I’ve had Tennessee Ernie Ford’s classic “Sixteen Tons” stuck in my head all week. I’m not really sure why my mind is replaying this old song. It may be because of my profound sadness at the latest Taylor Swift offering. It might be the rash of “Feed the Pig” ads on ESPN radio that decry a 2005(!) statistic about American’s spending more than they are saving. Most likely, it is the result of Sunday’s portion of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which Paul admonishes his hearers that they “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”
Biblical thoughts on usury and indebtedness aside, this is helpful advice from Paul. As I’ve said before, one of the best definitions of sin that I’ve heard came from an early elementary aged child who said that we sin when we aren’t loving. I know this is true in my life. Relationships, be they between me and another person or me and God, sour when my focus falls away from love. Jesus summarized all the law and the prophets by commanding us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. When we fail to live by that code of love, barriers go up, relationships break down, and violence and fear enter our world.
The trouble is, as Tennessee Ernie made famous, every one of us is “another day older and deeper in debt.” So how do we change? How do we work toward being more loving? How do we avoid Saint Peter calling while we still owe our souls, not to the company store, but to the love of neighbor, enemy, family, or friend? First, we have to admit that this just isn’t possible. Sin is a universal human condition, no matter where we find our names in the book of life, all fall short of the glory of God. Rather than trying to muster up, by our own strength, the ability to love our neighbor perfectly, instead we must rely on God and the perfect love that God offers us. When we live in God’s grace, nourished by the body and blood of Christ, renewed through prayer and study, then, as Psalm 23 says, our cup will overflow with love for all through generosity and service. Simply put, the way to stay out of a debt of love is to stay in relationship with God, and the way to deepen our relationship with God is through discipleship. With God’s grace, we can take on the debt of love for the up-building of the Kingdom of God.