This morning’s reading from Matthew is not likely to turn up on anybody’s list of their most beloved passage of scripture. A set of instructions for conflict resolution is just not that exciting. But things don’t have to be exciting to be important.
As an American, I have a high level, perhaps to an unhealthy degree, of interest in American Politics. What seems to have happened within my lifetime is the purpose of political activity seems to have shifted from finding solutions to problems, to finding ways build up problems. Now working cooperatively has become a liability and folks who do it are often drummed out of their party. Truth is not particularly important. Being loyal to your allies, whoever they may be, is all that counts.
More drama yields more outrage. That yields more attention in the news cycle and that yields more financial support for your campaign. So, conflict and fighting are rewarded, while working in a calm, cooperative way is punished. This is a recipe for extreme government disfunction… So here is Jesus in Matthew’s telling, giving us a lesson in how to overcome our desire to be right and to gather attention; telling us how to build cooperative and constructive relationships. Following Jesus is meant to be counter-cultural.
It may be that the present conditions of US politics are particularly toxic, but they are hardly unique. We seem to be living in pugnacious times.
So, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel feels oddly resonant. If you have a dispute, here is a way to manage it… to defuse it… to be even stronger for it.
This passage comes from a section of Mathew’s Gospel that is sometimes referred to as “life together.” The stories in this section of Matthew are largely shared with Mark and Luke, but Mathew takes them in his own direction. They point to ways for the community to live together. And they also have the quality of protecting the powerless.
Today’s reading is a bit vague. We don’t know who Jesus is talking about. And we don’t know what bad acts he is thinking of. But if a member of the Church sins against you, here is what you should do. It is interesting that this is coming from Jesus. Any concept of “the church” comes well after Jesus’ life. We tend to look to Pentecost as the “birth” of the church, and Matthew records his Gospel well after that, but here is Jesus, well before Pentecost, anticipating the Church.
It might be helpful for us to keep in mind that in the earliest days of the formation of the Church, the unit of the Church and the unit of the Family tended to overlap. Mathew’s language makes clear that he is intending this discussion for churches, not for families alone. Yet, everyone in the Church would have known everyone else quite well. Some things are possible in this intimate sort of setting that would not work in a much larger, more institutional church. But still, there are lessons to be learned. And some of those lessons might be extrapolated beyond a small church, beyond even a large church, perhaps even extending to our nations and to our world.
It also might be helpful to keep in mind that Mathew finds it important to include this discussion on conflict resolution – which tells us pretty clearly that there were conflicts. If no conflicts had come up, Mathew would not have wasted his time telling folks how to deal with them. This is not a hypothetical discussion, but a very practical one.
Throughout this section of Mathew’s Gospel, powerless people have been protected from powerful people. Though it is not explicit in this passage, Jesus is creating a system that will protect the powerless. Disputes that cannot be quickly resolved must be taken to the Church, to the People of God. In this system it doesn’t matter who has more money, or more power. The Church is bound together – all are children of God, all are equal in the sight of God.
Jesus seems to anticipate that the disputes can be pretty nasty; that the offense can be very serious. But the first avenue even in such serious circumstances, is that the offending person must have an opportunity for repentance. Jesus always desires repentance, not punishment. Jesus wants to see the person returned to full life within the community, within the Church. We too often equate justice with punishment. Jesus never seems to do that. Jesus equates justice with restoration.
But then Jesus seems to allow for failure. If someone is so stuck in their sin that they will not repent, even when called forth by the whole congregation, then they should be cut off and treated as a pagan or tax collector.
But wait a minute… didn’t Jesus eat with tax collectors? Didn’t Jesus heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman – an obvious pagan? Didn’t Jesus hold up to us the image the good Samaritan – that would be the good pagan? This direction from Jesus may be less severe than it sounds.
Then Jesus reminds us that what we bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever we loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. I struggle with this notion. It seems to me that God should decide what is bound or loosed in heaven… And as quickly as I think that, I also think that God should decide what is bound and loosed on earth. And I begin to suspect that this is what Jesus is saying – in a roundabout way.
Jesus calls us to build God’s Kingdom on earth. This is what the Prophet Isaiah, among others, told us so long ago. God desires justice, not sacrifice. A contrite heart and troubled spirit are pleasing to God. Or as Ezekiel tells us, God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that earth and heaven should grow to be the same. Or more accurately, our world should grow to be more like heaven.
Jesus concludes by telling us that when we agree on what to ask God it will be done. When two or three gather in God’s name, then Jesus is in our midst.
It does not take much life experience to know that God does not give us everything we ask for… God does answer prayers but not always in the way we would like. I find that I often pray for God to fix things. Dear God, please bring justice to the world or please cure somebody’s cancer or please end global climate change. But the answer to those prayers is more likely to be in strengthening my own resolve to be a builder of justice; or giving me strength to endure with someone who is dying. Prayer allows me to become the change that I long for.
The call to follow Jesus is a call to servanthood. Prayer, truly offered in Jesus’ name, has to be prayer to help us be better servants. Prayer, in Jesus’ name, has to be about making us better at loving our brothers and sisters and all of God’s creation. This passage from Matthew is, ultimately, not about fixing our wayward brothers and sisters, it is about loving them.
St Paul, in this morning’s reading from the letter to the Romans, tells us that if we love one another, we have fulfilled the law. He tells us that anything in the law can be summed up as “Love your neighbor as yourselves.” Love does no wrong, Paul tells us, and therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. We’ve heard as much from Jesus as well.
Theologian Karl Barth was asked, allegedly, if he could summarize his theology in one sentence. Part of the subtle joke here is that Barth authored many works. One of them, Church Dogmatics, which sums up his theology, spans five volumes and contains more than nine million words… You don’t have to take my word for it, the collection is in John De Gruchy’s library just up the hill.
The legend continues that after a few moments thought, Professor Barth answered that he could. The answer: Jesus loves me, this I know. For the bible tells me so.
As our Brother Andrew liked to say, it may not have happened this way, but this is the truth.
Ultimately, I think it is exactly half the story. Jesus does indeed love us, and you cannot read much of the Bible without becoming keenly aware of this. The other half of the story is that we are called to love. Not just to love, but to love as God loves… That is the message behind today’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew.
Will we succeed perfectly? You might, but I won’t. And that is OK. The God of Love is also a forgiving God.
Our challenge as followers of Jesus is to not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. If I cannot love as perfectly as Jesus, I must still try. It is OK in our Christian journey to fall down. It is not a problem at all. We just have to get back up.