Love the law

4 September 2011
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 18A (RCL)
Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Paul continues his discussion of the ethic of the new community. Here, he turns the prohibitions of the law into a positive statement. Instead of telling us what not to do, Paul tells us what to do. I have often said that Paul was really an anthropologist, rather than a theologian, investigating what makes the human person. Here, he seems to understand very clearly what we would today call “social capital.” If what makes community work is a network of mutual indebtedness (an indebtedness of grace), then Paul names love (rather than honor) as the currency of that exchange. If I invite you dinner, you pay me back at some later date by driving me to the grocery store. We build up a store of social capital. Poverty really means having nothing to exchange that anyone wants. Giving something to someone for free is an insult — it means you refuse to enter into that relationship of mutual indebtedness with them.

The commandments of “thou shalt not” set the parameters of the exchange — the limits of what can be exchange. Thou shalt not commit adultery means that spouses are off limits. Rather than defining limits, Paul identifies the currency. “Owe no one anything but love.”

So, what are the limits? This leaves things pretty wide open, doesn’t it? Matthew gives us the limit case. If someone in the community wrongs you, go work it out with that person. If they don’t listen, take one or two others. These others will presumably see things from a position of the good of the community, rather than taking one side of the other. What will bring the mutual network of owed love back into balance? If that doesn’t work, then go to the community. It means that the limits can’t be set once and for all, like the commandments of the law. The community will have to arbitrage the network of relationship. Only when the relationships are irredeemably out of balance can someone be released from community. And then Matthew attaches a warning — whatever you bind on earth, will be bound in heaven. So undertake this process only with great care.

So, when two can agree in what they ask, God will work that. If two can agree. There’s the rub. If the community can maintain the balance of love, then it can do anything it agrees on.

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