Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. – Romans 13:8 (NET)
In the thirteenth chapter of Romans, Paul extends his discourse from chapter twelve, which delineated the love that will be exercised within the Christian community, writing “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (13:8). This statement takes into consideration the pervasive structure of the debtor society of the Greco-Roman world, while it also seems to address the attendant and entrenched system of patronage and benefaction. Those that are instructed to “Owe no one anything” are encouraged to take the necessary steps to free themselves from the encumbrances of debt, and therefore free themselves from having to acquire a benefactor, as slipping into or maintaining such cultural norms will diminish the impact of the Christian community as a force for societal transformation, while it also, possibly, has a deleterious effects on the Christian meal table.
The Christian, Paul would surely insist, is to be the patron of only one benefactor, that being Jesus, thus allowing the Christian to take the position of being a loving and altruistic benefactor to his community, his country, and to the world, as an enthusiastic representative of the kingdom of God. When we consider the context in which Paul delivers the statement of verse eight, we see that he began with “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1). This is the paradoxical situation of the Christian.
Yes, the confessed member of the body of Christ owes his allegiance to the kingdom of God, and yes, the Christian message is quite subversive in that it recognizes Jesus as the King of kings. However, the Christian lives with a tension, recognizing “God’s appointment” of authorities. That paradoxical tension of respectful subversiveness is well explicated by the second Psalm, which provides an example to be followed by the people of God and the nature of their interaction with governing authorities. There we find God’s people, via the Psalmist, saying “So now, you kings, do what is wise; you rulers of the earth, submit to correction! Serve the Lord in fear! Repent in terror. Give sincere homage! Otherwise He will be angry, and you will die because of your behavior, when His anger quickly ignites” (2:10-12a). While this can also be taken as words of warning to those that God intends to be His kings and rulers in this world---His divine image bearers, it is well-understood to be directed to human authority figures.
Undoubtedly, this is directed firstly to the kings of Israel, and then by extension, to the kings of the earth as God’s people take up their role to be a shining light to the nations that do indeed exemplify divine blessing, with a desire to be continuous extensions of the positive end of the Abrahamic covenant (a blessing to all peoples). Such is neatly summed up by the last part of verse twelve of the second Psalm, in which we read “How blessed are all who take shelter in him!” It is in this light, the light of love and the opportunity to be a legitimate and well-received voice to those rulers that are in need of submission to the imperial claims of Jesus, that Paul writes “For this reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants devoted to governing. Pay everyone what is owed: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (13:6-7).
As we read about “respect” and “honor,” we must remember the culture of honor and shame, and understand this part of what Paul is saying accordingly. Naturally, if the Christian has complied with his duty to be a voice to the rulers, doing good so as to receive their commendation (13:3b), with this doing of good the language of public benefaction; and if the church has been complicit in its responsibilities to care for orphans, widows, lepers (sick), and the poor, then the governing authorities will be able to restrict the scope of its activities to being “God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer” (13:4b), rather than engaging in all manners of activities with which the Christian will find disagreeable. This then, allows the Christian to pay taxes with a clear conscience, properly acknowledging God’s provision of those charged with government functions.
Of course, this also bears on the responsibility of the church to communicate the words of one who preached the kingdom of God, as in the Gospel of Luke we find it recorded of John the Baptist that “Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He told them, ‘Collect no more than you are required to.’” (3:12-13). The idea that tax collectors would collect only that which they were required to collect would have been quite the radical notion in that day, as it was well understood that tax collectors, quite simply, collected more than what was required, lining their pockets and enriching themselves with the excess. Yes, this issue of government and taxes, as presented by Paul, must be understood within the context of the church’s responsibility to embody the love of God by effectively preaching the Gospel of the kingdom and living out in their own community the principles of that kingdom.