23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – The Faces of Our Brothers and Sisters

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon Shows Pope Francis the Golden Rule mosaic at the UN on September 25, 2015 (UN Photo) (more about this image)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the 2nd Reading
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Romans 13:8–10

September 6, 2020

For the past few weeks, we have seen Paul as a poet and preacher. He has urged us to “offer our very bodies to God” (Rom. 12 1) and exclaimed “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom. 11:33). These are beautiful and profound statements, but we must remember that they are at the service of Paul’s main intent. He is showing the Roman Church how to live together and how to live in general. As we have seen the Church in Rome was mixed with some born Jews and others born gentiles. They all accepted the Lordship of Jesus but differed on what this meant. Paul has spoken eloquently to them about the meaning of Baptism and Life in the Spirit. This is the basis of harmony; a life well lived together. Yet what about the daily tasks of life? How does one live?

Paul grasped in his very being that accepting the new life Jesus offered was a new way of being human. His expression however has sometimes been, to be kind, imprecise and culturally tone-deaf. He told the Corinthians, a very mixed congregation, that “All things are lawful for me” (1 Cor. 6:12) Those born Jews understood this to mean that they were freed from dietary laws and could eat pork. Some gentile Christians, not understanding the Jewish background, thought they could marry near relations (1 Cor. 5:1-7) Paul needed to clarify this and spent a good deal of time doing this.

Everything is lawful for me,”
but not everything is beneficial.
“Everything is lawful for me,”
but I will not let myself be dominated
by anything.

(1 Cor. 6:12)

He has told the Romans that they were freed from the law:

For sin is not to have any power over you,
since you are not under the law
but under grace.

(Rom. 6:14)

But now we are released from the law,
dead to what held us captive,
so that we may serve in the newness of the spirit
and not under the obsolete letter.

(Rom. 7:6)

If the law is dead to them what areas does God care about and how do we know we are doing his will?

He shows them the expanse of God’s concerns by the rhetorical device of an “inclusion” This is the technique of literally enclosing a section between two common incidents or words to show a unity. This one begins with a section following last week’s reading:

Let love be genuine;
hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;
love one another with mutual affection;
outdo one another in showing honor.

(Rom. 12:9–10)

This includes commands as sublime as blessing our persecutors (Rom. 12:14) to feeding our enemies if they are hungry (Rom. 12:20) to the mundane obey authority (Rom. 13:1) and pay taxes (Rom. 13:7)

The bracket is the first line of today’s reading:

Owe nothing to anyone,
except to love one another;
for the one who loves another
has fulfilled the law.

(Rom. 13:8)

This covers a lot of ground. God is interested in how we live with each other even to being good citizens. What is missing are liturgical and ceremonial rules and regulations. Lest we miss the point, he continues with a list of commandments. These are not chosen at random. The rabbis believed that the ten commandments were given on two tablets. The first tablet contained the first 3 commandments outlining our relationship with God the second the final 7 which cover our relationship with each other. Paul is telling them that these are what will guide us as Christians.

Like any good rabbi he will try to narrow this down to a single precept. Also like a good rabbi he will use a quote from the Old Testament to do it.  

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin;
you shall reprove your neighbor,
or you will incur guilt yourself.
You shall not take vengeance
or bear a grudge against any of your people,
but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:
I am the Lord. 

(Lev. 19:17–18)

He is on good ground here. Although the Gospels had not yet been written, obviously the stories and teachings of Jesus were being disseminated. It is impossible to know about Jesus and not have heard the great commandment.

In Matthew’s version:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it:
‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments
hang all the law and the prophets.”

(Mt. 22:37–40)

John will add:

The commandment we have from him is this:
those who love God must love
their brothers and sisters also.

(1 Jn. 4:21)

We must also remember that in the Jesus tradition neighbor is not just kin. It is certainly all Christians and by the time of John seen as all people. Paul would have endorsed Matthew 25 when God tells those who have been saved that what was most important in their lives was serving the most needy:

Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least
of these who are members of my family,
you did it to me.

(Mt. 25:40)

Paul has learned a lot since his first journeys and not only clearly specifies that one may be freed from liturgical responsibilities but not the ethical. He also tells us that we know we truly loving when we are acting for the good of others. Centuries later St. Thomas Aquinas will define love as: “Willing the good of another.”

This is all very beautiful and inspiring, but does it really mean anything? Will the Romans live any differently because of Paul’s exhortations? In many ways, no. They would not have robbed or killed or married a sibling before reading Paul’s letter and they will not now.

Too often we say that the religion of the Pharisees was simply obeying the 613 prescriptions of the Jewish law unthinkingly and indeed mechanically. Then as now there would have been people who saw religious life in this way, but no religiously sophisticated Jew, then or now, would have believed anything as shallow. Remember the prophets. Yet intention or better still evaluation is very much at issue here. Paul has told us throughout Romans that our worship in the Spirit forms our covenant with God and neighbor. Paul urges us to look outward, whether we have accepted our new life in Jesus. Living in the Spirit is not determined by what we find in the pages of a book, but in what we see on the faces of our brothers and sisters.