Notes for a More Coherent Sermon—Reflections on Romans 13


11:00 a.m., January 30, 2011

St. Andrew’s Old Roman Catholic Church

138 Pears Ave. Meeting Room

Toronto, Ontario


Romans 13: 1 – 7

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.  For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.  For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.  Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.


Mark 4: 35 – 41

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, “Let us pass over unto the other side. “

And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.  And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.  And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, “Master, carest thou not that we perish? “

And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, “Peace, be still.” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  And he said unto them, “Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith? “

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”


I spent much of the 80s and early 90s involved in prison chaplaincy.  It was an opportunity for real ministry in a complex setting, watching a few lives truly be transformed while sustaining hope in a place where many were wounded by their experiences.

During a bible study at the Don Jail that included today’s epistle one inmate remarked “That’s a parole board speech”.  When asked to clarify, he brought up the fact that Paul went out afterwards and defied the law by continuing to preach the gospel.   I haven’t thought of the passage the same way since.  I also learned that scripture interpretation truly depends on the experience of the listener.  Having never been in front of, or served on, a parole board, it would never have occurred to me to understanding scripture from the point of view of someone who was trapped inside a legal system and eager to please those in authority in order to regain their freedom.

This passage from Romans is often used to justify pietism, keeping faith separate from the public sphere and keeping silent even in the face of unjust laws and practices.  If taken literally and on its own, it undermines much of the gospel and even Paul’s own writings.  It seems to contain some of the spirit of Jesus’ admonition:  Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (“Ἀπόδοτε οὖν τὰ Καίσαρος Καίσαρι καὶ τὰ τοῦ Θεοῦ τῷ Θεῷ”) (Matthew 22:21) but omits the responsibility of the believer to act faithfully in obedience to God’s desire to build the peaceful kingdom, renewing the spirit that abounded at the moment of the earth’s creation.

Most rules of a society are one’s that don’t contract the obligations of a faithful life—both scripture and the criminal code condemn killing and stealing.    But there are times where there is a contradiction between living a faithful life and obeying the laws of a given society.  Paul is clear on this.  He did not throw rocks at Roman soldiers, he did not kill collaborators with Rome, he did not renounce his Roman citizenship.  But he did preach the gospel, he encouraged Christian communities to care for one another, he encouraged individuals to hold fast to the faith even in the face of persecution.   He did encourage patience and good public behaviour, indeed urged people (Acts 14:13) to act in the best possible way when he said “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. “  He expected Christians to be good neighbours, good citizens and good friends—but not stop being Christian even if by doing so one becomes shunned, harassed, imprisoned and martyred.

So knowing this, knowing that Paul himself didn’t put aside his commitment to a faithful life when the rulers of the land demanded otherwise, what do we make of the passage from Romans?  Do we discard it as meaningless because it contradicts other passages?  Do we treat it as literal truth, divine guidance that must be followed?  Do we try to find the wisdom in the passage even if we have to work through contradictions and inconsistencies?

As someone who is a graduate of the Toronto School of Theology my bias is towards the third approach—to work through the passage, to try and make sense of it through my own experiences and reflecting on other scripture passages that deal with the problem of being both a person of faith and a citizen of a country.

Like the inmate at the Don Jail, I find the passage familiar and now, thanks to his comments, can place it into a context. Paul’s life was a difficult one, one of deep commitment first to militant Judaism and then to militant Christianity.  He struggled to help diverse strains in the Christian community come together.  People were dying as a result of their conversion to Christianity—an awesome responsibility.

And in the midst of this Paul ended up in court—which even to someone jailed for one’s belief is a an intimidating and frightening experience.  One wrong word or action and freedom can disappear.  A different word or action and someone who is expected to be jailed walks free.   Having had my own share of encounters with the criminal justice system as an activist, I am sure Paul also had the internal argument about what happens if he is jailed—would the movement be harmed more by his being jailed than it would be encouraged by his willingness to share in the experiences of the imprisoned.  If he truly believed that being imprisoned would hurt the community, they he would feel an obligation to do what was needed to be released.  He would have in mind Jesus’ admonition (Matthew 10:16):  “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”  Making a statement that contained both good advice and a mollification of those with power over him must have made sense to Paul.

His advice, generally, makes sense—don’t do things that are wrong; be afraid of those with power; God works through all types of human agents; honour and respect are due to many so remember to treat others properly.  And it does have an interesting possible twist—rulers have authority from God to what is right.  Would it not follow, then, that rulers who do wrong have renounced their authority and therefore no longer properly govern?  A follower of Gamaliel could certainly reach such a conclusion from Paul’s teaching—and Paul was a prize pupil of him.  Suddenly we face a passage with a different possibility—instead of a call for blind obedience we are offered a way to understand the limits of the authority of government.  Only when leaders behave properly, when the seek to build a just, peaceful, compassionate society, are they good rulers.  Ordering someone to act unjustly would indicate that the gift of governing has been withdrawn.  Reflecting on the passage leads to different understanding, new possibilities, ways to keep the wisdom of Paul alive in different times.

I often miss prison chaplaincy work.  I found inmates, once the testing of a new chaplain was over, to be very honest and direct in their dealings with me.  I ended such work when I was offered a different challenge, an offer than came when I had reached the conclusion that I may not be able to be a presence of hope and transformation for those inside.   But inmates did permanently open up my approach to scripture.  Paul’s parole board speech ceased to be a barrier to approaching scripture, but a passage to a deeper understanding of the way God’s message is expressed in concrete ways by people faced with crisis in their lives, in their faith, in their community, in their world.


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