote the Gospels, but the one from whom this story comes was ascribed from an early age to Matthew. And who was Matthew? He was a tax-collector, called by Jesus to leave his work and follow him.

Jesus’ words here aren’t an instruction to shun someone who has hurt you, or give up on them, but quite the reverse. It is a call to go back to the beginning with them, to remind yourself that this too is a child of God, just as you are, and someone who needs love more than ever. What that kind of love might look like in practice, how it might be expressed, depends on the circumstances – it doesn’t necessarily mean putting yourself back into their hands again for example. But we aren’t given the option of writing people off.

Like I said, it is a whole different world view from the one we see around us a lot of the time, but it is the way of Christ. Christian faith isn’t about assenting to a bunch of unlikely sounding theological ideas, it is about loving – “by this will all people know you are my followers,” said Jesus in another place. It is the way of life we are launching Jemima and Annabel on today in baptism, and it’s a tough challenge. Fortunately though, they aren’t alone in it. In Baptism parents and god-parents are backed by the whole church community as they promise to “walk with them in the way of Christ” - not give them directions while we wave them off on the journey, but to take to the road by their side. We are not spectators; we are fellow travellers, welcoming Jemima and Annabel into the company of a pilgrim people. They call us back to the promises we have made for ourselves to “walk in the way of Christ” as we learn to love as he loves us. Their baptisms, like all baptisms, are a wonderful moment for all of us who call ourselves Christian to ask where we are on that road of love.


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