Saturday, December 27, 2014

Love & The Public Good (part 2)

When reading about “respect” and “honor,” one 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 (Romans 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 their 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 the Creator God, as the Gospel of Luke records 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.’” (Luke 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 its God by effectively preaching the Gospel of the kingdom and living out in their own community the principles of that kingdom. 

If a government, on this side of the cross, has become oppressive, with oppression generally linked to high levels of taxation (while understanding that the average person under the Roman empire paid well over half of their income---in the course of a subsistence lifestyle---in taxes, with this often leading to debt and ultimately slavery, which brings in the issue of “owe no one anything”), then the church of the Christ need only look at itself and its failure to remain true to Jesus’ message of the advent of the kingdom of the covenant God, and of that God’s desire to bring the rule of heaven to earth, as it has most likely retreated into an escapist fixation that limits the acceptance of Jesus’ challenging and world-altering message to going to heaven when one dies. 

It is worthwhile to re-read this section as a whole so that one can frame it within a statement made very early in this letter to the Romans.  Paul writes “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. Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  For the commandments, ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,’ (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (13:7-10). 

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