Troublesome people

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost
Matthew 18:15-20

“Churches are full of troublesome people.” That’s how the New Testament scholar Eric Barreto opens his comments on this particular passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. “Churches are full of troublesome people,” and we are “rather expert at spotting [them]… Noticing when we are engaged in these very same behaviors is another story. After all, some of those troublesome people are us.”

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Jesus is quite aware of the sometimes troublesome nature of real living and breathing people, and so here he turns his attention to the matter of conflict in the community, laying out a series of steps which N.T. Wright characterizes as “severely practical as well as ruthlessly idealistic: not a bad combination.” It begins with a scenario in which one person feels wronged by another. We read from the New Revised Standard Version, in which a very particular translation choice has been made: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” The phrase in question here is “another member of the church,” which for us instantly evokes a picture of this kind of gathering, with established practices carried out in a custom-designed building, organizational structures, even a charitable tax number. The King James Version actually offers a more accurate and direct translation from the original Greek—“if thy brother shall trespass against thee”—which is also preserved in Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message—“If a fellow believer hurts you.”

In other words, we do well to remember the sort of communities Jesus had in mind when he first spoke these words. In the words of N.T. Wright, “Jesus himself probably envisaged little groups or cells of his followers meeting together, praying the special prayer he gave them, reminding one another of his teaching and trying to live it out, and acting as small-scale, localized assemblies of God’s renewed people.” He’s not seeing anything even close to formal institutional practice here, and that becomes particularly important as he unfolds his steps for dealing with conflict.

If you feel that a fellow believer has wronged you, go and take it up with that person. Don’t let it fester, and don’t talk about it endlessly with other people. Don’t gossip about it, but deal with it “when the two of you are alone.” Which, admittedly, is not an easy thing to do, and particularly not for those of us who are conflict-averse. Personally, I find it much easier to ignore, minimize, stew, ruminate… and sometimes in the name of seeking counsel, to talk about the grief someone has caused me. Which is actually talking about that someone, rather than to them. Jesus would advise me otherwise.

Deal with it, he’d advise me. And if that person listens to you, “you have regained that one.” “But”—and here it comes—“but if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” There’s a principle from the Hebrew scriptures at work here, that two or three witnesses will bring clarity and a level of transparency. But can we conflict-averse people bear the thought of ramping things up like that? And it gets even tougher: “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.”

It is at this point that we really need to keep in view the sort of church—the sort of eclessia or community—that Jesus would have had in view. He’s not envisaging a formal institutional hearing, much less a public airing of a grievance at the end of the Sunday evening liturgy, but rather a small group of his followers trying to sort their way forward as members of the one body of Christ. Probably the sort of small community in which everyone had begun to get to know each other sufficiently well that they’d not be at all surprised by this particular conflict. A community, in other words, that had a good sense of the potentially troublesome nature of every single member. Doesn’t make it any easier of course, and there are no guarantees. And so Jesus continues, “and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church”—if the one who has wronged you remains stubbornly unwilling to reconcile—“let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Three strikes, and they’re out. Unwilling to deal with the issue one on one; strike one. Unwilling to deal with it in the presence of two or three other community members; strike two. Unwilling to deal with it in the context of the gathered community; strike three… you’re out!

Or at least that is the way in which the teaching has often been interpreted, which has led some church traditions to practices like shunning and excommunication; practices that have done such deep damage. Other church communities, meanwhile, find the whole thing so daunting that it has led them into a posture of conflict avoidance. We’re too nice to see anyone strike out, so we just play t-ball, in which everyone gets to hit and no one ever strikes out. T-ball is fine for five year olds just learning to play the game, but it is pretty achingly dull for adults.

Yet is this what Jesus was actually calling for? A choice between serious hardball and endlessly nice t-ball? Yes, he did say, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” yet ask yourself how he himself treated the tax collector. Didn’t he invite himself to dine at the home of Zacchaeus the tax collector, and wasn’t Matthew himself working as tax collector when Jesus came by and said to him “follow me”? And what about the Gentiles? Yes, there are these passages that seem to suggest that his primary ministry was among the Jews, yet in other places—his healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman

(Matt 15:21-28), his extended conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-42), and Matthew’s declaration that “in [Jesus’] name the Gentiles will hope” (Matt 12:21)—clearly proclaim that room is to be made for those long considered to be “the outsiders.” When spoken by Jesus, this instruction that “such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” actually suggests something quite different from shunning or exclusion.

This becomes even more evident when we consider that this teaching on conflict is directly preceded by the parable of the lost sheep, which concludes with the definitive statement, “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” And what directly follows tonight’s passage?

Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. (18:21-22)

As long as it takes, in other words. And so, in his rather free and interpretive translation, this is how Eugene Peterson would have us hear this teaching:

If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.

Start over from scratch, confront that person with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. That’s neither hardball nor t-ball; neither rigid, nor thinly nice. It is actually much harder work than either, because it says we can’t really rest until the conflict is dealt with. How many times? Seven? Nope… try seventy-seven, and even at that don’t bother keeping count.

Tonight’s reading concluded with words on binding and loosing, and on the significance of community; of life together: “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus says, “I am there among them.” Eric Baretto hears in these concluding words a reflection on what he calls “the power of numbers.” “Wherever two or three gather, there God dwells. That is, these communities are sacred ground, which is precisely why conflict needs to be addressed and precisely why divisive sisters or brothers cannot be allowed to tear God’s people apart.” To actually address these matters of feeling wronged or hurt isn’t easy, yet doing the reconciling work of restoring friendships in Christ isn’t something we can afford to opt out of. It isn’t just about me, or me and one other person. It is about us, in a community called the Body of Christ. Sacred ground, to which Jesus would have even the most errant lost sheep—the prickliest and most problematic personalities—restored.


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