Owe Nothing but Love

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

What does it mean to be “in debt”?  One definition reads, “Debt is that which one party owes to another, commonly understood to be financial assets, but the term is also used metaphorically to cover moral obligations and other interactions not based on economic value.”  In the field of economics where I am clearly no expert, debt is created when a creditor agrees to lend some assets to a debtor, who is under legal obligation to repay that value plus interest over an agreed-upon period of time.  We all go into debt early in life, usually not the financial kind.  For instance, as children we are reminded everyday that mom and dad pay the bills, and as members of the household, we need to help out by getting good grades, cleaning our room, eating our vegetables, and generally staying out of trouble.  We all owe that first debt to our parents and family who brought us into this world and raised us, a debt which few of us will ever be able to pay in full.  So we spend the rest of our lives paying it back in acts of kindness and forgiveness, and love notes and chocolate chip cookies.  When we begin interacting with siblings and peers, with extended family, teachers, neighbors, colleagues and employers, we enter relationships and mutual arrangements.  It is here we bring our expectations, many of them properly thought through and articulated, many more unexamined and unspoken, and each participant in the relationship or arrangement agrees, whether explicitly or implicitly, to reasonably contribute toward meeting those expectations in one form or another.  So at times in our friendships, we can reasonably presume loyalty, compassion, understanding, that we will laugh at each other’s bad jokes, that their enemies will be our enemies, that we will lend whatever the other needs, that we will carry our secrets to the grave, that nothing will ever come between us, and that we will be BFFs even after the cows come home.

More recently we are reminded of the US National Debt, which last I looked stood at $14 trillion.  I also looked up the VA State Debt, which is at $61 billion.  The numbers are staggering, but clearly, more than I am able to wrap my head around.  I do not let this information bother me, especially since I can’t think of anything to do to make it better.  I make my car payment and pay my credit card bill promptly.  Every month I put money away in a savings account and in some personal investments; I don’t spend more than I take in; I try to help others who come asking for help, and I go to work each day with confidence knowing nobody wants my job.

St. Paul reminds us that we “owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.”  If we want to fulfill the law of Moses, which is the law he speaks of, we must first refrain from doing evil to our neighbor.  It is the baseline for authentic Christian living, that we do no harm to others, so the commandments make practical sense.  “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet.”  But Jesus reminds us that authentic Christian living calls us beyond justice, beyond what the law requires.  Your holiness must surpass that of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Love one another.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

The prophet Ezekiel is appointed as watchman for the house of Israel.  It would be his responsibility to call his own people to task, to challenge them to live more faithfully their part of the covenant relationship with God.  It is never a pleasant job to be a watchman, to be the one to point out someone else’s mistakes and shortcomings.  But the watchman’s responsibility is to speak what God wants and not what he wants.  God holds him responsible for the welfare of his neighbor.  It is not his fault if they do not listen, but it is his responsibility nonetheless to speak God’s message to them.  Last Sunday, the prophet Jeremiah complained that the job God entrusted to him made him very unpopular.  No one wanted to hear what he had to say.  And much of what he had to say was indeed unpleasant to hear.  But he knew that if he did not speak that word, it caused him untold pain, that it burned like fire within his heart.  So the watchman must speak what God puts in his mouth.  His role is to deliver God’s message to bring about what God intends – understanding, reconciliation, and healing.

From our earliest years, we discover that those who truly love us are the only ones who can really challenge us and help us understand the error of our ways.  We are more able to take constructive criticism from family and close friends because we know they will love us despite our imperfections.  And for as long as we believe we owe them friendship and loyalty and respect, we will welcome what they have to say.  Perhaps we might even listen when someone speaks for whom we have some respect: religious and civic leaders, celebrity spokespersons: James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Smokey the Bear.  But we will never be as receptive to a stranger’s reproaches and admonitions.  We will tell ourselves we owe them nothing.  So we are under no obligation to hear them out.

So when Jesus instructs us to take a brother or sister aside to tell them their fault, if there exists no bond of love between us, no debt of friendship, loyalty or respect, what positive outcome can we reasonably expect?  Our goal is to repair what is broken in our relationships, not aggravate it.  Our intent is to bring about understanding, healing and reconciliation.  But we have become experts at condemning, alienating and turning our backs on one another.  Our society has endorsed a zero-tolerance policy for a number of grievous offenses.  We are saying there is no room for forgiveness and second chances.  But as followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to be people after the compassionate heart of God’s own Son.  We are called to love one another, to care for each other, to build each other up, to grow in love of God and neighbor.  We cannot alter God’s plan and close the door on broken, sinful and imperfect people because we have determined them to be beyond forgiveness and healing.  Some don’t even try hard enough to realize a peaceful resolution to difficulties, but skip to that part about treating offenders as we would Gentiles and tax collectors.  Clearly Jesus does not desire we give up on anyone.  We know he always treated Gentiles and tax collectors with kindness and compassion.

The Christian approach to all human persons is independent of their social status, gender, net worth, tax bracket, ethnic origin, language, religious preference, sexual orientation, educational background or church attendance.  Owe nothing except to love one another.  We should recognize our own debt to God above all: for life, family, friendship, for forgiveness, redemption and untold blessings.  For God so loved the world … and love is the one debt we will never be able to pay in full.