Romans 13:1-7 – Good Citizenship

1960 Elementary Classroom

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders. (MSG)

Back in the day (way back!) when I was in elementary school every student received a grade on their report card for “citizenship.”  Even further back, my Dad’s report cards had grades for “deportment.” Both citizenship and deportment were words used by the public-school system to gauge how well individual students conducted themselves with the teacher’s authority, behaved with fellow students, and handled the responsibilities of their studies. It was a grade given for the overall obedience and submission of students with their duties and obligations, or the lack thereof.

Today’s New Testament lesson is one of those Scripture texts which has been used and abused throughout history. Since we no longer give grades on citizenship and deportment, a careful consideration of both what this biblical passage is, and is not, must be observed.

What Citizenship is Not: Irresponsible and Disobedient Injustice

Advocating a favored political philosophy or party to the point of avoiding a rival party or power and resisting their government through lack of submission, being uncivil and disrespectful, and stubbornly disobedient is poor deportment and will earn an “F” from God on the report card of life.

Picking-and-choosing which laws I will obey and which ones I will not is extremely far from the biblical teaching given. Rebellion against laws I do not like will only result in getting punished from the principal for being shortsighted and stupid.

On the other hand, blind and unthinking adherence to a government is irresponsible and can be unethical. Unjust leaders and immoral laws which merely champion certain people and not the common good of all need to be dislodged and dismantled. When one simply says, “I’m just doing my job,” or “I don’t want to get in trouble,” in the face of unjust laws and leadership, then we are complicit in the perpetuating of the evil person or system. Blind obedience keeps abusive people in the classroom.

Vigilante-ism is a form of “recess justice.” It is a refusal to accept what is taking place and takes matters into one’s own hands. Just before explaining citizenship, the Apostle Paul said, “Do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath,” and, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19, 21). There is no place for vigilante justice in the kingdom of God. At its basest form, vigilantes are resisting God’s justice and being extremely impatient with the divine plan.

Good Citizenship

What Citizenship is: Responsible and Submissive Justice

Submission is a choice. The word “submit” in the New Testament means “to place oneself under authority.” In other words, to submit to another person, group, system, or government is a human volitional choice. Obedience through coercion, as in totalitarian regimes, is not submission – it is oppression.

Good citizenship begins with humble submission to governing authorities who are trying to do their best and have everyone’s best interests at mind with responsible laws which benefit the common good of all. Most parents and school boards would do well to remember that.

Justice is primarily about provision, and not about being punitive. I realize that many, if not most, people use the term justice in the penal sense – wanting convictions and incarcerations when someone has committed a crime against the state and/or humanity. And, although this is a very important work of government, the biblical sense of justice is about provision – giving people their rights to life and liberty and ensuring that we all exist in an equitable form of union together as one people.

When people fall through the cracks of bureaucracy and do not have what they need to survive, let alone thrive, then this is an injustice which needs remedy sooner than later – without putting it off to another election cycle. So, put the spanking paddles of shame away (yes, kids at school got the paddle in my day) and instead find ways to uplift and support one another.

Responsible citizenship involves a proper deportment of volitional submission, careful obedience, proper payment of taxes for the benefit of all, and providing due respect to public servants. Keep in mind that the Apostle Paul originally wrote about how to conduct ourselves with government smack in the middle of a Roman Empire which was often fickle and careless about the rights of Christians, Jews, and others.

We submit not because we must, but because it is the right thing to do. To do otherwise is to not only violate the law but our consciences, as well.

Our consciences also need to be clear and clean about the need for justice in this old fallen world of ours. Christians have a continuing and outstanding debt to love one another. Having justice for some and injustice for others is not going to cut it with a Just God. Our Creator and Sustainer desires that every single individual on planet earth – regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, or any other human contrived social construct – have their needs met without prejudice, favoritism, or cronyism.

God’s original plan for the world includes an egalitarian society, so we must be careful to remember and work toward the ideal, while at the same time dealing graciously and resolutely with the realities of injustice all around us. I wonder what grade Jesus would give us so far this year for our deportment.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, just as you welcome us into your kingdom, help us to love each other deeply,
offer hospitality to one another without grumbling, encourage each to use the gifts we have received to serve others, and submit to the governing authorities with the good citizenship you have provided us so that every one of us will be a faithful steward of God’s grace in its various forms. Amen.

Matthew 8:1-13 – Two Amazing Healings

Jesus heals the leper
Jesus touches the leper, a mosaic from an early Byzantine Church

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am also a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you: I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment. (NIV)

Maybe you, like me, have had your computer pick up a nasty virus that hijacks every file and function you possess. For me, the most frustrating thing about those events is that there is nothing I can do by myself to fix it or make it better. I must humble myself and ask some computer geek to get into my system and take care of the problem. It feels weird looking at my screen and having somebody I do not know working inside my personal computer. But if I fail to get help, my computer would be worthless – unless I let someone with authority fix the blasted thing.

Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Since he has authority over everything, we must live our lives in submission to his will and way. Only through humble resignation to Christ will we experience the healing and deliverance we seek.

Jesus preached his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and taught the people as one who had authority. In that Sermon, Jesus laid out the values of God’s kingdom: humility, sorrow over sin, meekness, purity, mercy, and peacemaking. Now, in today’s Gospel lesson, we see the power and values of God’s kingdom evidenced and expressed in two stories of healing and deliverance.

The world needs saving, and that is exactly what Jesus is up to. Jesus Christ’s authority is total, and comes from his moral authority, as the very embodiment of the Beatitudes he taught. Grace always gets the last word, as Jesus healed without showing favoritism nor discrimination.

In the first story, Jesus used his authority to heal and transform a leper. Leprosy was a feared disease in the ancient world. There was no known cure, and lepers were forced to live apart from everyone else. The Old Testament book of Leviticus says that a leper must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out “unclean! unclean!” (Leviticus 13:45-46).  Lepers were the ultimate outsiders.

A leper came to Jesus with a humble profession of faith: “Lord, if you want to, you can make me clean.” It was a clear case of genuine need, and poverty of spirit. Jesus responded by doing the unthinkable: He touched him.  In a great and wonderful reversal, Jesus did not become unclean by touching the leper but instead the leper was made clean.

If we want the world to be saved and to follow the way of Jesus, then we will emulate our Lord by touching the world. It will not do for us to stand afar off from the outsiders of our community and avoid marginalized people. It will not do for us just to provide a service without having to touch someone. Authentic Christian ministry communicates love through contact and identification with others.

Eleven centuries after Jesus walked the earth, another man, Francis, met a leper on the road as he journeyed toward Assisi. “Though the leper caused him no small disgust and horror, he nonetheless, got off the horse and prepared to kiss the leper.  But when the leper put out his hand as though to receive something, he received money along with a kiss” (Life of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano). Francis did what seemed humanly impossible because he was filled with the love and compassion of Christ. The love of Jesus allows us to touch others with compassionate care, especially to those who have been rejected and mistreated.

Centurion Begs Jesus stained glass
The Centurion Begs Jesus to Heal his Servant, and The Lamp of Faith, from St. Matthew Catholic Church in Detroit, Michigan.

The second story was equally eye-popping and unbelievable to the people in Christ’s day. Jesus used his authority to heal and transform a Gentile. Again, we see the Beatitudes expressed toward a Roman Centurion who felt unworthy to even have the Lord Jesus come into his house. Furthermore, the Centurion’s profession of faith amazed even Jesus: “Just say the word,” he said in recognition of Christ’s authority, which is big enough to heal without even being present.  Centurions were the backbone of the Roman military machine and hated by the Jews. Yet, Jesus the Jew not only responded to the Centurion’s request, he affirmed this Gentile’s faith as greater than any Jew.

Grace answers to need, and not to smug self-confidence. The Roman Centurion did not ask for healing for himself but for his servant, and Jesus listened and answered. The Centurion neither demanded nor claimed healing but came in a spirit of humility and asked with confidence that Jesus could heal his servant if he wanted to. The Centurion simply threw himself on God’s mercy. So, Jesus upheld the Centurion as a model of faith for us all.

Not only did Jesus affirm the Centurion’s faith, he gave a solemn warning to the self-righteous: Their lack of humility and genuine faith would land them outside the kingdom. In another great reversal, the insiders will become the outsiders, and the outsiders become the insiders. The independently proud did not experience healing and transformation because they did not even know they were sin sick. They saw no need for an intervention by Jesus because they already had their righteous deeds to boast about. They were more concerned about looking good and saving face and did not perceive their own unworthiness.

The self-righteous approach to handling problems and difficult situations is to come up with good ideas and clever strategies, relying on sheer personal effort and willpower. Prayer may or may not happen after the plans are laid, and there is no sense of beginning with beseeching God.  Our delusional thoughts of personal autonomy only separate us from the grace of God we so desperately need.

There is a spiritual dimension to every situation and trouble we face – including sickness.  If we only examine the medical end of physical problems, we may be dealing with symptoms instead of the root issue that plagues us. The Apostle James said:

Are you hurting? Pray. Do you feel great? Sing. Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet. And if you have sinned, you will be forgiven—healed inside and out. Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed. (James 5:13-16, MSG)

Jesus healed and transformed outsiders. The followers of Christ must constantly ask: Who are the outsiders among us? Do we care about strangers?  Are we willing to touch aliens and immigrants?  Will we intercede in prayer for those who are foreign to us?  Will we search for and pursue those on the periphery of society?  Do we believe the risen and ascended Jesus can and will heal, deliver, and transform people?

Jesus cannot be domesticated into some figurehead that suits our desires and conforms to our ideas about how things ought to be. Jesus is portrayed in these stories as eager to heal, wanting to show grace to the least and the lowly among society. May we participate in word and deed the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, NLT)