Fort McCoy News May 27, 2016

Faith: What do I owe you?

Garrison Chaplain, Fort McCoy

I was standing in line at the airport when someone took an incoming call. The next thing I heard was an angry remark: "Stop bugging me. Do I owe you?"

How often we hear that expression, "Do I owe you?" We hear it often when someone in need insistently asks for our help.

This got me thinking as a Christian. I looked at the Bible in Romans 13 where Paul wrote on the subject of Christian moral conduct. In the opening verses, the writer talked of our duties to support the state and the government. He speaks of it in terms of paying the debt we owe in justice. Consequently, the primary moral obligation for Christians is the same as that for non-Christians. It is the commitment to justice.

Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ike Eweama
Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Ike Eweama

The writer started by giving us a broad definition of justice that covers the length and breadth of the entire field of human morality. Justice means, "Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due." (Romans 13:7) All our duties as human beings and as Christians — duties to God, to the state, and to one another — are covered under justice so understood.

Take the Ten Commandments, for example. The first three commandments are on giving back to God what is due to Him as our creator and life-giver. The last seven commandments are on the debts we owe one another.

When we realize that the one thing that is required of us in our dealing with God, with the state, and with one another is justice, then the next question arises: How then do we fulfill this justice? This is where Christianity has something new to say. Whereas the Jewish religion, under Moses, thinks the best way to secure justice is by law, the Christian religion, under Jesus, gives a different answer.

A woman married a man who did not really love her. The man was very demanding and controlling. To make sure that she fulfilled all her obligations as wife, the man drew up for her a set of rules. His list of do's and don'ts included such things as when she should get up in the mornings, when to serve his breakfast, and what household chores she should do before he came back from work. Many years later, this man died. With time, this woman met another man who really loved her. Soon they were married. Her new husband did not give her a list of do's and don'ts. He simply showered her with gestures of love and words of praise and compliment for everything she did.

One day while cleaning the house, the woman finds the old list of do's and don'ts that her former husband had made for her. Going through the list, she discovers that she has been doing those things and more for her new husband even though he had not given her any rules.

More importantly, she had been doing them happily and without stress. There are two ways of meeting our obligations to one another. One is by law; the other is by love. Law multiplies where love is thin. Where love reigns, laws are unnecessary.

Today, most of us will have some problem with this. This is because we are used to seeing love as an option, as something we may choose to do or not do. Are we not free to love anyone we choose? Yes, but that is a different kind of love. Intimate relationship love (eros) and vested interest love (philia) are usually optional and voluntary. But the goodwill love (agape), which Paul speaks about here, is a debt we owe in justice to God, to the state, to the Christian community, to one another, and to our very selves.

Many of us suffer from a serious lack of awareness and sensitivity to our obligations to other people. When we hear that a country is devastated by drought and famine, do we owe them? When we hear that Ebola virus is wiping out generations of young people in certain countries, do we owe them? The millions of illegal immigrants in this country, do we owe them?

The legally minded among us will say, "No, we don't." Of course, we do not owe them in the legal sense. But maybe, we do indeed owe them, in the moral sense because the Bible says, "Owe no one anything, except love." If love demands that we help them out in their need, then do you not think we owe them? Yes, because most of us are followers of Jesus Christ, who wants us to develop the awareness and moral sensitivity to say, "Yes, we do." Therefore for us Christians, goodwill or kindness is not something we may choose to do or not do. It is a debt we owe to each and to all.

Therefore you cannot ask that question, what do I owe you? You owe me justice, and the better way to fulfill justice is by love and not by law. Hence the Bible advises us here to "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." (Romans 13:8)

Love is the fulfilling of the law of justice, the debt we owe one another. The goal of the moral life remains to do justice. Love comes in as the best means to achieve this goal.