Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. 7 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. 8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 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." 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
These words must have been very hard for the Jesus-followers in Rome to hear. Paul is asking them to “be subject to the governing authorities”. He continues by pointing out that “whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed”. The prospect of obedience to Caesar and the Roman Empire was particularly unpleasant, because the Empire was not very accommodating of the followers of Jesus. Paul is asking the followers of Jesus be respectful of the Emperor, even though the circumstances were extremely difficult. This is not condoning the cruelty of the Emperor, but is asking the followers of Jesus to be circumspect in their dealings with the Empire. They were to live lives of personal holiness, and so fulfil the law - but not challenge it. This is probably because the Christians in Rome were an extremely small and vulnerable group, who would do best in setting personal examples of love.
These words resonate through history as amongst the most abused in the Bible. Oppressive governments – such as the Apartheid government of Dr Verwoerd and PW Botha – use these words to solicit obedience to their evil laws. It must therefore be said that while we note these words of Paul, we do not live in Rome, and neither are we a struggling minority religion. We are therefore not obliged to follow Paul’s advice to remain out of sight. We live in countries that allow Christian belief and practice, and are often powerful and influential. We are challenged to find ways of living faithfully within political systems / states / empires that are often wicked and ethically irresponsible. Paul’s suggestion that followers of Jesus ought to live holy lives is a useful suggestion. At the same time Paul adds that rulers are “God's servant for your good.“ This then becomes the obligation of those who govern – to represent the goodness of God. It therefore follows that when rulers stop being “God’s servant” they forfeit the right to rule. And at this point, the followers of Jesus are to use every vote, all our political influence, and all the social pressure we can muster to remove rulers who cease to be the servants of God.
Let us be good citizens – of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Ordinary 30 / Pentecost +23
52 True Humility
The Scripture passage for the day is drawn from Reuben Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and other Servants, (Nashville, The Upper Room 1983), 317.
This reflection is from my own devotional exercises for the day.