Summary: As our church considers who we really are as the Body of Christ, we find it necessary to focus on some very core scriptures about Christian Behavior. This is one of them.
Text: Romans 13:8-14
I know this is going to sound surprising to those of us who live near, in, or work and/or play in the City of Chicago, but I once saw a police officer turn down free coffee and doughnuts. Yes, that’s right. I was on a “ride along” with an officer in Redondo Beach, California. It was a graveyard shift and we stopped at a local 7-11 for a caffeine pick-me-up and a brief sugar high. When we brought our goodies to the counter, the clerk behind the counter started to wave the officer off, even though I had my money in my hand and the officer was reaching for his wallet. The officer thanked him, but pulled out his wallet and paid for his refreshments. Not being in uniform and not looking like a detective lieutenant, I didn’t have the option of free coffee and doughnuts. When we got back into the patrol car, I asked the officer what that was all about. He said, “Just about everyone tries to offer something to us. Maybe it’s just a way of saying ‘Thank you,’ but, more than likely, it’s a way of trying to buy our services. Take a handout and then, someone comes in, you get a call, and then, you don’t get there as fast as they want, they’ll scream, ‘I gave the police such-and-such, but they didn’t so much as arrive promptly.’ Then, you get in trouble and people claim you’ve been bribed for something as little as a coffee and doughnut. It’s much better simply to say, ‘No!’”
Now, I know that those of us in the Chicago area wish police shakedowns would settle for a coffee and doughnut, but our history teaches us better than that. However, the point of this story rests in the officer’s explanation. He felt it was wrong for any public servant to become obligated, even in the smallest way, to any one individual or institution. It may just be “coffee and doughnuts” today, but it is liable to be paying off a medical bill or putting a kid through college tomorrow. But the implied obligation is there, regardless of the price. And the implied obligation potentially impacts the way the officer might do his duty. Does he ignore a drunken driver to rush to an alarm at the 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts? Does he allow people on the road to face danger in order to possibly catch a robber or roust a disorderly drunk at the convenience store or doughnut shop? That police officer certainly showed wisdom in refusing to become obligated to that 7-11 store owner (though, I knew some officers who didn’t hesitate accepting entire meals free at Pancho and Wong’s, the strange combination of Mexican and Chinese food served at a then favorite hangout for the P.D.).
When Romans 13:8 tells us not to owe anything to another person, it is warning us about the dangers of OBLIGATION. Obligation handcuffs us to someone else’s timetable, someone else’s will. The biggest danger of obligation is that it might tie us up when we need to be finding and doing God’s will. We might be dealing with a shoplifter who nabbed a candy bar when we could be stopping manslaughter elsewhere by getting that drunk driver off the street. Whatever that analogy might mean for the Christian life, it means that we would be going through the motions of whatever duty we’ve inherited through obligation instead of actively loving through voluntary actions motivated by authentic concern.
The Greek uses negatives for emphasis here. Owe NO ONE. Owe NOTHING. A strict logician would take the double negative of owing no one nothing and say, “I need to owe something to everyone. The Bible says to max out my credit.” Actually, the piling on of negatives is something like the old Southern saying. “I ain’t gonna’ do it—no way, no how!” In other words, there is just no possible way that I’m going to do something. I like C. K. Barrett’s interpretive translation of this verse: “Let your only indebtedness be the mutual love you are bound to owe as Christians.” [Harper’s New Testament Commentaries: The Book of Romans, p. 250]
I don’t believe this verse is teaching about consumer credit or forbidding believers from purchasing houses with a mortgage. For one thing, except when we are experiencing a bubble-bursting like the current housing market (and even then, folks like Yoon and Peggy have managed to sell a house successfully in the last few weeks), buying a house is actually investing in value. Real estate generally grows in value, so you have to factor in what you might lose if you don’t invest against the extra you might have to pay in interest. We can’t say the same for cars, but there are some of you who couldn’t drive a car at all if you didn’t get one via a payment plan. I don’t want you to feel guilty about that.