by Isaac Villegas
September 7, 2014
Romans chapter 13, verses 8 and 9: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… The commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Somehow I have three things to say about this passage. So I guess that means this is going to be a three-point sermon — a first for me. A three-point sermon on ourselves, others, and God. Here goes.
First, what does it mean to be a self? “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law,” it says, and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a passage about our selves — it’s about you, about your self, about your life, about who you are, who God created you to be. To love your neighbor as yourself involves some knowledge of who you are, some knowledge of what you need, about what you want.
When someone says that they are hungry, you can empathize — you also know what it’s like to hunger, for your stomach to growl. When someone says that they are lonely, you remember the times when you felt alone, abandoned, desperate for companionship.
When someone tells you that they have been hurt, that they have been wronged, that, maybe, you have hurt them — when someone tells you this, their words strike a chord in you, reminding you of what it feels like to hurt, reminding you when you were wounded, when you were wronged.
You can relate to someone because you have a sense of who you are, of what you would need to hear if you were in their situation, a sense for what would comfort you, a sense for what would bring you joy.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” You can love your neighbor because you have a sense of your self, because you have a sense for what you need.
But, there’s a danger here, the danger of assuming that someone else is just like you, that someone else has the same needs and wants that you have. It’s dangerous to assume that we are all the same, because that assumption diminishes our uniqueness, our difference from one another.
For example, when Katie and I argue, I want us to stay in the same room until we figure out what’s going on, until we can understand why we’re arguing and how to resolve our differences — part of the reason for me to want this, I think, is that walking away from each other in those moments feels like it would magnify our difference, our separate identities, the gulf between who we are, the dissimilarity between self and other, between herself and myself.
But, sometimes, Katie wants time for us to think, to give us some space to understand why we’re frustrated or angry, to give us some time for self-reflection, to understand ourselves, to give us space to know that we are actually different people, that I am not her and she is not me, that we think differently, that we have different ways of processing, different ways of engaging with one another, different ways of caring for our relationship.[i]
To love your neighbor as yourself doesn’t mean that you already know what your neighbor needs. It means that you are committed to your neighbor, that you are committed to your relationship with your neighbor — committed to a life together where you are always learning what it means to care for one another, as we grow, as we change, as you and I learn who we are — as I learn who you are and you learn who I am, as we grow comfortable with all the ways that we remain strangers to one another, yet still discovering connections, relational connections, connections between us, among us, connections that open our eyes to what it means to love one another.
We can never assume by ourselves, on our own, that we know what it means to love someone. Instead, we are always learning what love means, together, in the relationship, as we develop a common life, a life together that reaches across our differences, stretching across the distinctions between our lives. We don’t love one another because we are all the same. We love because we find ourselves drawn together by our separate lives; we find ourselves enlivened by getting to know each other.
I like the way the poet Audre Lorde put it. She said, “When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining — I’m broadening the joining.”[ii]
In other words, we discover the reach of our love when we recognize how strange we are from one another, how different you are from me, how different I am from you — and this has everything to do with gender, class, race, ethnicity, culture, family history, personality traits, all the stuff that comes together to make you who you are and me who I am.
Second, others. In the words of Philip Roth, in his novel American Pastoral: “What are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people?”
This is what it says in Romans 13: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” This is about one and an other, selves and others, about the space between one person and the other, the distance between human beings.
There’s always a distance between us. That distance is just what it means to be human, from the moment we are born, and all the pain involved of being separated from our mother’s body, pushed and pulled from her — the pain involved in our distance from the one who gave us our lives, but a necessary distance, a fundamental separation, because the division makes human life possible, because the rift, split, the parting, the detachment, makes relationship possible.[iii]
The distance between our bodies is natural. We spend our lives navigating those boundaries, of what it means to let you be your body, but to be a body in relationship to me, and me with you, with all of our healthy boundaries, boundaries as reminders that I don’t control your body, and you don’t control mine — and, I imagine for you parents, spending your lives navigating the boundaries between you and your child, the pain and joy of learning that they are not you, and that you are not them, as they grow and learn how to care for their own bodies, as they learn to have a life independent of your life, the joy of an ever-changing relationship.
Relationships always involve power. Love is not the opposite of power. Love is infused with power. The power to forgive someone, to free them from guilt — that’s love. The power to speak the truth to someone, to confront them when you are offended, which is what Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 is all about — that’s love. The power to claim a relationship, to say that you are part of my life, and I’m part of yours, that we’re in this together — that’s love.
“Owe no one anything,” it says, “except to love one another.”
Love is a way of life, a way of relating to someone, not only a feeling. Love involves a decision, a commitment to respect the boundaries between us, while remaining open, vulnerable, dependent — love involves trusting yourself to someone, to a community, in such a way that at some point may involve you in being wounded, that may involve you in wounding someone else.[iv]
To love means to be vulnerable, to let down your guard, to entrust yourself to someone, to their care — and to know that they may hurt you in the process, that they may misunderstand you. To give yourself to love is always risky. To love is a commitment to struggle through misunderstanding and hurt, and to be open to the miracle of forgiveness, of healing.
Paul says that there are no laws for this kind of relationship. There are no rules and regulations for how to manage our differences, how to work through our relationships. There is no judge who we can appeal to, to solve the problems we may have with one another. There is no law, there is only love, and love takes work, sometimes joyful work, sometimes painful work, but Paul says that, in the church, we owe it to one another to be committed to our love. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
Third, God. Isn’t it a problem that I haven’t mentioned God yet? If sermons are about anything, they should be about God, right? — not social psychology, or whatever it is that I’ve been doing in this sermon. But that’s the scandal we see in Paul’s teaching about the commandments, about the greatest commandment. “The commandments,” it says, “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
We’ve heard this command before, to love your neighbor as your self. It’s a verse from the book of Leviticus, and it’s so familiar because Jesus quotes it in Matthew 22, when the Pharisees ask him which one of the commandments is the most important. I’m sure you remember how Jesus responds. He starts with God, as anyone should: Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.”
Jesus is clear. God comes first. Then Jesus continues with a second one, a bonus commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” — the same passage we hear in Romans 13, the same commandment we hear from Paul. But Paul leaves out the commandment about God, the one that Jesus listed first, the most important, the greatest commandment. Instead, Paul says, “The commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[v]
What about God? For Paul, to love your neighbor as yourself is to love the Lord your God with all your heart. The two commandments become one. To love your neighbor is to love God. As the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth put it, my neighbor’s humanity reminds me of the humanity of the Son of God, the humanity of God; because in Jesus, God is forever bound up with human flesh, with our lives, with the lives of our neighbors.[vi]
It turns out, as we’ve been talking about what it means to love one another, we’ve been talking about God this whole time. Because in our lives God’s life is on display. When we love another, we are telling the story of God with our bodies, as we spell out what the life of God feels like, here and now.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… The commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[vii]
[i] Gillian Rose, Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life (Schocken Books, 1995), 142-143: “The Lovers must leave a distance, a boundary, for love: then they approach and retire so that love may suspire. This may be heard as the economics of eros; but it may also be taken as the infinite passion of faith: Dieu se révèle en se retirer.”
[ii] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 2007 ), 11.
[iii] Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, rev. ed. (Pilgrim Press, 2002 ), 18: “Even in the most loving of parent-child relations, unconscious and unintended violence can occur; and it has taken a very long time for the realization to dawn that the experience of birth itself may be the primary and traumatic deprivation.”
[iv] I’m paraphrasing Gillian Rose, Love’s Work, 105-106: “To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining open, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds… If I am to stay alive, I am bound to continue to get love wrong, all the time, but not to cease wooing, for that is my life affair, love’s work.”
[v] I’m indebted to Jacob Taubes for this insight: The Political Theology of Paul (Stanford University Press, 2004), 52-53.
[vi] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2:425-426: “we must expect to find the witness of Jesus Christ, and therefore our neighbor, not only in the Church, but, because in the Church, in every man. Not simply to find… But to expect to find… [I]n his humanity he can remind us of the humanity of the Son of God… If we know the incarnation of the eternal Word and the glorification of humanity in Him, we cannot pass by any man, without being asked whether in his humanity he does not have this mission to us.”
[vii] My sermon is more or less a repetition of what I’ve learned from Peter Dula and Alex Sider — a chapter from each of their books. Peter Dula, “Companionship and Community in Cavell and MacIntyre,” in his Cavell, Companionship, and Christian Theology (Oxford University Press, 2011); J. Alexander Sider, “Love One Another: Voluntariety Transformed by Dialogical Vulnerability,” in his To See History Doxologically: History and Holiness in John Howard Yoder’s Ecclesiology (Eerdmans, 2011).