Summary: "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; 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
I’ve decided to speak this morning on one of the most unnerving and threatening pieces of Scripture I’ve ever come across - threatening and unnerving at least for professional clerics like myself (people who get paid to teach the Bible). The passage is from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, chapter 13:
"Owe no one anything, except to love one another; 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, ’Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law."
Ugh! It makes me shudder! What gall, to suggest that it could all be so simple - to suggest that the entire ethics of the Scriptures can be reduced down to a simple command to love, and that the one who has loved has fulfilled the law.
Surely it can’t be that simple, for if it were that simple, you wouldn’t need to employ me - with all my University degrees and prestigious title and library full of books - to teach you the Scriptures! Not if it’s all that simple! If that’s all there is to it, I reckon you can work the rest out for ourselves!
I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if you’re employing a professional to teach you the Scriptures, the implication is that this book requires professional training before you can really come to terms with it. These must be highly obscure books with mysterious hidden messages.
And of course professorial figures like me come at a price! We have to be compensated for all those years of training and hard study, but surely that’s a small price to pay if it means you now have someone to guide you through these ancient books in all their Byzantine complexity, and can so discern the inscrutable will of God.
But not if it’s all this simple; not if there’s just one simple commandment - “love one another” - and the rest is just application. Maybe it’s time I started looking for something to do with my hands?
“The one who loves another has fulfilled the law”, says St Paul. And maybe we could write this off as one of St Paul’s more manic moments, except that I think Paul got this teaching from Jesus, didn’t he?
Wasn’t it Jesus who, when asked what the most important commandments were, didn’t just say that loving God and neighbour were the most important commandments. He went further to say, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 20:40). In other words, not only is the law of love central to the Scriptures, but it is at the basis of every other law and command we find in Scriptures, and indeed none of these other laws or commandments can be understood except as applications of this law of love!
I suspect that this is one of the key reasons Jesus upset his religious peers so much. I think they feared that he was going to put them out of a job.
Now I don’t pretend to have any deep knowledge of the way Rabbi’s worked then or now, but my understanding is that the basic job of a Rabbi was (and is) to give rulings from God’s law that apply to the different situations of life.
You come to a Rabbi and you can ask him anything from, ‘Is it permitted for me to kill someone who has broken into my house?’ to ‘Is it permitted for me to mix milk into my gravy?’ and the Rabbi’s job is to tell you, ‘It is permitted’ or ‘It is not permitted’ based on his unravelling the multiple stands of the Torah. And it’s a tough job, because the Mosaic law is long and complex.
And professional clerics in Islam have a similarly difficult job, as I understand it, for when you read the Koran you’ll find that it too is a complex web of rules and regulations that require some expertise to work through.
But not so for the Christian, according to St Paul, and according to Jesus. All the law and the prophets - the totality of the exhortations of the Scriptures - go back to one simple command to love, and “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” So if you’re in a situation where you are not sure what you should be doing, all you need to ask is, ‘what does love dictate?’ and you have discerned the will of God! It’s that simple!
Now I want to take a moment to reflect on just how radical a formula that is, and, frankly, just how irreligious that is, as a basis for a system of ethics. For it seems to me that the traditional religious basis for determining whether or not something is the will of God is not on the basis of whether or not it is loving, but on the basis of whether or not “it is written”.