“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…. Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:8a, 10a, based on NRSV).

In last week’s post, I explored how Paul talks about actual debt and money in the text from Romans. How we spend our funds and the amount of debt we have are moral and ethical issues.

But even if none of us had any mortgages and paid for everything we got with cash and barter, there would still be a debt crisis in our land. Because every one of us owes, or ought to owe, a debt of love to our neighbors. No collectors call if we don’t pay. Our credit rating with the credit bureaus stays in the high numbers. But there are other, more dire consequences. Ironically, if we don’t pay this debt, our lives will be impoverished. We’ll be ruined at the deepest level of our being. We could have millions of dollars in the bank, but you and I would be morally and spiritually bankrupt.

We’re called on to pay this debt frequently. In fact, it comes due not just once a month or on Sundays, but every minute, every hour. The bill varies. Sometimes it’s really big, and we wince at the cost. Other times we can pay it with the smallest of coins.

But it’s an urgent responsibility. See, love is in danger of extinction worse than the polar bears or some other creature we hear about. We live in a malicious and mean-spirited society. Everywhere, including in the churches, I see prejudice and hatred, lying and backstabbing, the desire to get revenge and promote fear. Paul calls on us to stand against the culture and make the decision to love.

Let’s be very, very clear. Love is not a warm fuzzy, though who doesn’t like a soft kitten or cuddly puppy? He’s not talking about romantic attraction, though that is one of the greatest powers in the world. Love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry, if you remember the old movie line. In fact, probably just the opposite. No. Love is a verb. And we all remember our grammar. A verb is an action word.

Paul sums up what he has in mind with one sentence: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” Just seven words in English and in the original Greek. But unpacking that brief sentence is complicated.

A key question, of course, is “Who is my neighbor?” The Bible’s definition is quite broad, and the Greek word also means “fellow human being.” Certainly we think of those of the church and our immediate community. But is not anyone and everyone on this planet in some sense our neighbor, especially those in need?

And how can I know if I’m doing no harm? We would not think of striking and injuring someone. But are my spending and consumption hurting someone across the globe because the products I buy are made in a sweatshop and my neighbor in another country is thus working under miserable conditions so I can have a product? If I drive carelessly or when I’m angry, could I not very well harm my neighbor who is also driving his or her car or simply crossing the street? What if my off-hand, insensitive remark deeply wounds someone else?

Tough stuff. Enough to drive you crazy. Or to the cross.

Next week: Some help in answering the questions.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

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