NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER THIRTEEN (Lesson X)
Albert Barnes gives a number of reasons why Christians should do what Paul says here. Since part of our duty as good citizens is not to do what the law tells us not to do. And because it is part of the Law which teaches us to love our neighbor, and to “do them no harm or injury,”1 that does not make it an option but a duty. The interpretation of this command is to be taken with this limitation, that we should never feel compelled to pay back our neighbor for doing something wrong that would harm or injure them. This rule, together with the other principles of Christianity, would certainly go a long way in solving many of today’s problems in society.
Some of the reasons Barnes mentions are: (1) It would teach people not to take on more than they could financially handle, and this would commonly prevent the necessity of going into debt. (2) It would make them frugal, economical, and humble in their views and manner of living. (3) It would teach them to raise their families with habits of not wanting more than they need. The Bible often teaches this.2 (4) Religion would produce a sober, disciplined view of the end of life, to enjoy the benefits of all that we’ve worked for. This would also eliminate the desire for expensive items and extravagances that often land people in debt.3 (5) Religion would control becoming involved in vices and unlawful desires which now prompt people to take on debts (6) It would make them honest in paying what they owe. It would make them conscientious, prompt, friends of truth, and disposed to keep their promises.4
Frédéric Godet concurs that believers should never go into debt over their heads. The only debt that believers are allowed to let accumulate is the debt of love they owe to God and their fellowman. In fact, being kind and loving is endless, and the more active love is the more things it finds to love. This debt the believer carries with them throughout their lifetime. But they are to avoid becoming indebted for things in this world they are unable to pay. However, when it comes to the debt of love, that is not our choice, that is the Law of Love. And by continuing to find a way to take on more debt of love, the more our obligation will grant us the joy of paying what we owe. And as Jesus and Paul are telling us, by doing so, all the laws, not just the Law of Love, are fully complied with.5 I’m sure if Godet were alive today he would agree that items such as a home and car are beyond what most people have saved up, so taking out a loan would be permissible.
Charles Ellicott says that many scholars compare this passage on owing no one anything with Matthew 22:39-40; Galatians 5:14; and James 2:8. It shows how thoroughly the Spirit of the Founder of Christianity descended upon His followers, that the same teaching should appear with equal prominence in such opposite epistles. The focusing, as it were, of all morality in this brief compass is one of the great gifts of Christianity to the world. No doubt, similar sayings existed before, and that by our Lord Himself was taken from the First Covenant. But by Paul’s day, it had been coated with ceremonial rules and regulations, while in other cultures moralists put it forward as a philosophical theory rather than as a practical basis of morality. In Christianity, it is taken as the force that will move the world. And it has proven to be impossible to find in the way people live and all the codes of conduct any other principle that is as plain, as powerful, and as profound as love.6
Charles Spurgeon said that there is nothing more abhorrent to him than being in debt. He said that being in debt would be like coming into the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London to put a 100 British Pound note that he borrowed from the bank or some fellow believer in the offering.7 Spurgeon said that had he done so, the words, “Owe no one anything” would have stared him in the face whenever he got into the pulpit and tried to preach. Spurgeon takes Paul’s word to mean that no one should ever go into debt. Even if a church is trying to raise money for a special project, no one should go into debt in order to give to the cause. Paying attention to the simple Word of God is far better than trying to justify it by promoting how much good it would do. Spurgeon asked his congregation never to approve borrowing money in order to enhance or renovate the Metropolitan Tabernacle so that when they came to church they could look around and see that all had been paid.8 Spurgeon would not be as popular today preaching to a society that lives mostly on credit.
One Jewish writer gives us his perspective on Paul’s teaching here about going into debt. He reminds us that the Temple tax was collected by synagogue ministers and paid by Gentile converts as well. This did not sit well with many new followers of Yeshua who, even though they paid the Temple tax, were not allowed, as Gentiles were, to participate in all Temple activities. Both Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus attest to this custom, with the latter criticizing such Gentiles as “people of the worst sort,” who, “renouncing their ancestral religions, would send their tribute and gifts there (to Jerusalem) in heaps.”9
This same writer also mentions that the term “honor” has the sense of proper moral behavior in accord with the Torah.10 Jewish catacombs have designations of “all honor” for those of higher office, namely, the interpreters of good and evil. Paul calls believers to honor those authorities with regard to their duties including Temple tax collection. Even though Paul says to pay what you owe and owe nothing to anyone except to love each other, we should also take note that “honoring your parents” included financial support11.12
Verse 9: The Law says, “You must not commit adultery, you must not murder anyone, you must not steal, you must not want what belongs to someone else.”13 All these commands and all other commands are really only one rule: “Love your neighbor14 the same as you love yourself.”15
Loving our neighbor as ourselves has more often than not been misinterpreted. First of all, it is not just the person living next door. Jesus clearly shows us this in His parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Therefore, since the English word “neighbor” has taken on such a restricted meaning, we would be closer to the original intent by changing it to our “fellowman.” Some have also suggested that Paul was trying to say that we should plan to treat our fellowman as we would want our fellowman to treat us, but that leaves it open to a lot of different interpretations.
There may be times when someone will manipulate their fellowman just to get what they want. However, the whole purpose of treating them honorably opens the door for us to respond to our fellowman graciously, thereby giving them an example of how to treat others. It is clear that Paul is proposing that, “Love hurts nobody,” therefore, love is the way to answer the Law’s commands. Paul is quoting from Leviticus 19:16, and Jesus, to back up his teaching, therefore, for him, it is not an option. You will love and treat your fellowman with the same considerations you reserve for yourself. It doesn’t say that your fellowman must be first and foremost; neither does it say that you must forget about yourself and your family; only that your fellowman be included. You will come much closer to fulfilling the commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength than you will by ignoring your obligation to your fellowman as an inconvenience or impossibility.
In Jewish writings, we find a teaching that echoes what both Jesus and Paul had to say about summing up all the commandments that were given to guide us in our conduct and attitude. While Rabbis were discussing this subject one day and in what order the Law was given to Moses, it looked as though certain Laws should be prioritized based on when they were given. But Rabbi Menasia ben Tahlifa shared what he had learned by saying: “This proves that there is no chronological order in the Torah.”1 In other words, there is no first or last, earlier or later, in the Law. The last Law on the list has as much authority as the first. That’s why Paul could say that the unity of the Law can be expressed and fulfilled by loving your fellowman as yourself.
A lot has been said about the teaching of loving one’s fellowman as themselves. That your fellow citizens need not fear you if they know you love them. Also, that there are few if any laws that cannot be fulfilled through love. Furthermore, that the beginning and end of virtue is love. And, that love has two excellent qualities: it abstains from evil and does good. Early church scholar Pelagius feel that the whole idea of living right is summed up in the love of one’s fellowman. Unrighteousness is born when we love ourselves more than others. For one who loves their fellowman as themselves not only does them no wrong but does them a lot of good. Such a person knows how much they would desire that both aspects be done with regard to themselves.17
Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, gives us something to consider. Every law either forbids doing wrong or doing right. Legislators pass the first kind of law in order that we should not harm one another and the second kind in order that we should help one another as far as possible. But they are all summed up in the one command that we love our fellowman as ourselves.18 I think it goes without saying, that had love been an integral part of human nature from the beginning, that what Cain did to Abel would have never taken place.
1 See Romans 13:10
2 Cf. Philemon 4:8; Proverbs 24:30-34; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 3:10; Ephesians 4:25.
3 See 1 Thessalonians 5:6, 8; 1 Peter 1:13; 4:7; Titus 2:12; 1 Peter 3:3, 5; 1 Timothy 2:9.
4 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Frederic Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
6 Charles Ellicott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 The pound is British paper currency
8 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Tacitus, The Histories Bk. 5, 5.1. Another rendering reads: “For the worst rascals among other peoples [proselytes], renouncing their ancestral religions, always kept sending tribute and contributions to Jerusalem, thereby increasing the wealth of the Jews.” The Histories of Tacitus, Published by Loeb Classical Library, 1931, Vol. III, Bk. 5.5.1, p. 182
10 Cf: Genesis 38:23; 1 Samuel 15:30; 2 Samuel 6:20.
11 Matthew 15:5,6 and Mark 7:11-12
12 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Quote from Exodus 20:13-15, 17; Deuteronomy 5:17-18, 21
14 Your neighbor Or “others.” Jesus’ teaching in Luke 10:25-37 makes clear that this includes anyone in need.
15 Quote from Leviticus 19:18
16 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Pesachim, folio 6b
17 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Theodore of Mopsuestia: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.