Years ago, I remember a bumper sticker saying that said, “I owe, I owe. It’s off to work I go.” Today, I’m not sure that there are as many people around who remember the details of Disney’s animated movie, “Snow White”, but if they do, this saying probably brings up the memory of the seven dwarfs singing their original song as they went off to work.
When I was growing up, our family had this story on 45 RPM record (i.e., vinyl), with a read-along storybook. (If you don’t remember that yourself, I guess that you could imagine a YouTube video with static images of child’s picture book, with the audio including both the words and music that go with each page.) Regardless of how we learned about it, though, I think that a lot of us can relate to going to work in order to pay our bills.
In most societies, the idea of indebtedness is well understood. This is true whether we need to borrow something when we don’t have the resources for a particular need, or if we have an obligation imposed upon us by society, conscience, or an unusually generous deed done by someone else.
Most financial counselors will tell individuals that carrying monetary debt is a drain on one’s long-term success. Opinions vary on secured debt (like a home mortgage) and businesses taking out loans to get started; however, credit cards, car payments, and smartphone costs (baked into monthly phone bills) all create a drain on the accumulation of wealth, debt-free living, and financial freedom.
But, you can learn about good personal money management from others. The verse below isn’t even about money, but it teaches us an important – and related – lesson:
Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law.
Romans 13:8 NLT
It seems to me that this “debt” that we owe isn’t about paying back the good that others do to us. We aren’t compelled to love other people because they were so loving to us (although many are). Instead, this is more of a compulsory requirement, based on Who created us.
As a husband (a role I chose to take on years ago, with the permission of my wife), I have an obligation to love my wife, based on the vows that I said to her in front of witnesses. As a father (also a role accepted by choice), I have an obligation to love my children, simply because that is the right thing to do. The latter is something that I choose to do, despite not having made a binding verbal commitment in front of a pastor and a group of church members (although some congregations will have a dedication service where parents of newborn babies do just that).
Although God lets us choose whether or not to love others, our being compelled to love each other is both an expectation that comes with being human, and something that followers of Jesus agree to when they proclaim Him as Lord (i.e., “the One who we allow to tell us what to do”). As Lord (and Creator – see John 1:3), He has the right to tell us what we should do, and His commands include an affirmation of the following statement:
The man answered, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Luke 10:27 NLT
Even more than that, though, we do have a debt of love to Jesus. We can look at this as a kind of cosmic “pay it forward”, but there is no way that we can fully recompense Jesus for His ultimate sacrifice to redeem us from the penalty of our sins. So, we “make payments” of love to others, not because we are somehow making up for our wrong choices (since no amount of effort on our part can fully do so), but because we still owe much for this debt. The result of understanding how lopsided this arrangement is should not result in discouragement, but in thankfulness. Jesus did not require anything from us before going to the cross, but as a result of that gift, He is entitled to our gratitude, service, and obedience.
We love each other because he loved us first.
1 John 4:19 NLT
Finally, note that the need to love others isn’t just a passive thing. We don’t just “happen” to show love to people as it is convenient, or when it benefits us. When someone owes a financial debt, paying it requires some effort, whether in earning enough money to do so, or in taking the time to make a payment every month.
If loving others could be passive, the first two passers-by in the parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:31-32) might have been doing the right thing. Instead, this obligation to love others is something we must actively work to achieve. I believe that we should be conscious of this situation, and – not unlike someone trying to accelerate the reduction of credit card debt – actively be looking for opportunities and ways that we can love others. If each of us would get up each day and strive to “pay” as much as we can against this expectation that we always owe (and do so in Jesus’ name), I think that the world’s net deficit of love couldn’t help but be reduced!