This week, let’s return to Romans 13 and Paul’s riff on Jesus’ commandment to love. Love is a verb, as an old DC Talk song I listened to all the time used to say, and here in his letter to the Romans, Paul explains that every commandment can be summed up in the practice of loving our neighbors. Should we take it as significant that he doesn’t say the law of God is summed up in loving ourselves but in loving others as ourselves? I think so. Only when we turn from simply loving ourselves to loving outside of ourselves do we truly fulfill the law of God. When we begin to see this subtle, yet crucial, expansion of our love, all of our understanding of the moral life begins to change.
Holy God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” — Charles Wesley (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy, never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise
Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it
Mount of Thy redeeming love
Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here there by Thy great help I’ve come
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home
Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the fold of God
He to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood
O, that day when freed from sinning
I shall see Thy lovely face
Clothed then in the blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy wondrous grace
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry
Take my ransomed soul away
Send Thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let that goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above
Remember learning about the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs in junior high? Transitive verbs take one or more objects. For instance, consider the verb to devour. If I was to walk up to you and only speak the two words, “I devour,” you’d immediately want to know what it is that I am supposedly eating so voraciously. This is because you no doubt were expecting the word devour to take an object, something like “I devour blackberry pie,” which is a much more satisfying sentence. Intransitive verbs, however, like the verb to swim, don’t normally take or need an object to make sense. “My daughter swims” is a good example of how an intransitive verb normally works. The verb “to swim” doesn’t need an object to help us understand what’s being said.
Now, what does this English grammar review have to do with Romans 13 and Paul’s explanation that the law of God is summed up in our love for our neighbors? Simply put, Paul is saying that the verb “to love” is inherently transitive. When it comes to the Christian life and our faithfulness to the law of God — what we call ethics or morality — then our love always takes an object and that object is the people around us.
What this means is that God’s law is focused on our relationships. It’s all about how we act toward each other. Read through the Old Testament psalms and prophets, and then into the New Testament, and you’ll begin to notice a theme. Over and over again, we hear human confessions and divine admonitions about how God doesn’t care about burnt offerings and sacrifices. What God cares about instead is obedience to God’s law and a particular kind of obedience at that:
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. (2 Samuel 15:22)
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. (Psalm 40:6)
This is what the Lord All-Powerful, the God of Israel, says: “Go and offer as many burnt offerings and sacrifices as you want. Eat the meat of those sacrifices yourselves. I brought your ancestors out of Egypt. I spoke to them, but I did not give them any commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices. I only gave them this command: ‘Obey me and I will be your God, and you will be my people. Do all that I command, and good things will happen to you.’” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)
We’ve often taken these verses as lamenting a kind of dead ritualism. It’s not worshiping God on the outside that matters, but what happens on the inside, in our hearts. In a way, this is true, but that then raises the question: How do we worship with our hearts? Just as in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the scriptures have an answer for that, too:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:16-17)
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
It appears that what God cares about first and foremost, if not wholly, is how we treat other people — how we love them or don’t love them.
Maybe the most striking illustration of this connection between the law of God and its focus on relationships and the love we show or don’t show each other is Ezekiel 16:49, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” In the Bible, the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah are equated with immorality and, in particular, with sexual immorality. Genesis 19 tells the story of two angels who, during their visit to Sodom, are nearly accosted and raped by the men of the city. It’s from this story that we get the noun “sodomy” and the verb “to sodomize,” both of which refer to immoral sexual acts.
Interestingly, sexual immorality today is mostly thought of as a personal or individual sin, except for in certain cases involving adultery. We defile ourselves, it is often said, when we lust after someone else, when we misuse our body (as in masturbation), or even when we fornicate. In high school, I was warned that having sex before marriage was immoral because it corrupted me. Fornication was bad because it made me and my future marriage impure and subpar. All of that may be right and true, but what about the person I was lusting after? What about my girlfriend whom I was being warned not to go too far with? Nothing was ever really said about how my sexual sins might or might not have been loving her well, about how those sins as sins were inherently social and relational.
And yet, that relational or social aspect is the real point Ezekiel 16:49 is trying to make. When the prophet appeals to Sodom and its tradition of immorality, his focus is firmly on the people’s haughtiness, gluttony, and greed and how it was expressed in their treatment of the poor and needy around them. Christian morality, then, whether it’s sexual or anything else, is always an issue of how we’re loving or not loving our neighbors. It’s concern is outside of ourselves. It’s primarily a social or relational concern and not simply an individual or private one.
Why is this important? It’s important because it’s not always easy knowing what is good and what is right. Every situation we find ourselves in is different, just like every relationship we have is different. But, when we realize that love is transitive and always takes an object, we’re given the key to thinking and acting rightly in every situation. Does what I’m thinking or doing show love to my neighbor? Am I wronging them in any way? There’s no more basic summation of Christian morality than that.
Holy God, we thank you for first loving us so that we can go out and love your world without condition, proclaim your truth with boldness, and perform your justice with compassion. We thank you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.