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 effect 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 the Creator God. When one considers the context in which Paul delivers the statement of verse eight, it should be noticed that he begins 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 the covenant 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 the Creator God and the nature of their interaction with governing authorities.
There the Creator God’s people, via the Psalmist, are heard 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 this 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 the Creator’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 insists “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).