By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 18:15-20
What good is the Church to the world?
What can the Church offer the world?
A young father, studying the Jewish Torah, was making every effort to raise his child in the faith, yet meeting with little success. He went to his rabbi: “Rabbi, what am I to do? I love my child. But, he’s disobedient and surly. He’s rebellious and he violates some of the laws in the Torah, the Talmud and our tradition. He even does just stupid things. He disagrees with what I say and he does what he knows will annoy me or hurt me. He spends time with people I abhor and evil-doers. What can I do?”
The rabbi looked at him with great compassion and said, “Love him more!”[i]
What good is the Church to the world? What can the Church offer the world?
[i] Story found in Matthew: the Book of Mercy by Megan McKenna; New City Press; 2007; p. 98
There are four gospels in our Bible and, of those four, the English word “church” (ekklesia in Greek which is the language of the New Testament) is found in only one; the gospel of Matthew. The words of Jesus I shared from chapter 18 this morning are, most certainly, a teaching for the church. But we must keep in mind that it is also in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus proclaims to his followers: “You are the light of the world… let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[i] So, while this morning’s teaching about forgiveness is instruction for the Church; the way in which the Church acts and behaves is always to be for the benefit of the world. We are now living in a world, in a nation, enormously divided and contentious. Perhaps our nation has not been this divided since the time of the Civil War. And we have not faced civil unrest on this magnitude since the Civil Rights movement. So what good is the Church in this time of divisiveness and discord? What can the Church offer?
Well, how about a model, a process, which provides the ability to resolve conflict and create community; a community of forgiveness and mercy that transcends our differences and disagreements.
Sadly, the Church, historically, has sometimes misinterpreted this teaching from Jesus. Some have interpreted it as a “how-to-manual” for excommunication. But in fact, the goal of this teaching is the opposite. The goal is never to put people out of community. The goal is always to draw people more deeply into community.
And there’s plenty of evidence in this passage to prove it.
First of all, the word used for “sin” in this passage is a word that is based in relationship. In fact, the opening to this passage could read, “If a brother or sister wrongs you…”; or, “if a brother or sister fails you...”
Matthew’s gospel is one with a special concern for righteousness. As I have often said, a simple definition for righteousness is “to be in right relationship with God and others.”
In Matthew’s gospel, the first “righteous” character we encounter is Joseph. Before the angel appears to him, he can only assume that Mary has been promiscuous. And so, Matthew tells us that Joseph, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her [or break their engagement] quietly.”[ii] Because Joseph is righteous, he does not desire to enter into a marriage with someone who has been promiscuous. But, he also has no desire to get back at Mary, to humiliate her, to make her suffer. His desire for justice – and by the way, in Greek, the same Greek word can be translated as righteousness or justice (they are one in the same) – Joseph’s desire is for justice, not retribution.
Another clue in this morning’s scripture about the purpose being restoration and drawing people more deeply into community is the word “regain.” The goal of this process is to regain or restore relationship with the one who has wronged or failed us, Christ, or the community.
Notice, also, that we are, initially, to talk directly, one-on-one, to the individual. Friends, often the Church does no better than the world. We tell others how someone has upset or offended us rather than speaking directly to the one we feel has wronged us. But there are two problems with that. First of all, it doesn’t offer the one with whom we are in conflict any opportunity to rectify the situation; second, word of our conflict will inevitably travel through the grapevine resulting in feelings of embarrassment and betrayal. Jesus instructs us to approach the other one-on-one so we will not shame them just as Joseph didn’t want to shame Mary. If the one who has offended us doesn’t want to hear us or engage with us, then we “up the ante” so to speak by taking a couple others to join the conversation. But notice how slow, careful and methodical this process is. We only bring this before the whole church as a last resort; after every effort has been made to resolve our conflict more discreetly.
Also, Jesus tells us that, if this process fails, we are to treat that person like a Gentile and a tax collector… which sounds harsh until we remember how often Jesus got himself into trouble for befriending tax collectors. Within Matthew’s gospel, we read of the call of Matthew, the tax collector, in chapter 9:9: As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And [Matthew] got up and followed him. 10 And as [Jesus] sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not [animal] sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
Go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy…”
Even the context for this morning’s teaching is saturated with mercy. Immediately before these verses, Jesus tells a parable about a flock of 100 sheep and how one sheep wanders off. But the shepherd, who is a good shepherd, will leave the other 99 in order to search for the one who has gone astray.
Immediately following this teaching, Peter comes to Jesus for clarification: “Lord, if a brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”[iii] Jesus’ reply: “Not seven, but 77”… which is a figurative, not literal, response. In other words, “This isn’t about math, Peter. Stop worrying about keeping score.” We never give up on reconciliation because the goal is forgiveness and restoration; not excommunication.
Father Richard Rohr writes that, almost 2/3rds of Jesus’ teaching is directly or indirectly about forgiveness. He writes, relationships “imply obligations and responsibilities… While the initial emphasis may be on the obligations owed by those who caused the harm, the focus on interconnectedness opens the possibility that others [within the community]… may have obligations as well… This view of wrongdoing implies a concern for the healing of those involved – those directly harmed, those who cause harm, and their communities.”[iv]
Friends: this teaching is directly opposite what we see happening in our wider culture today. Our culture seems to encourage us to avoid those who offend us. Don’t bother dealing with them, society tells us. If someone behaves in a way you disapprove of, don’t speak directly to them. But, by all means, tell everyone else. Blast them on social media. Shame them… And, of course, wash your hands of them.
But really, look around. How’s that working out for us? Does it look to you like any good is coming out of that approach?
Jesus teaches us something very different; and it is a message the world, and especially our nation, needs. We are to move toward the one who has offended us because we have a commitment, an obligation. To live this scripture will require us to be counter-cultural; to cast off the yoke of individualism and to embrace a profound commitment to one another. We are our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We are called into community; a community of forgiveness and mercy.
Friends: conflict and poor behavior will exist even in the Church. It goes with the human condition. But how we choose to address it and resolve it can bring the light of Christ not only within our walls, but beyond our walls.
When people experience condemnation, rejection and shaming, they carry that with them into the world; they take it to the streets. They hit the road feeling frustrated, angry, insecure and fearful. How we choose to engage with those who sin against us or fail us or wrong us creates ripples that expand out into our community and even our world.
Earlier in his life, Gandhi lived in South Africa in a small village populated by people from India. He was a magistrate and the village patriarch or father-figure. In the village was a widow, struggling to raise her teenage son. He was a rebellious young man and one of the ways he rebelled against his mother was to consume large amounts of sugar and refuse to eat healthy foods. The widow hoped that Gandhi, honored as he was in their village, would have better success getting through to her son. She brought the young man to Gandhi and said, “Will you talk to my son and tell him to stop eating sugar?” Gandhi was silent for a moment and then said, “Would you bring the boy back to me in a week?” A week later, the woman brought the boy again. But again, Gandhi replied, “I’m sorry. Would you bring him back in another week?” The woman was becoming desperate and frustrated by her son and Gandhi. But the following week when she returned, Gandhi spoke to her boy and the young man agreed to change his ways. After their conversation, the woman spoke privately to Gandhi: “When we first came to you, you asked us to come back in a week and then another week. Why did you do that?” Gandhi replied, “Because I had not realized how difficult it would be for me to give up sugar.”[v]
Friends: We are living in a dreadfully divisive world. So what good is the Church in this time of divisiveness and discord? What can the Church offer the world? A process, taught by Jesus, that resolves conflict and creates community; a community of forgiveness and mercy.
[i] Matthew 5:14, 16. NRSV.
[ii] Matthew 1:19.
[iii] Matthew 18:21.
[iv] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from The Center for Action and Contemplation; September 8, 2020; “Making Amends.”
[v] This story can be found in The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels by David Rhoads; Fortress Press; pp. 92-93.
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