Chapter 18 of the gospel of Matthew addresses the topic of our relationships with others. The first five verses remind us to have child-like faith, and to welcome those who are humble, innocent, and seeking like a child. Verses 6-9 warn about the temptation to sin, mentions stumbling-blocks again and how we should never be one (take that, Peter!) and then talks about how it is better to be maimed or dead than to make room for sin in our lives. Verses 10-14 contain the Parable of the Lost Sheep, which I always find to be a treasure. And then we have this coming Sunday’s reading.
This coming Sunday’s gospel starts with the recognition that there will be disputes among the disciples. There will be times when one member will sin against another member. Today’s gospel reading spells out ways to try to reconcile.
- Go to the person who has hurt you and tell them the fault that has been committed. If they listen, be reconciled to each other, and the problem is over. If they don’t, however,
- Bring witnesses (one or two others) and try again. The purpose of bringing the others is that 2 witnesses were usually required in court. If the offender still refuses to listen,
- Tell it to the entire church. If the offender still doesn’t listen, remember that the offender is someone who has fallen away from the love of each other that we are called to live as Christians.
At verse 17, the command to let an unrepentant person “be to you as a Gentile and tax-collector” is usually grossly misinterpreted. Wait, we think—weren’t those Gentiles and tax-collectors outcasts, unclean, traitors and collaborators? Shouldn’t we expel unrepentant people from us as outcasts?
Especially as 2020 continues to pile up one crisis after another, verse 17 seems to speak to me as the pivot right now, the fulcrum of checking the health of our lives as disciples and how well we are engaging in the beautiful yet difficult work of ministry in this hurting world.
Jesus, after all, got into trouble for eating and hobnobbing with Gentiles and tax collectors, even with women of poor reputation, Samaritans, and those who were somehow considered unclean. So viewing someone as a Gentile and a tax collector, through the eyes and heart of Jesus, means not cutting them off at all. Actually it means just the opposite—it puts the onus on us to engage in fellowship, being open to each other, loving and forgiving without prejudice or judgment. There’s a challenge that reverberates in our divided society right now. We are called as people of faith to build bridges, not walls.
Never forget that Jesus healed, taught, and ate with Gentiles and tax-collectors. We are NOT being told to shun those who refuse to hear us and who are unrepentant for their wrongs. We are called to love them and continue to work to bring them around. We are NEVER to give up on them. Let’s remember that Jesus broke bread even with Judas, knowing he would betray him—and betray him with a kiss.
This is a pretty hard thing Jesus is calling and modeling for us to do: to not treat people as disposable even if they seem to deserve it. Too much of our society is eager to write people off based on snap judgments, even based on appearances, while not even making a token attempt to get to know people who are different from us. It’s much easier to make assumptions, judge harshly, even mock, and then cut people off as having no claim upon us at all.
But that is not the correct or faithful thing to do for a variety of reasons. First of all, this means we are basically giving up on this person who has hurt us. We are evading our responsibility in loving them as we have been reminded to do in our Epistle to the Romans the last several weeks. But part of being healthy as a community is being able to not let bad situations fester.
Remember that justice must always be tempered by mercy—that doesn’t just work when we are the ones in error, but it also stands when we have been wronged. It also means we need to examine our perspective. When reading this gospel, we usually put ourselves in the place of the person who has been wronged. It is just as vital for us to put ourselves in the position of the stubborn anti-penitent, and ask ourselves where in our lives we continue to hurt people, and try to work on that as well, especially if we have justified the pain we have caused in the name of “the greater good.”
Where can you more fully live into moving from judgment to reconciliation and healing this week?
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.