I haven’t done the weekly lectionary blog in a while… fell off the wagon I suppose you could say. But it is time to get back on it.
I’m looking at the next two weeks together because the gospel lessons are fully tied together. The first, for the 4th of September, deals with Jesus’ teaching on what to do “If another member of the church sins against you”. Next weeks gets to applying that teaching when Peter asks “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”. They don’t work separately. The readings are:
Sept. 4th – Matthew 18:15-20
Sept. 11th – Matthew 18:21-35
I am also thinking of adding a bit to the context of the first weeks. All of Matthew 18 really hangs together in a manner of speaking, starting with the “Who is the greatest” question, moving to the issue of sin disrupting the life of a community, and then with the issue of how often we have to forgive. All of them go directly to the issue of what is most important – my own needs or the good of the community, and how can community be preserved, a question I see Jesus answering by saying “By giving up on your own desires and needs in favor of placing those of others ahead of you. To the “Who is the greatest in your kingdom” he says “By the fact that you asked that, you clearly don’t grasp the first thing about the kingdom”, followed by an explanation of kingdom priorities. From there, he goes on to deal with how to handle conflict in the community with grace. Even the final ‘endgame’, how to deal with someone who still, after all three steps, refuses to listen remains a command for grace (a gentile and tax collector…more on those in a moment). Then the final section, for September 11th, deals with when we can finally be done with someone and drive them out. The answer is certainly not what Peter wants to hear… If peter thinks seven chances is more than reasonable, he hasn’t gotten it yet.
How many times should we forgive? How far should grace extend? These questions hold even more weight with the second of these weeks coming on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the attempted attack that was thwarted in the field in Pennsylvania. How ready might we be to forgive someone who kills another? Who kills hundreds and even thousands of people? Who attacks not only our physical being, but wants to destroy our entire culture? At the same time, this text tells us that we don’t get a choice in our response, that if we are acting as persons of faith, we don’t get to decide how to respond. I don’t know how I will frame this in the context of September 11th. I long ago decided that I would stop using the term “9/11″ in sermons, because I saw it being used rhetorically in much the same way as someone might use the Boogeyman or the Cucuy in south Texas with preschoolers… I know friends who were threatened with the cucuy getting them if they didn’t stay in bed or behave. I saw it being used to quickly and, my opinion, cheaply put people in a position of fear, as an emotional appeal. I am not saying every use of it in a sermon is inappropriate, but it was becoming something like a meme – an analogy not used for its meaning but to elicit a particular response. I am concerned with how we approach any sort of appeal to emotion in a religious context. Religious exploitation of emotion can be highly dangerous, and there is a significant responsibility involved. I also saw 9/11 appealed to in religious contexts so many times that it was simply wearing old. There is indeed a level of understanding of 9/11 that only our faith can access and speak to, and I hope to deal well with it and certainly believe that faith has a place in how we continue to understand what that day meant and continues to mean in our culture. But I feel that faith response to tragedy is a delicate and fine line to walk. It is reason enough to tread carefully when you realize that much of the anti-Islamic polemic comes from religious circles.
As to the entire ‘Gentile and Tax collector” issue, it has long since struck me that our governing documents in the church pattern directly after this passage from Matthew, a passage that has no parallel in the other gospels. Yet the “end game” to the process in those documents says the following:
*C15.03. Members of the Congregation Council who participate in the preparation of the written charges or who present evidence or testimony in the hearing before the Congregation Council are disqualified from voting upon the question of the guilt of the accused member. Should the allegations be sustained by a two-thirds majority vote of the members of the Congregation Council who are not disqualified but who are present and voting, and renewed admonition prove ineffectual, the council shall impose one of the following disciplinary actions:
a. censure before the council or congregation;
b. suspension from membership for a definite period of time; or
c. exclusion from membership in this congregation.
Disciplinary actions b. and c. shall be delivered to the member in writing.
The ‘endgame’ in Jesus discourse is quite different….
17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; 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.
What was Jesus response to a “Gentile and tax collector”? Turns out, he interacted freely with them. Far from excluding them rom fellowship, he ate with them, much to the chagrin of the religious authorities. I am not suggesting that we change our governing documents, and haven’t ever seen this chapter implemented formally (though I’ve heard stories, mostly from Missouri Synod family members). I hope and pray never to have to be involved in anything that goes to C15.03. But a gentile and tax collector was someone that Jesus called to relationship. They were the ones he treated with compassion and the targets of his mission.
I do see the value, from Bishop Rinehart’s study on this (bishopmike.com) of teaching on this. It is not our default way of operating. Far easier when we are wronged is to say “Do you know what so and so said or did?” rather than following Jesus pattern for reconciliation. As a new ministry laying patterns that will follow us for a long time, I have long since reminded myself regularly “choose your rut carefully… you will be in it a long time”. We need to intentionally handle conflict in this biblical pattern and with the care and compassion Jesus commands here. It is not the default for us, and isn’t the default for our churches. There is a reason Jesus was pretty specific here.