Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Matthew 25:25-31; Romans 12:9-21; Psalm 72; Deuteronomy 8-10
Today’s four passages point to love being at the core of biblical ethics. We are to love God and the vulnerable (Deuteronomy 10:12, 18). Psalm 72 is a prayer for the king, who is blessed because he takes care of the needy and the afflicted (vv. 12-14). He is to reign justly so that all the nations are blessed (v. 17). Jesus declares that to follow him involves serving those in need (Matthew 25:31-46). Biblical love is a commitment, and should be sincere (Romans 12:9). But loving others can be a nebulous concept. Is it about being nice, or having warm feelings towards everyone? Do we love just because we are commanded to, and told that our love must be sincere?
While Romans 12:9 is usually translated as a command, the original Greek has no verb at all. This is more like an introductory heading. ‘Sincere love: Hate what is evil; …’ Paul does not define love, but lists several practical ways that sincere love can be seen. He uses a literary style common in moral instruction of his day (called paraenesis) which was a loosely structured, rapid-fire arrangement of ethical commands. Paul quickly lists exhortations to empathy, concern, spiritual fervour, hope, prayer, hospitality, etc. Many of these were well-known from the Old Testament or Jesus’ teachings. Sincere love is not just a feeling, but a distinct mind-set and highly practical. At its core, love involves ethics because it is a commitment to doing good for others and hating evil. We overcome evil with good (v. 21).
For this reason, biblical love arises from following God and is defined on his terms. This is how we know the good to promote and the wrong to avoid. Love of others flows from knowing God, walking with him, and obeying his commands (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). These commands are there for our good. In and of ourselves, we do not know what is best. This is one of the biggest struggles we have with God. We, as individuals and societies, think we can figure things out for ourselves. We think we know best. We don’t want guidance from others or any supernatural being. Yet a quick glance at history or the news shows how wrong we are.
A key dimension of biblical love is putting others before ourselves (Romans 12:10). Love that leads to harmony comes from humility. Today we accept claims that we need to put ourselves first, to look out for our own interests. This easily leads to conceit, where we think we are superior (v. 16). When those in authority do this, we see something very different from the king in Psalm 72. He maintained his connection with and concern for those who struggle and are humble. We are called to do likewise, in part to remind us about all we have and therefore can share with others.
When things are going well, it is easy to think that we deserve what we have. We think our comfort and wealth are due to our abilities and hard work. Then we think our things are ours to do with as we wish; our lives are ours to decide about. We become proud, and forget God (Deuteronomy 8:14). We fail to remember that God gave us the ability to produce wealth (v. 18). When we slip into that mind-set, it becomes difficult to share with others or care about those less well off. If I am well-off because of my hard work, they are poor because they don’t work hard enough. While God does hold people accountable, we are called to take care of those less fortunate than us out of gratitude for all we have been given by God.
Paul elsewhere wrote that the law of Christ is fulfilled when we bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2). His list in Romans 12 shows how challenging this is practically. This is another reason why we need to depend totally on God to live according to biblical ethics.