February 2, 2014 Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
Most Important Words
Deuteronomy 4:5-13, 32-40, Psalm 66, Romans 13:1-7, St. Matthew 8:1-13
I have a question for you, one you’ve never heard: Do we need laws? By that I mean, laws of any kind – God’s, man’s, civil, criminal?
Ah, come on, Preacher, that’s silly, even childish.
And so it is. I bring it up to lead us to another question, one that is by no means silly: In the Garden of Eden, did Adam and Eve need laws?
The answer, I submit, is that at the outset they needed no law beyond that one about what they could and could not eat. If Adam and Eve had rendered to God the love, trust and obedience due Him, they would have lived forever in a state of grace.
Laws define for us the good and the evil, the right and the wrong. They enshrine a code of morality – and morality is precisely the knowledge God reserved to Himself. The tree that bore the forbidden fruit was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of it, Adam and Eve were not to partake.
If they had shown God the gratitude they owed Him for their creation, they would have loved, trusted and obeyed Him perfectly. What they should and should not do would not have been a matter of their discernment but of God’s command.
Had they obeyed, they would never have faced a question of right and wrong. What God says goes – period. Their sin against God’s grace introduced wrongdoing into the creation, and where there is crime there must be law.
But, wait, it gets worse. “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities,” St. Paul admonishes. “For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.”
Our God is a God of order, and when Adam and Eve stole innocence from the creation they brought about the circumstances in which we live, in which only law can produce order. Therefore, God commands us through His apostle, obey man’s laws as well as those from above, for God above appoints those who enact our laws below.
Is our Lord commanding unqualified obedience to the statutes of the state – with no regard whatsoever to the morality of the laws or of those who enact, interpret and enforce them? A good question, and one to which we’ll return.
First, let’s spend a bit more time on the overarching issue in our passage, this matter of order. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God would have order not just above but below as well, and our commission is to impose, so far as it depends on us, a just society according to His mandates as we await the perfect justice our Lord Christ will bring on His return.
We look around, and we shudder. If you think the moral landscape outside that window resembles heaven on earth, you couldn’t tell Lauren Bacall from Roseanne Barr. We see the erosion of the rule of law, and we cringe.
Still, what the future will bring I do not know, but we have not seen real lawlessness in our place and time. Much of the world knows it in a way we cannot, anarchy on a biblical scale – but muscled up on firepower a thousandfold more than the bad actors of Sodom and Gomorrah could bring to bear.
I caught a glimpse of it in Tajikistan. To get to Tajikistan, you go to Kyrgyzstan and hang a right. I went to a town called Kurgen Teppa in southern Tajikistan, in the mountains about 50 miles from the border with Afghanistan.
In this town, I met an American missionary named Nat. I asked him how things were there. Even by the standards of Central Asia, Tajikistan is a stink hole. It’s the poorest country in the region, not incidentally because after the Iron Curtain fell in 1991 the Tajiks had a civil war that lasted almost a decade.
By the time I arrived a decade later things had settled some, but Nat said that locally the violence had just changed colors. The boss of the cement factory outside town had his gang of thugs and the boss of the aluminum factory on the other side of town had his gang of thugs.
What’s more, the town was on the drug runners’ route from Afghanistan north to Moscow. The drug thugs were the worst thugs. Nat said the few local people fortunate enough to own cars always kept one eye glued to the rear-view mirror.
Their cars were old junkers that didn’t scoot too fast and the drivers knew that if they spotted a big black Mercedes roaring up from behind it was a thug car and the thugs would run them right off the road, just for sport. Again, this is in the mountains. Getting run off the road means something worse than a flat tire.
So I asked Nat if he’d ever had a run-in with any of these bad boys. He said he had, just one. He was in his old van, which barely ran, stopped at a red light in town. The big black Mercedes was right behind him. The light changed and Nat let out the clutch and crept into the intersection. Not fast enough.
The thugs rammed him. Knocked him out into the middle of the intersection. He was sitting there trying to restart his engine when they pulled up alongside him. They were laughing at him and taunting him. “Follow us,” they said. “We’ll take you to a place where you can get your car fixed.”
“So what did you do?” I asked Nat.
He said, “I rebuked them.”
“You rebuked them?”
“I rebuked them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now I had been to Nat’s apartment. He lived in one of those old Soviet-style apartment blocks that look like the last place standing after a nuclear world war. I had met his three little stairsteps and his pregnant wife Brenda.
And now he was telling me that when a carload of killers rammed his car his response was to rebuke them. Now, Nat was a nice, normal-looking guy, about six feet, athletic build. He didn’t have a crazed look in his eye or any stories about hearing voices.
I said, “Nat, was that smart?”
Nat said, “Somebody’s got to take a stand against evil.”
Those words echo in my ears to this day. There he stood, without a buffer of law between his family and evil beyond what most of us can imagine. This is the state of the many failed states in our world, and it’s a long day’s march from a raucous Saturday night in downtown Durango.
As St. Paul sat in Corinth in Southern Greece composing his letter to the Romans, a jumble of thoughts must have somersaulted in his mind. The world he knew enjoyed the pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but that term applies mostly to the absence of large-scale wars between nations.
The apostle had seen more than enough of that world to know that wayfarers carried their lives in their hands on the roadways, that villainy had not taken a holiday.
In the church in Corinth, he was dealing with a tangled mess that cried out for structure and authority to impose order upon it. Back in the civil realm, the waters were even more turbulent. His Roman citizenship had shielded him from abuses many others suffered and his race and religion also served him well.
Judaism was a religio licita, an approved religion in the empire. Also in Corinth, as St. Luke describes in Acts 18, the Jewish community rose up against him because of his bold proclamation of the Christian gospel. They hauled him to the judgment seat of Gallio, the proconsul and an important official in the empire.
Gallio saw the matter as “a question of words and names and your own law” and told the Jews, “look to it yourselves; for I do not want to be a judge of such matters.” And then he kicked them out. This episode established a legal precedent that protected Paul for 10 more years in the apostolic service.
Rome went so far as to buttress the Jewish prohibition on gentiles entering the inner courts of the Jerusalem temple with a statue prescribing the death penalty for violators.
The Roman authorities saw Christians as a subset of the Jews, and thus equally protected in the practice of their faith . . . but things were not nearly that simple. Paul probably pondered long and hard over the ramifications of his teaching. The Christian is a “new man” who has entered a “new era” and is even now reigning with Christ in the spiritual realm. Is he thus immune from the laws of man? Does freedom in Christ mean exemption from civil rule?
“And be not conformed to this world,” members of the Roman church had read in the previous chapter of this epistle. Did that mean they could ignore its laws?
Satan might be the ruler of this age but he, too, comes under the sovereignty of God. God has not abandoned the world; He has mandated institutions such as marriage and government for its good.
The mention of taxes in v. 7 may indicate the apostle’s specific concern. Rome taxed its citizens heavily and Christians were as apt as any to chafe under the high rates. Jesus had left them the instruction to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (St. Mark 12:17). Their Lord had paid taxes to Caesar; they must as well.
The attitude of the authorities no doubt cost Paul some sleep as well. They might have tolerated Judaism and Christianity as a Jewish cult – but they didn’t have to like either, and they didn’t. Even before Jesus began His earthly ministry, back in the year A.D. 18, the emperor Tiberius had expelled the Jews from Rome.
In Roman eyes the whole lot of them were practitioners of “a disgusting Oriental superstition” (F. F. Bruce).
Before the apostle wrote this letter, the historian Suetonius reports, the emperor Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome because they were constantly rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” That name is a Romanized version of the Greek “Christos.” We see here that the Romans made no distinction between Christian and Jew.
When the Romans did regard Christians as a group apart, they associated them with their founder, He on whose cross was inscribed, “King of the Jews.” These Christians were ones who followed an outlaw, tried, convicted and executed under Roman law as a challenger to the sovereignty of Caesar. The historian Tacitus wrote that they “fomented subversion throughout the world.”
When the Jews of Thessalonica became envious of St. Paul’s success in evangelism in their city, St. Luke tells us in Acts 17, they accused his party of “acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king – Jesus” (v. 7).
With the political winds swirling, we can be sure that Paul picked his words most judiciously. “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities . . . whoever resists the authority resist the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.” But how are we to take them?
St. Paul sets out a high view of the authority of the state, higher than any before him, higher than Socrates and Plato and Aristotle. The overarching principle, again, is order. “Without justice,” St. Augustine asked, “what are kingdoms but great gangs of robbers?”
In Tajikistan, I think, Nat would agree.
“The 13th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans,” the historian J. W. Allen wrote, “contains what are perhaps the most important words ever written for the history of political thought.” Then he adds, “Yet it would be a gross mistake to suppose that men, at any time, took their political opinions from St. Paul.”
Indeed. If only they had.
The apostle directs this instruction to a particular church in specific circumstances and does not intend by it to set a legal precedent for all Christians. From the early days of Christianity, theologians have balanced against it the episode in Jerusalem in Acts 5 in which the Jews haul St. Peter and other apostles before the high priest.
The charge: teaching in the name of Jesus, and against the express orders of the ruling council. Peter’s response: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (v. 29).
Lest we attempt to play off St. Peter against St. Paul, however, we find in 1 St. Peter 2:
“Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether to the king as supreme, 14 or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men-- 16 as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. 17 Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king” (13-17).
The apostles agree. At an early date, their teaching on this subject flowed from an established tradition, which began with our Lord Himself.
Not many years after St. Paul wrote his letter to Rome, Rome burned. The emperor Nero, turning blame away from himself, laid it on the Christians. The Romans accused them of incest and cannibalism, and branded them “enemies of the human race.”
In the persecutions that followed, the authorities whose rights they had defended martyred both of these great saints. Paul and Peter would want us to take from their teaching first and foremost, I think, the idea that our God of order wants order in His creation and decrees that His people seek it whenever possible.
And that His people should obey every human law that does not contradict God’s law so that if the day should come when we must stand against the state to be true to our Lord we will have a record of faithfulness to stand on.
And that when we subject ourselves to the governing authorities we serve our Lord and honor Him, for it is meet and right so to do. Amen.