Romans 13:8
Great Texts of the Bible

Owe no man anything, save to love one another.—Romans 13:8.

1. There are several things in the verse from which the text is taken that are very characteristic of St. Paul. First, there is the tendency to go off upon a word; the mention of the word “love” seems to suggest to the Apostle’s mind his favourite thesis, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” This he pursues through several verses. Again, he uses the word “owe” in two different ways: in the familiar signification of owing money, and also in the sense of duty or obligation. As if he said, “Owe no man anything but that debt which you must always owe and ought to be always paying, the endless debt of love.” Thirdly, there is the tendency which we often observe in the writings of St. Paul to merge the particular in the general, the moral in the spiritual. He is constantly going back to the first principles of the love of God and of man.

2. St. Paul has spoken of the duties and the spirit befitting members of the body of Christ in their association with one another in the intercourse of private life. He now comes by a natural transition to speak of their attitude to the community at large, and especially to the authorities, whether of the city or of the empire, under whom they found themselves. That they were Christians was an additional reason why they should be good citizens. The State, like the family or the Church, is of Divine origin and appointment, with claims not to be set aside, demanding in some form the service, the support, the loyalty of all who belong to it. The persuasion that each individual has a duty to the State, must hear its call and give it his support, is not at liberty to uphold merely what is pleasing to himself, to pay or not to pay according to his own whim and fancy, leads to the further persuasion that each has a duty to each and all around. “For this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbour hath fulfilled the law.” It is a principle of universal application. It covers the vast field of mutual human obligation.

3. How Christians should behave in their relations to one another and to the world around now becomes the burden of the Apostle’s counsel. Each man in the station in which he is placed is to exercise the gifts with which he has been endowed. And each man is bound to consider the rights of others. No man can live his life without learning that he cannot follow his own inclinations to the uttermost without coming into contact and conflict with inclinations different from his own. He must in some respects yield to others, or others must yield to him. He has to do with kindred, or friends, or strangers, with the sympathetic or the antagonistic, with superiors, inferiors, or equals; and the manner in which he conducts himself towards them has much to do both with the development of his own character and with the public weal.

St. Paul says, “Owe no man anything.” Let there be no man who has against thee a legitimate claim which thou hast not fulfilled. The subject is Debt. Beginning with that part of it which relates to money, let us proceed to moral debts, and end with the debt of Love.


Money Debts

First, in its most prosaically simple form, “Owe no man anything” means, Have no money duties which thou canst not pay. This is a homely and excellent rule which carries us a long way in daily life. Debt is to be avoided. All money claims are to be honestly and scrupulously met. And this is nearly always possible, as we shall see if we look into the most common causes of “running into debt.”

Dr. Kidd had a great horror of debt. When parting with a friend whom he did not expect to see for some time, he would exhort him to “Fear God, and keep out of debt.”1 [Note: J. Stark, Dr. Kidd of Aberdeen, 267.]

In addition to the heavy losses Lord Shaftesbury had sustained from his steward, he had incurred enormous expenses—amounting to some thousands of pounds—in inevitable lawsuits, civil and criminal, and the combination of circumstances against him produced so much anxiety that he felt incapable of any prolonged energy. The dread of debt was a “horror of great darkness” before him. “If I appear to fail in life and vigour, it is not for the want of zeal,” he wrote to a friend, “but from that kind of Promethean eagle that is ever gnawing my vitals. May God be with you, and keep you out of debt.” And in his Diary, among many expressions of sadness and almost despair, he writes: “Our Blessed Lord endured all the sorrows of humanity but that of debt.” Perhaps it was to exemplify the truth, uttered afterwards by St. Paul, “Owe no man anything, but to serve him in the Lord.” The subject was ever in his thoughts; it was “a dead weight on his back which made him totter in every effort to go forward”; it haunted him night and day, and often, in his Diary, he breaks out into a wail of lamentation: “My mind returns at every instant to the modus operandi. How meet the demands that must speedily be made? How satisfy the fair and righteous claims of those who only ask for their dues? How can I pursue the many objects I have in view, with this anxiety at my heart? God alone can deliver me.”2 [Note: F. Hodder, Life of the Earl of Shaftesbury, 634.]

1. What are the common causes of “running into debt,” as we commonly understand the phrase?

(1) Carelessness.—We all of us too easily slide into carelessness about money matters. In the enjoyment of the present, the hour of reckoning is comparatively distant; almost unconsciously to ourselves a certain amount of debt accumulates. While we are young we are especially open to influence of this kind. And therefore early in life we should acquire the habit of owing no man anything, and we should deal only with those who are willing that we should owe them nothing. It is good to feel somewhat uneasy while a bill remains unpaid. Every one can with a little trouble to himself see how he stands at the end of each month or of each term. He has only to cast up a few figures, to compare what he has received with what he has paid, and to satisfy himself that nothing has been omitted. Unless he wishes to be deceived, as is the case with some persons who refuse to look into their accounts, he can easily know the truth. And he is inexcusable who is careless in a matter of such importance.

There is a power which may be easily acquired, but which some never acquire, and others only by dear experience—the power of understanding and doing business. It is hardly thought of by young men in comparison with intellectual gifts, and yet there is no power which conduces more to happiness and success in life. It is like a steward keeping the house in order. It is the power of managing and administering, whether in public or in private life. To be called a thorough man of business is really very high praise. It implies a clear head and mastery of details; it requires accuracy and constant attention and sound judgment. Though it begins with figures of arithmetic, it ends with a knowledge of the characters of men. It is that uncommon quality “common sense” applied to daily life. And it runs up into higher qualities, uprightness, self-denial, self-control; the honourable man of business is one of the noblest forms of English character.1 [Note: B. Jowett.]

Let me tell you a story of one of the greatest heroes of last century. Never did any man fight through a greater fight in the interest of his country and the world than Abraham Lincoln. From his early years great imaginations were in his mind, but he did not neglect plain duties. He was a postmaster in a very out-of-the-way district in Illinois. After a time the central authority found that so little business was done there that the Post Office was closed, and when it was closed, there was owing to the postal authority a sum of seventeen dollars and some odd cents, and they forgot to claim it. The years passed by, one year, two years, three years, and the money was still unclaimed. Meanwhile Abraham Lincoln had been fighting a hard fight against poverty. He had found it very hard to keep his head financially above water. It so happened that the omission was discovered after this period, and the officers of the Post Office arrived and asked Abraham Lincoln for the money which was still owing. A friend was in the room. He knew Abraham’s hard circumstances. He supposed, as a matter of course, that the money would have been appropriated. He called him out of the room, and offered to lend it to him; but Abraham Lincoln smiled a little, then went up to his room and came down and produced that money, not merely in the exact amount, but in the very little coin in which it had been paid in by the village people when they bought their stamps. Here is an example of honesty, the honesty which is at the root of a noble life, the simple, central honesty about money without which, in its pure and simple detail, we can build no building that in the sight of God will stand.1 [Note: Bishop Gore.]

(2) The love of display.—The craving for luxuries, the passion for physical comforts, the widespread disposition to make life more ornate and less rugged, more smooth and less self-denying, are tendencies and desires concerning which at the present day there can be no dispute or any serious question. In a community this means the growth of a relaxed sense of individual honour and of common honesty. It means a disposition that will have luxuries by paying for them if it can, but which will have them anyhow. To think lightly of debt, and the personal and business discredit which comes or ought to come with it, to be loose in matters of trust, and reckless or unscrupulous in dealing with the interests of others, to maintain a scale of living which is consciously beyond one’s means, and yet to go any length and run any risk rather than abridge or relinquish it, these things are so frequent, if not so familiar, as almost to have lost the power to shock us.

(3) Envy.—The emulation of richer neighbours and friends, the eagerness to have and wear and eat and drink what one’s neighbours have to wear and eat and drink is another potent factor. We know the story. It repeats itself very often; it repeats itself not least among religious people. A young couple begin life with a small competence—enough if they would be modest in their requirements. But they have richer friends, and they think the good things of the world are meant for them too. Why should they not have them? And so they find themselves by the end of the year living beyond their income—they are in debt. There are bills they cannot pay, and there begins that long period of bondage, of misery, which comes when we are not, and ought not to be, able to look people in the face.

2. The results of this easy “running into debt” are always grave and often tragic.

(1) One result is loss of independence.—Not only are many enjoyments and comforts dependent on the possession of some amount of wealth, but also many of the higher goods of life. Often through extravagance in youth a man may be bound to some inferior or mechanical occupation; he may be deprived of the means of study or education; he may lose one of the best of all God’s gifts—independence.

(2) Over the miseries of debt there have been hearts broken—of parents suddenly awakened out of the fool’s paradise in which they have been living, of children saddened by the thought of the sorrow to others which their improvidence has caused. Every now and then the community stands aghast at some tragedy of horror in which a poor wretch, daring rather to face his Maker than his creditors, jumps off the dock or blows his brains out. A dozen of his fellows, hastily gathered and as hastily dismissed, register their verdict of “suicide occasioned by financial difficulties,” and the great wave of human life rolls on and over, and the story is soon forgotten. Whereas, if we fairly realized what such things meant, we would empanel as the jury every youth who is just setting out in life, every husband who has just led home a young wife, every woman who is a mother or a daughter in so many thoughtless house-holds, and cry to them, “See! Here is the fruit of extravagant living and chronic debt. Here is the outcome of craving for what you cannot pay for, and of spending what you have not earned. Would you be free and self-respecting and undismayed, no matter how scanty your raiment or bare your larder? Hear the Apostle’s words to that Rome which had such dire need to heed them: ‘Owe no man anything, save to love one another.’ ”

Said a foremost physician in one of our foremost cities not long ago, when asked how far the facility with which American constitutions break down was occasioned by overwork, “It is not overwork that is killing the American people; neither the people who work with their brains nor those who work with their hands. I see a great many broken-down men and women. I am called to treat scores of people with shattered brains and nerves, but they are not the fruits of overwork. The most fruitful sources of physical derangement and mental and nervous disorders in America are pecuniary embarrassments and family dissensions.”1 [Note: Bishop Potter.]

A question that Dr. Kidd often put to the bridegroom, immediately after the ceremony was over, was, “What makes a good husband?” The answer expected was, “The grace of God,” to which the minister sometimes added, “Yes, and keeping out of debt.” A young man, wanting to be fully primed before he had to submit to the fiery ordeal of the Doctor’s questioning, got the whole thing up in parrot-like fashion. The usual question being put, “What makes a good husband?” the young fellow glibly blurted out, “The grace of God, sir, and keeping out of debt.” The Doctor gave him a curious look, and then, with a comical twinkle, added, “I see, sir, you have been ploughing with my heifer.”2 [Note: J. Stark, Dr. Kidd of Aberdeen, 166.]


Moral Debts

“Render to all their dues.” St. Paul does not disdain to urge upon his friends at Rome the duty of common honesty in all matters of indebtedness to the State to which they belonged. He would have them remember that the powers that be are ordained of God, and that they that resist shall receive to themselves judgment, as in more spiritual things, so in these secular things—judgment according to their neglect.

Money-making or money-saving is a great inducement to dishonour—though most persons would indignantly deny that such a thing could be possible in their case. The conferences and discussions of the passengers on an ocean liner about to land at an American port, as they consider the matter of their customs declarations, form an interesting illustration of this. It is so much easier to denounce the outrages of the use of a secret spring by the Sugar Trust to defraud the United States of millions of dollars of dodged duties than to admit that one is considering participation in just such dishonour by “interpreting” the customs requirements rather broadly as to one’s personal effects. The printed circular which is given to every passenger, explaining what is required by law, is so explicit and simple that no intelligent child of twelve could readily misunderstand it. It is plainly stated that every article obtained abroad, whether by purchase or otherwise, and whether used or unused, must be declared, including all the articles upon which an exemption of duty is allowed. Moreover, each person reporting must sign his or her name to a statement declaring that every article brought from abroad, whether on the person, or in the clothing, or in the baggage, is thus mentioned. Yet the majority of otherwise reputable people on an incoming steamer, in the face of all this, will discuss whether to declare this or that article, whether such a garment, having been used, need be declared, whether this ring or pin, if worn, need be mentioned, and the person who, preferring a literal honouring of the law to deliberate, written perjury, declares everything he has, is looked upon with tolerant amusement as a rather weak-minded fanatic. It is easier to condemn public graft than private. But public and general standards of honour in any community will rise no higher than that of the majority of its individuals.1 [Note: Sunday-School Times (Philadelphia).]

1. We owe a debt to society.—Not to do something good, not to have an honest trade, and be making or producing something material and spiritual which is worth producing and offering to mankind, is, in itself, a sort of stealing. We owe it to society that we should be doing something worth doing. We may have means enough to be idle, as people say, but that does not exempt us. No man is justified in living who is not performing something for society.

Remember we are debtors to the good by birth, but remember we may become debtors to the bad by life, and both sides of service and allegiance must be paid alike.2 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Life, 76.]

Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,

Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues

Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike

As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch’d

But to fine issues, nor Nature never lends

The smallest scruple of her excellence

But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines

Herself the glory of a creditor,

Both thanks and use.3 [Note: Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, I. i. 33.]

(1) The employer has a debt to the employed. In society we are members one of another, and every member needs all the rest. As society is now constituted, our wealth may generally command the service of others, but it does not make us independent of that service. Inequality does not cancel obligation. For suppose that the poor and dependent, for some reason or other, should refuse to render us the needful service. What becomes of our independence then? Is the lady housewife less dependent on her cook than the cook is on her?

(2) The employed has a debt to the employer. The responsibility is equally on this side. God expects our best work; if it be only dusting a room, He expects that it shall be done thoroughly. God’s eye sees our work, whether it is thorough, whether it is the best we can give in small things or in great. Our obligation is not only to pass muster and get our wages; our obligation is to do the best we can. That is what our duty is; that is our obligation, whether the business in which we are employed is one which demands a black coat and a smart dress, or one of a much lower kind. Everywhere God expects that as we are receiving so we shall give of our best and to God “Owe no man anything.”

2. We owe a debt to those whom we can help.—The Day of Judgment will be a surprise to us in regard to our relations to our fellow-men. You know how Christ depicts the gathering of all nations before His feet. They are the nations, not the Jews; they are those who had no special revelation from God; but He tests them by their conduct one to another, by their mercifulness. And they are astonished when they find themselves charged with having neglected Christ in His need. “Lord, when saw we thee poor, or sick, or in prison, and ministered not to thee in thy necessity?” And the reply we know very well: “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” It is the surprise of the not specially enlightened multitude that they were neglecting anything that Christ could care about in neglecting the poor and the oppressed. It is the surprise continually for the enlightened consciences of us upon whom has shone the Sun of Righteousness. It is the continued surprise that we who thought ourselves walking so uprightly in the way of God were neglecting the plain and manifest duties, or duties that ought to have been plain and manifest, towards our fellow-men.

It is no excuse that my conscience did not tell me to do such and such things. We live up to our conscience, but it is a vastly important truth that we are expected to be enlightening our conscience. Our conscience is not furnished without trouble from ourselves any more than our intellect. We have to think, we have to fight out, to open our conscience to the light of God; otherwise, like the Pharisee, like the Priest and the Levite, we are continually passing by on the other side, our conscience making no particular suggestion as to our duty towards this person or that person, our heart not awake to the claims of neighbourliness, because we have been content to take the estimate of duty which prevailed in the society about us. It is our duty not only to obey our conscience, but before that to enlighten our conscience with the light of Christ.

If I can live

To make some pale face brighter, and to give

A second lustre to some tear-dimmed eye,

Or e’en impart

One throb of comfort to an aching heart,

Or cheer some way worn soul in passing by;

If I can lend

A strong hand to the fallen, or defend

The right against a single envious strain,

My life, though bare

Perhaps of much that seemeth dear and fair

To us on earth, will not have been in vain.

The purest joy,

Most near to heaven, far from earth’s alloy,

Is bidding clouds give way to sun and shine,

And ’twill be well

If on that day of days the angels tell

Of me: “She did her best for one of Thine.”

(1) It is our duty to be charitable, and to be liberal in our charity. We owe it to those who are poorer than we are. Many would tell us that the less we give away in charity the better; and such a maxim naturally falls in with the indolence or selfishness of mankind. The reason is supposed to be that charity tends to destroy independence; men will not do for themselves what others are willing to do for them. If aged persons are supported by the parish they will often be neglected by their children; if education is free, if relief in sickness is given, there will be some corresponding relaxation of duty: the family tie will be weakened and the social state of the country will decline. Such is the argument, and there is a great deal of truth in it. In works of charity I think we might fairly be required to start with some such principle as this—that we should never relieve physical suffering at the cost of moral degradation. But may there not be modes of charity which increase the spirit of independence instead of diminishing it? A small loan of money given to a person who is engaged in a hard struggle to keep himself or his children out of the workhouse, for a purpose such as education, which is least liable to abuse, can scarcely be imagined to do harm. It would be more satisfactory if the poor were able to manage for themselves, and perhaps, when they have been educated for a generation or two, they may be in a different position, and may no longer require the assistance of others. But at present, and in this country, they must have some help from the classes above them; they have no adequate sense of their own higher wants, of education, of sanitary improvement, of the ordering of family life, and the like. We all know the difference between the lot of a parish in one of our rural districts, which has been cared for by the landlord and looked after by the ministers of religion, and one which has not. And therefore it is that great responsibilities fall upon us who have money or education, nothing short of the care of those who in the social scale are below us. Property has its duties as well as its rights, but the sense of right is apt to be stronger in most of us than the sense of duty. Instead of habitually feeling that the poor are our equals in the sight of God, that “there is nothing which we have not received,” that our advantages, whatever they may be—money, talent, social position—are a trust only; instead of rendering to God the things which He has given, we claim and assert them for ourselves.

Let us start fairly with the great truth: for those who possess there is only one certain duty, which is to strip themselves of what they have, so as to bring themselves into the condition of the mass that possesses nothing. It is understood, in every clear-thinking conscience, that no more imperative duty exists; but, at the same time, it is admitted that this duty, for lack of courage, is impossible of accomplishment. For the rest, in the heroic history of the duties, even at the most ardent periods, even at the beginning of Christianity and in the majority of the religious orders that made a special cult of poverty, this is perhaps the only duty that has never been completely fulfilled.1 [Note: Maurice Maeterlinck, Life and Flowers, 65.]

(2) The Apostle commends hospitality; the bringing together of our friends to eat and drink and converse, and not only those whose rank is equal to or higher than our own, and who can ask us again, but those who are a little depressed in life, and who may be said to correspond to the halt and maimed in the parable of the Marriage Supper. Hospitality may do a great deal of good in the world. It binds men together in ties of friendship and kindness; it draws them out of their isolation; it moulds and softens their characters. The pulse seems to beat quicker, and our spirits flow more freely when we are received with a hearty welcome; when the entertainer is obviously thinking not of himself but of his guests, when the conversation has health and life in it, and seems to refresh us after toil and work.

Let a man, then, say, My house is here in the country, for the culture of the country; an eating-house and sleeping-house for travellers it shall be, but it shall be much more. I pray you, O excellent wife, not to cumber yourself and me to get a rich dinner for this man or this woman who has alighted at our gate, nor a bed-chamber made ready at too great a cost. These things, if they are curious in, they can get for a dollar at any village. But let this stranger, if he will, in your looks, in your accent and behaviour, read your heart and earnestness, your thought and will, which he cannot buy at any price, in any village or city, and which he may well travel fifty miles, and dine sparely and sleep hard, in order to behold. Certainly, let the board be spread and let the bed be dressed for the traveller; but let not the emphasis of hospitality lie in these things. Honour to the house where they are simple to the verge of hardship, so that there the intellect is awake and reads the laws of the universe, the soul worships truth and love, honour and courtesy flow into all deeds.2 [Note: Emerson.]

Ye gave me of your broken meat,

And of your lees of wine,

That I should sit and sing for you,

All at your banquet fine.

Ye gave me shelter from the storm,

And straw to make my bed,

And let me sleep through the wild night

With cattle in the shed.

Ye know not from what lordly feast

Hither I came this night,

Nor to what lodging with the stars

From hence I take my flight.1 [Note: Cicely Fox Smith.]

(3) It is our duty to be friendly. Even a single person who has strong affection and principle, and a natural gaiety of soul, may have a great influence for good; without pretending to be wiser or better than others, he may have a form of character which controls them. People hardly consider how much a little kindness may do in this sometimes troubled world. When a man is a stranger in a strange place, a sympathetic word, a silent act of courtesy makes a wonderful impression. The plant that was shrinking into itself brings forth under these genial influences leaves and flowers and fruit. There is probably no one who, if he thought about it, would not contribute much more than he does to the happiness of others.

The Russian reformer, novelist and philanthropist, had an experience that profoundly influenced his career. Famine had wrought great suffering in Russia. One day the good poet passed a beggar on the street corner. Stretching out gaunt hands, with blue lips and watery eyes, the miserable creature asked an alms. Quickly the author felt for a copper. He turned his pockets inside out. He was without purse or ring or any gift. Then the kind man took the beggar’s hand in both of his and said: “Do not be angry with me, brother; I have nothing with me!” The gaunt face lighted up; the man lifted his bloodshot eyes; his blue lips parted in a smile. “But you called me brother—that was a great gift.” Returning an hour later he found the smile he had kindled still lingered on the beggar’s face. His body had been cold; kindness had made his heart warm.2 [Note: N. D. Hillis, Investment of Influence, 41.]

In one of my earliest missions we were using the communion rail for seekers, and I was much puzzled by the conduct of a middle-aged man in the second centre pew from the front. I could see he was broken-hearted and sobbing, but he did not come out. When I went to his side he said he wanted to be saved and was willing; but he would not stir. Presently I looked at his boots and saw the reason. He mixed the plaster for some builders, and had come to the service in a pair of big ugly plaster-covered boots, and was ashamed to go to the front in them. I said to him, “Are those dirty boots your hindrance?” And his answer was, “Yes, sir, they are.” “All right,” I said, “put mine on to go forward in.” When he saw me begin to unloose my boots and realized that I was willing to do this to help a stranger to Christ, he sprang to his feet, boots and all, and was soon kneeling with others seeking the Lord. But my little act of helpfulness so completely moved him that for two or three minutes he could do nothing but laugh and cry at the same time. Ay, and he made a lot of us who were near join him in both.1 [Note: Thomas Waugh, Twenty-Three years a Missioner, 220.]


The Debt of Love

“Owe no man anything, save to love one another.” St. Paul bids us avoid all debt save this. This is a debt which we all owe, which we can never discharge, and which we must always be seeking to pay.

1. It is unavoidable.—Owe nothing, do you say? Paid for all? You may pay your tradesman for his wares, you may pay your tailor for your coat, your butcher and your cook for your meals. But what have you paid Arkwright and Watt for your cotton? What have you paid Kepler and Newton and Laplace and Bowditch for your ocean commerce? What have you paid Sir Humphry Davy for your coal? You cannot stir without encountering obligations which no conceivable amount of silver or gold can ever compensate. And now let us mount from worldly and intellectual obligations to spiritual—from that which is least to that which is highest. Who shall repay the prophets and martyrs of sacred truths for the light they have shed on our mortal path, and for the hope of immortality? Who shall satisfy the debt incurred by their testimonies and sacrifices, the dangers braved, the pains endured in the cause of mankind? Whatever he may think, every son of man is a debtor to his kind for the larger part of all that he possesses, or can by any possibility acquire. A compound and accumulated debt has devolved upon his head—a debt of which a fraction of the interest is all that with lifelong effort he can hope to discharge; a debt contracted in part before he saw the light, multiplied by all the years of childish imbecility and childish dependence, and consummated by drafts on years to come. Past, Present, and Future are his creditors. It needs another view than the mercantile, debt-and-credit theory of life and society to free us from the weight of obligation, the overwhelming burden of indebtedness, which the thoughtful and conscientious mind must feel, regarding the subject of benefits received and ability to pay in that light.

Compared with that goodwill I bear my friend, the benefit it is in my power to render him seems small. When I have attempted to join myself to others by services, it has proved an intellectual trick—no more. They eat your service like apples, and leave you out. But love them, and they feel you, and delight in you all the time.1 [Note: Emerson, Essays, ii. 122.]

Love, work thy wonted miracle to-day.

Here stand, in jars of manifold design,

Life’s bitter waters, mixed with mire and clay,

And thou canst change them into purest wine.2 [Note: Hannah Parker Kimball.]

2. It is commendable.—The more we pay the more we have to contribute, and the greater the capital from which to draw. But the recognition of the debt with the consequent effort to liquidate it, though leaving us with the debt unpaid, fulfils the law of life. St. Paul bids us lead a life of universal love. If we do that we shall not only be good citizens, paying our taxes as law-abiding subjects should, but we shall be good neighbours, good husbands, good parents, good children, good masters, good servants.

I often wonder why it is that we are not all kinder than we are. How much the world needs it. How easily it is done. How instantaneously it acts. How infallibly it is remembered. How superabundantly it pays itself back—for there is no debtor in the world so honourable, so superbly honourable, as love.3 [Note: Henry Drummond.]

A wise man will extend this lesson to all parts of life, and know that it is always the part of prudence to face every claimant and pay every just demand on your time, your talents, or your heart. Always pay; for first or last you must pay your entire debt. Persons and events may stand for a time between you and justice, but it is only a postponement. You must pay at last your own debt. If you are wise you will dread a prosperity which only loads you with more. Benefit is the end of nature. But for every benefit which you receive, a tax is levied. He is great who confers the most benefits. He is base—and that is the one base thing in the universe—who receives favours and renders none. In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody. Beware of too much good staying on your hand. It will corrupt and breed worms. Pay it away quickly in some sort.1 [Note: Emerson, Essays, i. 85.]

3. It is unpayable.—But the effort to discharge it cancels obligation. Wherever two things are bound to each other by reciprocal, equal, and perfect love, all feeling of obligation or indebtedness one to the other ceases; there is no question of claims or dues between them, though all the giving, the technical, ostensible giving, has been confined to one side of the union and all the apparent receiving to the other. In a case of friendship, fervent and true, between two large-hearted men, if one happens to be in want and borrows and the other happens to abound and lends, although there is a technical and legal indebtedness of the borrower, there is no obligation between them, or if any, it is the lender’s quite as much as the borrower’s.

The obligation of love to our neighbour can never be so fulfilled that one comes to an end of it, but every fulfilment brings in its train the obligation of a new and yet higher fulfilment of the duty. It is with charity as with a flame. The more the flame burns and blazes, the more need there is of oil to feed it, and the more plentifully the oil is poured upon the flame, so much the more actively it blazes, so much the more it demands fresh nourishment. So they emulate each other, the flame and the oil, to the highest point of light and heat. Even so it is with love of our neighbour. Love begets answering love, and this answering love again demands fresh love, so that for neither is there limit or end. That is the meaning of the apostolic saying: “Owe no man anything, save to love one another.”

No man becomes independent of his fellow-men excepting in serving his fellow-men.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Addresses, 21.]

Dig channels for the streams of Love,

Where they may broadly run;

And Love has overflowing streams

To fill them every one.

But if at any time thou cease

Such channels to provide,

The very founts of Love for thee

Will soon be parched and dried.

For we must share, if we would keep,

That good thing from above;

Ceasing to give, we cease to have—

Such is the law of Love.2 [Note: R. C. Trench.]



Jowett (B.), College Sermons, ii. 168.

Oosterzee (J. J. van), Year of Salvation, i. 107.

Potter (H. C.), Sermons of the City, 190.

Sauter (B.), The Sunday Epistles, 79.

Scott (M.), Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, 1.

Streatfeild (G. S.), in Sermons for the People, New Ser., i. 23.

Christian World Pulpit, xiii. 131 (Beecher); liii. 36 (Gore); lxx. 372 (Muir).

Church Pulpit Year Book, v. (1908) 162.

Churchman’s Pulpit, i. (Pt. 47), 280 (Hedge), 282 (Brent).

The Great Texts of the Bible - James Hastings

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