“Owe no one anything except to love one another.” Paul gives us this pithy commandment in Romans 13. But if we’re honest, we might be tempted to ask, “Why do I owe anyone love in the first place?” Sure, we can understand that we owe Jesus our love; just look at all He’s done for us! But truth be told, most people haven’t really done much for us that we should owe them anything at all, let alone our love. But notice that Paul here isn’t just saying we should love others. He’s saying that we are literally obligated, indebted to show one another love. We “owe” them love. The word “owe” in the original language is most frequently used of financial debt. So where does this love-debt come from?
Jesus uses this same word in a very unique way. In Jn. 13, the Lord abases Himself to the menial task of washing the disciples’ (very likely rather crusty) feet, wiping them with the very towel He had clothed Himself with. Afterwards He says to them, “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought (same word “are obligated”) to wash one another’s feet.” Now, we get that it’s a good example and all, an ideal to strive for, but why exactly does Jesus choosing to humbly serve these disciples obligate them, and us, to do likewise?
Jesus Himself gives us the answer in emphasizing His role as “Teacher and Lord”. The ancient, eastern culture that Jesus lived in was an “honor culture”. If a person was in a position of honor, there was certain protocol that had to be followed. For example, if a king were to kneel before someone else in the presence of his subjects, the subjects would also immediately kneel before that person. You probably even recognize this from a number of movies. If a rabbi, a “teacher” of the Law, were to humble himself through fasting, it was expected that his disciples would do the same. If a slave were to see his master, his “lord”, begin to do some menial task, he would without hesitation come along and take over that work. The subjects/disciples/slaves were never to position themselves above their master. Jesus Himself says as much in Mt. 10. If their superior were to abase himself in a given way and they did not, it was tantamount to saying, “I am above my master/teacher/king”, which in reality is a rejection of his position as lord. Therefore, Jesus says, “If I, as your Lord and Teacher, have done this, you have a direct obligation to Me to humble yourself and serve one another in the same way, thus honoring Me.”
This is vitally important to grasp in living out the Gospel. We often think of our love and service to others as what we give to them. Jesus completely contradicts this understanding. The fact is, our love and service to others does not tell primarily what we think of them. It tells what we think of Christ. Our attitude towards another person, as disciples and servants of Jesus, reflects foremost our evaluation of Him, not of that person whom we are loving. To use the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together, “Among Christians there are no direct relationships. All relationship exists in and through Christ… any direct relationship is ultimately sinful.” That is, as Christians, each one of our human relationships is mediated by and reflects upon our relationship with Jesus first and foremost. This is why we have a debt, an obligation to love one another, because loving others is actually a question of honoring or insulting our Lord. When we refuse to love and serve another person, we are essentially saying, “Jesus, I know you think that person is worth dying for, worth Your life, but they aren’t worth mine.” In this way we are boasting against and insulting our Lord and, in some sense, denying His relationship to us as our Master.
The reason we do such an awful job of loving and serving people so often is in part because we have failed to realize this truth. We attempt to love a person for his own sake, and of course fail because in most cases they haven’t done much for us to be in any real debt to them. But in failing to relate to them through Christ, for His sake, we put the pressure to fuel our love directly on the person and ultimately crush them under it. This is why Bonhoeffer said that all “direct” relationships are ultimately sinful and, as sin always is, ultimately destructive. Love for someone who is unworthy (as we all are) can only be sustained and empowered if it is mediated by One who has the resources to command and inspire our love on His behalf. And since there is only One who is worthy, all relationships must exist “through Christ”. To attempt to create or maintain relationship directly is to ensure our failure in this endeavor of loving and to crush the recipient of our “love” under a burden he cannot bear.
It is this understanding that led John, who recorded the foot-washing scene, to later write in his 1st epistle, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.” In other words, if a person thinks he loves God but is holding hatred in his heart and refusing to love his brother, he is lying to himself! In reality, how we treat our brother has much more to do with what we think of Jesus than it has to do with our opinion of our brother. In a very real sense, based on Jesus’ position as Lord, if we do not love our brother, we are not loving God. Jesus said that the first commandment was to love God with all your being and the second like it: to love your neighbor as yourself. As it turns out, the second is so much like the first that we could really say they are the same commandment. Loving our brother is not an optional addition to loving God, nor even secondary to loving God. It is the same thing from a different angle. There is really only one commandment: love. But this truth is also what empowers us to love others as Christ has loved us. Maybe the people we are trying to love haven’t done anything to inspire our love. But Jesus has and that’s the point. It is His unconditional love for us that fuels our love for others as an act of worship to Him. As John writes, “We love because He first loved us.”