Skip to Content

Skip to Content

Home > Publications > I.O.U.

I.O.U.

C. Melissa Snarr 

Glendale Baptist Church, Nashville, TN

Romans 13:8–13

13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
13:9 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."
13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
13:11 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;
13:12 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;
13:13 Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.
13:14 Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

"Owe no one anything, except to love one another"

Well, isn't it nice to know that our lectionary text for today is sponsored by Dave Ramsey. If you don't know—Dave Ramsey is the beloved Franklin, Tenn., financial guru who has a national radio show telling people how to get out of debt.

"So owe no one anything" would make Dave very happy and he would charge you about $1,000 to exegete the text. You are welcome to make a love offering of a similar kind at the end of this service.

But really, what better text could there be for our current times? We are, as every news source reminds us, in a debt crisis. And it's partially our out-of-control consumer spending that got us into this mess—right?

Many of us just spent Friday evening thanking God for our paychecks while sending money to the numerous institutions that we owe. To that, is the scripture's response today as simple as "owe no one anything"?

Well, as we are prone to do here at Glendale, let's trouble that interpretation of the text in a few ways this morning.

First, let's trouble one of the popular interpretations of our current economic context.

What is the nature of our current "debt crisis"?Is its primary root irresponsible personal spending?Did everyday consumers just get greedy in buying homes too big and using credit cards too often for flat-screen TVs and vacations?

To tell the story of our current economic crises as rooted primarily in consumer irresponsibility is actually to ignore the lived reality of most workers. The deeper story here is that in the last 20 years, the average worker, and especially the working poor, are actually probably "owed" profits and wages.

They are the owed, not the debtors.

Consider this: through a concerted strategy by the National Chamber of Commerce and numerous political leaders, the federal minimum wage no longer even pretends to track inflation or increases in worker productivity.

Average worker productivity in the U.S. increased by nearly 30 percent during the last decade while the minimum wage decreased, in that same decade, by almost 40 percent.[i]And at the same time average CEO pay rose 167 percent.[ii]As the economist Robert Pollin explains, "If the real value of the national minimum wage had risen exactly in step with average productivity growth—and no more than that—the minimum wage would now be more than $19.80."[iii] Not $7.25 an hour.In 1968, a minimum-wage earner lived 20 percent above the poverty line; today she and her family would live 30 percent below this same line.[iv]

So who owes something to whom in this economic scenario?

But wait, there's more. University researchers recently documented that low-wage workers in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York had 15 percent of their wages stolen in an average week.[v] But not by muggers on the street.

More than one-fourth of low-wage workers in their sample were paid less than the minimum wage.Of those who worked more than 40 hours in a week, 76 percent were not paid legally required overtime.Of workers asked to report early or stay late, 70 percent received no pay for the work they performed outside their regular shift.

The study's authors estimated that every week in these three cities, roughly one million workers experienced more than $56 million in wage theft. Generalizing those findings would mean that billions of dollars in wages are being stolen from millions of workers each and every year in the U.S.

So who owes whom what here? Who are the real debtors?

The lived reality of workers is why living-wage campaigns and now wage-theft legislation has sprung up across the nation.

The new Nashville Worker's Dignity Project, run almost solely by volunteers—many of them young Latinas, is doing this wage-recovery work every day.And only two years ago, local union activists and faith leaders worked to win back over $130,000 in stolen wages for workers at a West End car wash here in Nashville.

So who really owes whom in this economy?

So we've troubled our interpretive context for reading Scripture this morning, but I also want to let the text trouble us in less obvious ways on this Labor Sunday.

For while the reality check on wages and wage theft is vital, Paul wants us to trouble the category of debt in different direction as well.

You see most biblical scholars understand Paul playing with words here. He's chosen to use the term debt to teach about the varied kinds of debts in our lives and how they affect our relationships.[vi]

In 13:1-7, Paul has just described how things function for average folks in the Roman empire. "You are to be subject to governing authorities, you have to pay your debts and tributes to various military and political figures, and you have to show basic respect."

In many ways, Paul's just saying—that's how the system works and let's not be stupid about it and get ourselves killed.

That seems obvious, so why say it? Well on one level this is just good organizing advice—let's not do something that will just immediately wipe out our entire worshiping community (like not paying taxes to the empire). Let's rethink what real long-term change and survival might look like. On another level, Paul's also talking about a transformation of consciousness. If you have outstanding debts to rulers hanging over you, your imagination is constrained. You are bound to live under the rules of the current system in an even more paranoid manner.

Anytime I have owed a family member money, I am far more careful about making sure I do not offend their sensibilities. This is likely more true in a system that can foreclose on your property, deport you or jail you for your debts.

So when Paul talks about being a debtor to the flesh—"flesh" here is more about being trapped by institutions and authorities that really don't share your ultimate values or vision. Maybe Dave Ramsey is just a little right on that point.

But in a fascinating move, Paul doesn't do a Dave Ramsey and throw out debt language. As followers of Christ, we are actually supposed to be debtors. We are meant to recognize our constant debt to love and to love indebtedness.

In fact, what Paul thinks upsets oppressive powers the most is what New Testament scholar Monya Stubbs calls "indebted love."

Huh?

As she explains, in Roman empire speak, debt was really about producing an unequal relationship between two parties. It's classic patron-client stuff. I provide you protection or a job and you continue to support my power over you and my status in society and the governing bureaucracy. Pay me a little more and you might move up in the world.

But Paul is arguing for a different kind of debt relationship. One that is less vertical than horizontal. This kind of debt isn't about trying to earn or secure social status or even follow external rules, but it's about loving your neighbor.

When we break free of a system of earning and keeping empire status, we can practice another kind of community. And here's where we get verse 9 with all those shall nots. You know—no adultery, no murder, no stealing, and no coveting. Haven't we discussed those before?

But notice something about those commandments—they are all about being caught up in propertied relationships. Umm, don't take someone else's spouse, don't take another's life, don't steal their stuff, and really...don't even envy or yearn for what they own.

As Paul has noted in verse 5, even these commandments aren't about wrath—they are about conscience. Rather than reading these as mostly shall nots, Paul is saying, "Change your mindset." Have it not be formed by our material envy and social climbing, but by the radical notion of "loving your neighbor as yourself." Don't buy into the alienation of the normal envy and debt relationship, there's another way.

Indebted love is about recognizing how a community cares for you and summons you to care for it as well. That debt can never be settled, nor should it be. Everyone owes everyone, always and forever.

And Paul says we already know this reality. We've gotten glimpses of it at Wednesday night supper, in our relationship with our Cuban sister church, the communion table before us today. We know the nearness of salvation.

For salvation is, in part, reconstituting and restoring relationships with God and one another. When we embrace indebted love as our world view, we recognize the reality that we already know deep in our bones. I am not who I am without you. We are not who we are without each other.

This kind of debt doesn't place any of us above the other. We are never property or just cogs in an economic, political machine. And this is cause for real celebration.

Now, I have to admit that I'm not fond of the verse on not reveling or imbibing too much. But again, these verses would have been heard in their original Roman context—where tribute garnered entry into the grand state parties of the day. Ultimately, this debauchery was about buying into social mobility.

But salvation changes the way we are to think and live. Rather than being bound by relationships of patronage and tribute, Christians seek to understand in love how we owe our lives to others. And this mindset creates a new kind of community, one that promises so much more than social mobility and empire protection.

As Jesus followers, we are instead to put on a different public garment, a different public witness—an armor of light not military or social might, if you will. We are to testify by our love to the love that has made us who we are and our beloved community possible.

As you can tell by our worship today—we're observing Labor Day theologically this morning.

Labor Day became a holiday in 1884 as a memorial day of sorts to recognize the contributions and sacrifices workers made to the struggle for justice in the U.S.

More specifically, the federal holiday passed after workers were killed when 12,000 federal troops were sent in to break the Pullman Railroad Sleeping Car strike. The national shock over this use of force by President Grover Cleveland forced him, in an act of election year appeasement, to sign the bill granting a national holiday honoring. He still lost the election.

But the home of that strike—Pullman, Ill.—reminds us of the many ways in which the empire economy Paul talks about occurs in different ways in every generation. Pullman was built as a company town where all its residents worked for the Pullman Company, their paychecks drawn from the Pullman bank, and their rent, set by Pullman, deducted automatically from their weekly paychecks. Protest and organizing were not allowed. That's why they moved the company out of Chicago.

So Labor Day emerged as way to protest this and other forms of control over worker's lives that lead to varied forms of brokenness—and physical and spiritual death.

From the beginning, religious leaders united with union organizers to seek greater worker justice. Their activism brought us not just the Labor Day weekend, but the concept of a weekend, an eight-hour work day, no child labor, and safer work conditions.

Across the nation this weekend, thousands of churches, synagogues, and mosques are also celebrating "Labor in the Pulpits," sponsored by Interfaith Worker Justice. We are recalling and recommitting to live into this theological legacy.

All that said, I didn't want to preach today. That is not false humility—Amy and April actually tricked me into preaching. My activism and research over the past five years has been in the living wage movement and I was simply forwarding an email about "Labor in the Pulpits" when Amy thanked me for volunteering to preach. Glendale is sneaky in that way.

You see, I have a very clear memory from my preaching class in theology school. I waited until my last semester to take the course, as I tend wisely to avoid things at which I may fail. But of course I am also an overachiever, so I received a good grade in the course anyway. But I left with the memory of my professor stating after my last sermon in the class that I was "clearly called...to teach."

So I didn't want to be up here today. But then I thought of all the low-wage workers that I have collaborated and researched with over the past several years. Few of them wanted to be union activists, or spokespeople or the face of "working poverty." But their families and their communities and their dignity demanded a different role for them. They did what was asked of them because they knew the power of loving justice.

They recognized their indebtedness to others and the action that it required.

Paul invites us today to recognize our indebtedness to them.

Who really owes what to whom?

The scripture reminds us that we all owe more than we can imagine, and that our imaginations should be transformed by indebted love. On this Labor Day weekend, we are challenged to pay the debts owed to workers, recognize our indebtedness to the work of others, and transform those relationships through the work of love.

 

 

[i] Robert Pollin, A Measure of Fairness: The Economics of Living Wages and Minimum Wages in the United States (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2008), 12.

[ii] Mishel, Lawrence, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz. The State of Working America 2008/2009 (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2009), 124.

[iii] Pollin, 12.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Annette Bernhardt, Ruth Milkman, Nik Theodore, Douglas Heckathorn,
Mirabai Auer, James DeFilippis, Ana Luz Gonzalez, Victor Narro,
Jason Perelshteyn, Diana Polson, and Michael Spiller, Broken Laws, Unprotected Workers

Violations of Employment and Labor Laws in America's Cities. (2009) http://www.nelp.org/page/-/brokenlaws/BrokenLawsReport2009.pdf?nocdn=1

[vi] Stubbs, Monya A. "Indebted Love: Giving Because We Have Received." Insights: The Faculty Journal of Austin Seminary. Spring, 2006, pp. 3-14