“As a Gentile and a tax collector”

A sermon on Matthew 18:15-20

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irst of all, a bit of an apology. The way the lectionary cycle of readings is set up, the next several weeks are going present this preacher with a serious conundrum. Week after week, we’ll be faced with some very important narrative texts from the Book of Exodus—tonight it is the institution of the Passover—as well as some rather challenging words from the Gospel according to Matthew. It seems a bit irresponsible to not speak to tonight’s gospel reading, but that means skipping right over the Passover text. If it is any consolation, I will dig back into the Exodus readings as the autumn progresses.

So, on to the reading from Matthew. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus teaches. “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” This opening part of the teaching might well make us nervous, particularly those of us who are not big fans of conflict. In the instance that another Christian wrongs me in some way—and this is very much about instances where one believer sins against another—Jesus seems to be suggesting that it is my responsibility to go to that person and try to set it right. That’s never an easy thing to do, and many of us will have examples of times when such a straight-up approach actually backfired. It can be so much easier to just harbour a bit of a grudge than to actually go and talk to the person we think has hurt us or messed us over. Yet as Stanley Hauerwas phrases it, “peace between brothers and sisters of Jesus must be without illusion.”

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Okay, so what if I screw up my courage, set aside my conflict-avoider default settings, go and talk with this person I believe has hurt me, and they get all defensive? They blow me off, push the blame back in my direction (and maybe I am partly to blame…), and things just get worse. “If you are not listened to,” Jesus tells his followers, “take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Now, this business of having witnesses is in keeping with the standards of the torah (Deut. 19:15), but it sure feels as if it would ramp things up doesn’t it? If the person with whom I’ve got an issue was defensive prior to this, imagine what he or she will feel like when I show up with two or three other people from the church. And if the person still won’t deal with things, Jesus tells his followers to “tell it to the church.” Oh man, this is getting serious now. You see, I should have just dropped it and avoided this whole mess. I could have lived with my little grudge, but this is getting really ugly. “And if the offender refuses to listen even to the church,” Jesus continues, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” Great. Now we’re excommunicating and shunning people.

And sadly, that is precisely the way in which this text has sometimes played out in the life of the church. It gets interpreted as a kind of template for institutional church discipline, in which the church (or maybe the church legislative board) acts in a highly legalistic manner as judge and jury. And I think it misses the point.

Jesus is not speaking to a developed institution with a constitution, by-laws, and formal statement of faith. In fact, at this point in the gospel Jesus is speaking directly to the disciples, and in preserving this story Matthew is speaking to the first generation of Christian believers; basically an organic house-church movement, in which the lives of the members are by definition deeply intertwined. It is risky to be a part of this movement, so the need for trust between brothers and sisters in Christ is extraordinary. In short, to take the matter to the church is not to carry it into some institutional disciplinary forum, but is more a case of turning the issue over to the community to which both persons are committed; a community in which trust is not simply a virtue, but actually a life and death reality.

In such a context, to nurse a grudge is dangerous. And of course, people being what they are, grudges are seldom nursed privately. Before you know it, it has become the stuff of gossip, as the one with the grudge begins to privately share their grudge with anyone who will listen… it is poison.

Well, it is fine to talk about the urgency for such a community to deal openly with an issue like this, but we are still left with Jesus’ apparently uncompromising words, “And if the offender refuses to listen even to the church let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” Funny how we assume that means some kind of shunning or excommunication, given how Jesus actually deals with Gentiles and tax collectors. Far from pushing out the tax collectors, Jesus draws them into his circle, and with grace and mercy he challenges them to look again at how they’ve been carrying out their lives. And two chapters prior to this reading from Matthew, Jesus has heard the plea—and challenge—of a Gentile woman, and has met her in her need. It seems to me that in the case of Jesus, to treat someone like a Gentile or tax collector is not to push them out, but to find a new way to draw them in.

This is actually born out by the context of this text in Matthew’s gospel. This reading is directly preceded by the parable of the shepherd who goes in search of the one lost sheep, and it is followed by Jesus telling Peter that if another believer wrongs him he must forgive, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Endlessly, in other words.

For all that the community that is the church is to be characterized by trust and transparency, it is not meant to be a closed club of insiders. The one who has broken the circle of trust by doing wrong to another is the lost sheep, and even more so if he or she is unwilling to deal with the issue with which they’ve been confronted. “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Even as Jesus speaks those words of how “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” it is in the context of his being present to them. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” And when Christ is there among his people, he infects us with the grace of the Good Shepherd who is not interested in seeing one of his sheep remain lost.

Two thousand years later our church context is quite different from that of those early Christian believers. We aren’t intertwined in the same way that they were, we don’t in this country live with anything like that level of risk and danger, and perhaps sadly we don’t know each other or need each other in the same way that they did.

But you know, unresolved hurts and grudges can easily go toxic on us, and to default into avoidance for the sake of “keeping the peace” offers no peace at all. Certainly one of the great poisons for church communities is the kind of gossip mill that often unfolds from unaddressed conflict. Bad news for any community, but for a community that seeks to fashion itself after the person of Christ it is all but blasphemous.

From our very different social and cultural context, we still need to hear Jesus’ call to move to a place where hurts and differences can actually be voiced openly and respectfully to each other, not as a way of getting my due but as a step toward real reconciliation. I think, too, that part of what this piece of gospel teaching alerts us to is the truth that when two people have some divisive issue between them, it actually impacts the community of which they are members. That being the case, might it not make sense to think that other members of the community might be in a position to offer a bit of wisdom or mediating insight? This is risky stuff, make no mistake, and almost a foreign language in this culture of ours; a culture that wants us all to be strong enough and individualistic enough to manage our own issues. (Failing that, it wants us to resolve them through litigation and the courts or privately in the therapist’s office…) Yet I actually hear Jesus calling us to reframe those cultural assumptions, and to think differently about our life together as a people called the Body of Christ.

Amen.

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